Ten Percent Happier
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Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris
Episode Show NotesEpisode Show Notes

[NYC subway station sounds, whistling, walking]

Saleem Reshamwala: A very long time ago, I lived in Queens, Astoria, near the end of the N train. I was working three jobs for a bit. During the day, doing data entry at a shipping company. At night, doing shifts in a Blockbuster Video store. That dates the story. And in the midst of both, teaching SAT prep sporadically in the city. I was tired and really, I mean, I was down. I was mopping a floor at midnight at one job, and now about to get up at seven and ride a train my other job. 

But there was this moment in transition that I loved. 

[music and subway ambience]

I’d get on the N train in the city — underground. It's dark and crowded. All us passengers are done with the city and in a literal tunnel underwater, which is a mystery to me, how that works even now. A sign on the side of the subway says we’re passing into Queens. But how could anyone tell we’re in a different borough because we're still underground?

Then we feel the train start lifting and catch a literal light at the end of the tunnel. We get raised up and the subway’s no longer sub anything. The subway’s in the air. You, me, all of us are in the air above Long Island City. There's graffiti going on all over the place. There's a new art museum in the distance. And at the same time, a guy is maybe energetically doing pull-ups on that grip bar that runs over the trains and people are kind of laughing. And honestly, it's just beautiful. That rise up out of the subway into the sun got me every time.  It was possibly my favorite part of that whole crazy mess of a city. 

[theme music]

When you live in a city, moving through these hyper-specific spaces and transitions everyday is a loop of experiences. And these repetitive experiences are like songs. So much of how you feel about them depends on what you associate with them. And right now what my friend and colleague Mark associates with them is…

[manipulated scream and sounds of subway and theme]


On this week's episode of More Than A Feeling — fear, and how to work with it. We'll be back after this quick break.

[theme into SEGMENT BREAK]

Saleem: Hey y’all, this is Saleem and welcome back to More Than A Feeling.


I’m gonna throw a blanket statement out there — we are all scared of something. I don’t think I’m saying anything wildly controversial there. So, I’ll say it again — we’re all scared of something. And we have all been scared of something for a very, very, very long time.

Tom Bunn: If you go back a few million [chuckle] a few million years, there were creatures such as T-Rex, not very smart. So how was T-Rex to protect himself or herself with? With its amygdala. So the amygdala sits there in the brain and it monitors what's going on. 

Saleem: That’s Tom Bunn. Tom is not a paleoanthropologist. He's a licensed therapist and former aviation pilot. We'll get more into that in a bit but one important nugget to remember is that the amygdala's been part of mammals like us for a very, very, very long time. And millions of years ago, as mammals evolved, the question of what to be scared of was probably pretty simple. Something really loud or fast coming towards you, well, that could be a pile of rocks falling off a cliff, or a predator running at you. In either of those cases running away is a great instinct to have. 

Cut to many, many years later, and maybe you’ve reacted to something like a jump scare in a movie and you twitch or move and you think, “Oh, that’s my animal instincts kicking in.” But sometimes it can feel like fear has sort of morphed into this bad/antiquated software programmed into our bodies. Yes, you can still be scared of lions, tigers, and bears. But there's the modern equivalent of scary roars everywhere, all sorts, both external and internal. From the dings on our phones to knowing you've got a big meeting coming up. Fear seems to be everywhere. From fear of public speaking to something as existential as a fear of failure. 

Everyone is scared of something. Including one of our senior producers, Mark Pagán. And the journey he went on in learning about his fear, and maybe the journey you’re about to go on learning how to manage yours, well, it wasn’t quite what I expected. Sure, I learned about the processes that can help a lot of us better engage with our most anxious feelings. From a clinical psychologist…

Luana Marques: So whenever we feel afraid, um, our brain says it’s horrible and you want to walk away. And when we walk away we teach our brain, yeah, that's dangerous. 

Saleem: To our former airline pilot Tom Bunn

Tom Bunn: In order to have a fear of flying, you have to have intelligence so you can think of a thousand things that could go wrong

Saleem: But the takeaway today won’t be a poof, fear is over sort of thing. The reality is fear is there for a reason. And it’s not something we just solve. What if instead of running from it, what if we embraced fear as a form of connection? This is gonna be an introspective, intimate journey, y’all. Not so much chasing fear as talking with it. 


Saleem: But first, sit back and meet our colleague Mark Pagán and the thing that’s been terrifying him. 

Saleem (in studio): Mark man. Why are we here? What's going on with ya? 

Mark (in studio): I don't know where to start exactly, but I'll start where we are today. We're talking January, 2022. I'm talking to you from my adopted home of New York city. And I have not been on the subway in two years. 

Saleem (in studio): I mean, there's the obvious first question, which is, is that pandemic related?

Mark (in studio): The problem isn't so much the germs in my mind. It's the escape.

Saleem: Mark’s particular flavor of fear started showing up during plane travel, then in big crowds, and eventually claustrophobia hit him in the most inconvenient way for a New Yorker — in its subway, Mark's main mode of transportation around New York City. The first inkling of subterranean blues came when Mark was living back in his hometown of DC. He was on the metro one day when it stopped mid tunnel because of a fire. While stalled, the car he was sitting in, filled with smoke.

Mark (in studio): I remember looking at this couple in front of me and it was one of the first times I recognized somebody else's fear. It was a man and a woman. And the woman, once we all started noticing smoke, I just saw her hand grab his and I saw her body just get very stiff. And that, that triggered just a little something for me. 

Saleem (in studio): Oh, seeing other people be afraid. 

Mark (in studio): Yeah.

