Huberman Lab Mental Health Guest Series

Nov 27, 2023

 by Tyler Watling

Andrew Huberman is straight up that dude. If you are not already listening to his podcast, Huberman Lab, then I strongly recommend you start. The amount of free scientific information that is provided by him and his guests that are in the top of their field is unparalleled. If you’re someone that is interested in any aspect of physical and mental health or just overall well-being, then you need to add this to your listening schedule asap. Just a warning, they’re usually around 3 hours long… Good stuff though!

Occasionally, he will do what is referred to as a “Guest Series” where he sits down with an expert guest for several episodes to go in depth on a specific topic. His latest series was with psychiatrist Dr. Paul Conti. He was originally a guest on the podcast to discuss trauma and healing from that. This time around the 4-part series was specifically to discuss mental HEALTH. What a healthy self is and how to interact with the world in the healthiest way.

The 4 parts are broken into:

  1. Assessing Your Mental Health (Spotify)
  2. Improving Your Mental Health (Spotify)
  3. Building Healthy Relationships (Spotify)
  4. Tools for Mental Health (Spotify)

I was already moving in the right direction with my own mental health journey when this series was released, but after listening to it, it absolutely helped solidify the work I was doing and made other lingering changes easier to make. Also, having this knowledge while going to therapy made interacting with my therapist much more effective because I had the viewpoint of a psychiatrist that was educating from a very healthy place.

It is about 14 hours of podcast in total, but I cannot stress the value of the information that is provided. I feel comfortable saying that this series is the perfect guide for anyone that is looking to improve their mental health (so basically everyone, no one’s perfect). The fact that this is free still blows me away.

Now, the fact that it is 14 hours of podcast can definitely cause some aversion, but I was happy to rip through all of it. And some parts continue to receive repeat listens because of how good it is. Not only did I listen to all of it, but I took some serious notes on all the best parts and most valuable info. Yeah, taking notes on a podcast is a weird move, I know. BUT, now because of that I can provide you will all the highlights of it if you don’t have the time to get through all of it. I mean, I know you definitely have the time, but probably just don’t want to utilize it in that way. Lucky for you I am here to share these key points and go over how to best utilize them in your life so that you can make as many improvements in your mental health as possible. The feeling of doing that and overcoming issues is one of the most liberating feelings ever and doing an incredible service to yourself.

I’ll break it down by each of the 4 parts. Use what you need to. Let’s get into it.

Part 1: Understanding/Assessing Your Mental Health

This is definitely the most crucial one to listen to. It gives a ton of great baseline info that the following episodes build upon.

  • Being healthy means you approach life through agency and gratitude with a sense of empowerment and humility. With these qualities leading you a point of peace, contentment and delight. A place everyone should strive to be in.
    • Agency: Being aware of the ability to project yourself to the world around you. Understanding what you can and can’t control and what your decisions lead to.
    • Gratitude: A sense of pride in being alive, here and trying to move forward in the best way possible.
    • The combination of these active works leads to a drive to live a healthy live, live better and explore.
  • Reaching a point of agency and gratitude, simple concepts, are built upon a more complex foundation of the structure of self (nouns) and function of self (verbs) with 5 “cupboards” to observe in each pillar.
  • Structure of Self: The baseline items that make up who we are and what we think
    • Unconscious Mind: 90% of our brain computing, like the bottom of an iceberg. Deepest level of the structure of self. Trauma gets pushed down to this area, but results in symptoms like defense mechanisms
    • Conscious Mind: The 10% of our brain where thought patterns are much clearer. The items that are salient in our day-to-day life. Exploration of this area helps bring awareness to choices we make. What are you doing now? What actions bring you joy and do you find valuable?
    • Defense Mechanisms: These are branches that comes up from the unconscious mind therefore, they have to be thought about and made conscious to be understood and changed. Some examples are:
      • Projection: Internal anger/frustration being taken out on the outside world. These feelings tend to lead to incorrect assumptions about others around you instead of yourself
      • Displacement: Internal negativity that is attempted to be resolved by shifting focus and targeting someone/thing less threatening
    • Character Structure: The nest that houses the previously mentioned items. This is the base for how we act in the world and how our self is presented.
    • Self: The presentation of our character structure that we see and needs to be tended to in order to present the best version to others around us.
  • Function of Self: All these elements are the verbs that stem from our Structure
    • Self-Awareness: Being aware that there is an “I” and how we are navigating the world and making decisions
    • Defense Mechanisms in Action: These can be determined through different narratives and the analysis of them. Are there patterns? Do certain situations trigger consistent reactions/feelings?
    • Salience: The common thoughts that are most observed or come to the surface. What do you spend the most time thinking about/what comes to mind when you don’t have much else taking your attention?
    • Behavior: Using your conscious mind to determine how you are spending your time. What is causing these actions? Are you doing things that are productive and beneficial to you? Why or why not?
    • Strivings: The goals you have or what you are spending your time working towards. What is it that you want to occupy your mind and how do you want to be spending your time? This ties to the “self” and how we present ourselves/act
  • It is important to look into each one of these cupboards to ask yourself questions about each item. A lot of this remains unconscious, but once the thoughts and behaviors are conscious, it is easier to make a change.
    • Look at them situationally, while by yourself vs. in a group
    • Confidence comes from the ability to trust your action states in various situations. What situations do you have the most confidence? These are your healthiest traits.
  • Negative thoughts when they are more salient will block normal and original thinking. Inhibits your creativity and ability to be productive. Good decisions are made without defense mechanisms.
    • Use “Role Modeling” to help avoid negative patterns. Give yourself the advice as if it was someone else struggling with the issue. You are generally more realistic and forgiving to others than you are to yourself.
    • Overthinking: Thinking, but not to learn, or in the service of your purpose. Wasteful mental energy.
    • Avoidance: Thinking that supports unhealthy defense mechanisms
  • Generative Drive: The fuel that moves us forward and how it meshes with our life. Your purpose and meaning in life.
    • When your drive aligns with agency/gratitude then happiness and self-fulfillment thrive, and you find joy.
    • Generative drive is able to take over and excel once you have found a state of peace.
  • A healthy person has a strong generative drive. There is a healthy balance between aggression and pleasure. You approach work and life in a more healthy and productive way.
    • Too much aggression = envy, resulting in destruction
    • Too much pleasure = envy, resulting in the need to tear others down
    • Low levels of aggression/pleasure = isolation and demoralization
  • Cultivate Your Generative Drive
    • Observe your structure and function of self cupboards
    • Take part in practices that bring about self-awareness and your conscious and unconscious.
    • Determine what thoughts and behaviors are most salient
    • Observe what your internal script is in different situations
    • Observe what behavioral choices you are making and whether they serve a positive or negative purpose
    • Focus on what things would bring you more hopefulness and purpose in life
  • In order to make long-term growth, the rapid gratification needs to be ignored. Determine the root cause of any weak points. Take time to understand your internal narrative and then put together a plan to shift it.
    • Feel good about doing difficult things!

Part 2: Improve Your Mental Health

  • A proper assessment of your mental health is done by understanding your “self” by looking into the 10 cupboards of your Structure and Function.
  • Once that is done, an analysis of your drives must be done. These are intrinsic and your motivation to do something.
    • Aggressive Drive: What keeps you moving forward and having active engagement.
      • Too high results in destructiveness and unhealthy need for control in all situations.
    • Pleasure Drive: The activities that give you relief, safety and comfort and gratitude.
      • Too high results in tearing others down instead of making self-improvements.
    • Generative Drive: The goal of making yourself, others and the things around you better. Providing value to the world.
  • Medicine can be used to help ease the initial anxiety/tension surrounding things so that the proper questions about yourself can be asked. By yourself or with a therapist.
    • Understanding of self will result in an increased possibility of change.
    • Medicine, in most cases, will not be a long-term solution.
  • The feeling of being “stuck” or “broken” comes from unresolved trauma that leaves you feeling hollow or like something is missing.
    • Generally, this results in overvaluing the wrong things and misguided focus.
    • Defense mechanisms become negatively warped.
  • Building Self Awareness: Understanding of self will result in an increased possibility of change. Acknowledge, understand, change.
    • How much are you at the center stage vs. the opinions of others or your negative inner monologue?
      • Anger at the world around you or “acting out” comes from internal anger at yourself for not living up to your generative drive. Easier to act out than to look inside and problem solve.
    • Salience is what goes on in your mind at rest and what comes to the front when there are multiple stimuli.
      • These are sometimes intrusive thoughts. Can come from trauma and should be a something that is paid attention to so change can be made.
      • Intrusive thoughts don’t tell you anything you need to listen to and begin to go away once healing begins.
    • Your “self” and “strivings” overlap. A healthier self leads to more awareness and drive towards strivings further helping the self.
    • Your drives are a combination of nature and nurture. Pleasure and aggressive drive should be at healthy levels with the generative always being at the forefront.
      • The high levels of aggression/pleasure will lead to envy (a destructive behavior) and ultimately, a lack of gratitude and being truly present in situations.
  • Narcissism: This trait is rooted in vulnerability and not feeling good enough. You are envious of what others have and feel the need to take control to assert dominance.
    • Destructive due to the lack of healthy outlets and personal fulfillment.
    • Narcissists surround themselves with supporters only and feel the need to show they are better and know more than others.
    • Sometimes rooted in childhood trauma of not feeling good enough.
    • Often resistant to make personal changes and need dire circumstances or an ultimatum to do so.
    • Many behavioral issues can be traced to high or low levels of aggressive and pleasure drive. Can be either too high and causing destruction or too low and causing demoralization and a lack of effort towards generative goals.
  • Self-Inventory: Determine if you are serving your generative drive and if your thoughts and actions are meaningful or helpful to that cause.
  • Rational Aspiration: Having the awareness of how and where you are in the present. Then, recognizing what changes you want to make and the time/effort it will take to do so.
    • This will not be an overnight change. You have to put the work in consistently to do so.
    • Put the effort in each day and the long-term growth will occur.

Part 3: Build/Maintain Healthy Relationships

Healthy relationships with others come from a healthy relationship with yourself.

Put it in bold because it is that important. Truly one of the most basic and essential principles. If you don’t have your shit figured out, then you are just going to drag others down and not build anything productive/worthwhile with someone else. As a single guy this is personally my favorite of the 4. Has totally reframed what I am looking for in a partner and what is truly important.

  • A healthy relationship with yourself means you are practicing agency and gratitude in your daily life. You are aware of the world around you. You value truth, understanding and exploration.
    • If we are our best self, then we can bring that to others and create the best “us”.
  • Levels of Emergence: Range from basic factors that determine compatibility to generative drive alignment.
    • The obvious items that will bring people together or push them apart. The deeper level is alignment of generative drives.
    • Sometimes the basic items like music taste, education, background can distract from the bigger picture and more valuable characteristics that can result in a deeper, more meaningful, relationship.
  • Generative drives in relationships should overlap, not overpower.
    • The expression of these allows understanding and learning of the other person as well as growth in each other.
    • Much more freedom and comfort in the relationship. You can live with the differences and are in fact better for it because the focus is on something much greater.
  • Differences in health and personal pillars (structure/function) are not as important as the compatibility of generative drives. Are you both approaching the world with agency and gratitude?
  • Trauma Bonds can be both positive and negative.
    • Negative: Low expression of drives, lack of motivation to pursue productive activities.
    • Positive: Recognize trauma in self and other. Helps understanding and growth between the two because of the mutual knowledge and acceptance.
      • You can build each other to a healthier place.
    • If the pleasure drive > the generative drive, you will strive for a relationship just because it feels good, but it will not be for a productive or healthy reason.
  • Working Through Barriers: Understand why these defense mechanisms arise and then determine how you are able to learn and adapt them for growth.
    • Repetition Compulsion: Relationships that seem to repeat. It is not actually compulsive because it’s something that can be understood and controlled.
      • Trauma will trigger shame and can push a person back into a situation so that they can try to make it right.
    • Envy: Approaching problems from the perspective that bringing others down will bring yourself up.
      • Destroys the world around you.
      • The need for happiness will only bring slight gratification. A fleeting feeling that results in a negative cycle.
    • Power Dynamics: Things that aren’t always said, not always unhealthy.
      • Unhealthy: The silent treatment is a perfect example. An attempt to assert power in the relationship instead of working through a problem.
      • Healthy: “Give and Take” one person decides where to go for dinner or what movie to watch. More comfortable making certain decisions to serve the other partner.
    • Periods of Imbalance: If worked through properly, these can strengthen a relationship. The ability to problem-solve and overcome issues will result in improvement and growth in partners.
  • Anxiety in relationships is common. Allows you to be motivated and proactive to making change and a positive impact.
    • However, high levels limit our ability to focus, problem-solve, create and focus on meaningful aspects. Also leads to unnecessary uncertainty and assumptions.
      • Comes from an internal source. Determine the root cause and work towards change.
  • Boundaries: Healthy ones start internally squared away and then are clearly expressed. Gives the other person a clear and accurate picture of where you are coming from so they can understand and accept (if they are also healthy).
  • Mentalization: The ability to understand feelings and intentions in yourself and others.
    • This should only be good when done through a clear lens of self.
    • Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes only makes sense if you are comfortable in your own.
    • Understand yourself first, then others, then “us”.
    • Each person has their own map of their life and health. If your map is blurry or you navigate with a broken compass (poor mental health), then you will be led to people in the same situation and now you will both be lost.
      • If you are able to navigate through the lens of your generative drive and a healthy self and find someone doing the same, then you are able to combine and expand your maps to something bigger, better and more meaningful.

Part 4: Tools for Mental Health

  • Self-Care: the act of prioritizing your health and wellness so that you can show up better for the others around you and be prepared for any of life’s future challenges.
    • Basics: Good nutrition, active lifestyle, good sleep and not in a threatening or dangerous situation/relationship
    • Have to be aware of how we engage with our own mental state and the world around us.
    • Why do you have or not have a sense of agency and gratitude? What can be done to change or solidify that?
    • One of the cornerstones of self-awareness is asking good questions about yourself and answering them honestly.
      • Can be done even if you assume you are healthy. There could be a point for improvement if enough self-inquiry is done.
    • Panic Attacks: A result of the outside world calming, and focus being shifted internally to unresolved and unconscious issues.
    • If there is something that is too painful to think about, it is probably the exact thing that needs to be attended to.
      • Do so in a safe way. Self-harm must always be avoided.
  • Proper self-inquiry looks into the 10 cupboards under the 2 pillars of Structure and Function of Self. To review they are:
    • Structure: Unconscious mind / Conscious Mind / Defense Mechanisms / Character Structure / Self.
    • Function: Self-Awareness / Defense Mechanisms in Action / Salience / Behavior / Strivings.
  • These pillars, when healthy, lead to empowerment and humility (adjectives).
    • Empowerment: State of positive potentials
    • Humility: Being consistent with the truth, compassion for self and others
  • Those adjectives then lead to the verb states previously discussed of agency and gratitude.
    • Being present and conscious of your actions with a sense of appreciation for being here and takin on challenges.
  • All of this ultimately leading to peace, contentment and delight, the result of a healthy being.
  • Anger and the arousal of it towards others is generally misplaced.
    • The better we take care of ourselves, the less likely we are to feel anger towards others. All we are able to control is our response to the situation, not the actual situation.
    • High levels of anger lead to volatility and confusion.
  • Don’t make yourself special in ways that hurt you. Don’t say “Oh I have A, B, and C going for me, but for some reason I am not in a relationship.” You need to value the positives in your life and not carve out or focus on the negative aspects that can be fixed with the right amount of work and patience.

I have included a nice recap map they offered regarding the pillars of mental health at the end to review.

This series has allowed me to solidify and feel confident in all the changes I have made in my life. It has given me the ability to be prepared and have less anxiety about future challenges that may arise. I have also gained the courage to take risks because I am doing so from a mentally healthy and strong point where I have belief in my actions. These notes are helpful to review, but the total podcast series is worth a listen. Dr. Conti has a much better way with words than I do and the conversations have much deeper meaning and staying power when listened in full. 

Be curious about yourself, your life, how you are doing good in the world and how you can improve those aspects.