Saleem: And occasionally Mark would become aware of a packed train car, or feel that pressure when speeding through certain tunnels, but it all came crashing in during one particular subway ride on my formerly magical N train route. 

Mark (in studio): Halfway through the tunnel between Queens and Manhattan, the train stopped. And you and myself and everybody who's taken the train knows that this is an inconvenience, but it happens for whatever reason. So we were on the train for about ten minutes. The conductor had already made his announcement, you know, like, sorry, there's whatever, there's a delay. Ten minutes or so in, I'm just hanging out with my friends. He makes an announcement again, and I don't remember exactly what he said, but he used the word “emergency.” And I don't remember having heard the word “emergency'' when somebody is my conductor or my pilot or anything like that. But the word “emergency” automatically set off an alarm in me. And pretty much right after he used the word “emergency” I looked and I saw another, an MTA worker who was squeezing in between the train and the tunnel wall to try, I guess he was trying to get to the front of the train. You can almost hear the like “eeerrrrr” against the train window. And I turned to my friend Robin and I said, “I'm having a panic attack”.

[echo on word panic attack]

Saleem: A panic attack. According to Mark, this was the first time he’d ever had one. It just felt different from any fear response he'd experienced before. 

Mark (in studio):  I just couldn't breathe. My memory is like, I was both hot and cold, the blood in my body. I was sweating, my heart was just like pounding outside of my chest. And it was sort of like a feeling of “I'm about to, I'm about to lose control” more in the sense of, I think I'm just going to pass out from not breathing.

Saleem: After about 45 minutes, the train started moving and long story short, the emergency was a soccer ball in the middle of the tracks. But innocuous threat or not, this set off a very present alarm for Mark that had him avoiding train routes that went between boroughs and bringing paper bags on commutes just in case he hyperventilated.

Mark (in studio): It was mostly the sense of escape to the point where I just avoided trains all together.

Saleem: And Mark, he knows all the statistics, it's not like he's not convinced that centuries of tunnel engineering actually works. Cognitively, he knows the chances of anything happening are actually pretty slim. But that doesn’t matter. 

Mark (in studio): From what I understand, it's like, how do I get outta here?


Saleem: While I may not have this fear AND may not know anyone else with it…
when it comes to this hidden fear, he's not the only one in this “must stay above ground” underground community.

Mark: So when was the last time that you were at this station? 

Nasrene: 2013 maybe? 

Saleem: Mark’s former colleague Nasrene is also a fearful subway rider. And not only did they decide to record a conversation in the loud, unpredictable ecosystem that is the MTA transit system, they specifically recorded in the York Street Subway Station. A station where Nasrene hadn't been in almost a decade. 

Same as Mark, she had her first bout with claustrophobia when a train stalled in the tunnel. She was a teenager then, working as a camp counselor bringing a group of kids into Manhattan.

Nasrene: It was rush hour and we stopped. And I looked around and there were a lot of people. And I looked outside and it was just pitch black. And that was it. It just like, I just started freaking out and I didn't freak out like publicly. Like I think it was like on my face. I felt similar to how I'm feeling right now. Even sitting here like that, like kind of weak in the knees, like questioning everything. 

Saleem: Mark and Nasrene sound like they’re in a secret society. They have all these rules, to keep themselves safe. Like, one: always ride in the first car.

Nasrene: Cause then I can see out the front. And if I can't see out the front, at least I'm like with the conductor.

Saleem: Or two, not taking a train if it's coming just after another one left, because that second train is more likely to pause mid-tunnel.

Nasrene: In my mind, those trains were so close together that either that train waited at the last stop or it had to stop in the tunnel in order to make room for the last one to go. 

Mark: I sometimes look and it’s like, can I scan people's faces and see who here is relieved? 

Nasrene: Yes. Everytime the trains come this direction into Brooklyn, I know that feeling when you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even in like a regular, even not through the water. And then when the train is here, I'm like “that's doom. That is impending doom for those people”.

Saleem: This could sound silly to some but is it all that different from how hyper aware we all get when we’re scared of something? And just like all of us with our fears and phobias, sometimes it’s not actually the fear itself that’s the problem, sometimes it’s how it’s affecting our lives. 

Saleem (in studio): I guess one thing I'm curious about is how much is not taking the subway affecting your New York life. So I'm just curious, what's making you want to tackle it?

Mark (in studio): Mostly it's comfort. And how can I move this to other areas of my life in which I'm not feeling comfortable?

Saleem: Both Mark and Nasrene have seen this show up in other areas of their life, like plane travel, elevators, crowds, packed theaters. But some of those are things you don't need to do every day. The subway for most New Yorkers is like air. And it's not just about the need to get from point A to point B.

Mark (in studio): It's a very embarrassing part of my life. So it's a complete disruption to my lifestyle. And it's also, uh, it's a point of pride as a New Yorker. 

Saleem (in studio): That's what I was going to ask about! You're such a New York identifying dude that I was curious if that's a part of it. I can't imagine based on your other stories, you not taking a subway,

Mark (in studio): I see the humanity in New York during my subway trips. These are these daily moments that happen on the train. And just the things you observe — the beautiful moments of like, a parent reading to their kid, somebody offering their seat, the ridiculous things that happen on the train. You being on the train with one other person and there's like a person at the end, who's very inebriated and you make eye contact with the other person, like “this is a weird situation.” Like just, the humanity is like, is, is I, I miss that. And especially with, with the pandemic, it's, you're sort of a daily dose of not just reality, but connection with your neighbors.

Saleem: Aside from the inconvenience, there’s another thing they’ve realized about this phobia — it messes with their value system. From sacrificing their dream job opportunities because of a train commute, to driving cars in a place with some of the most extensive public transportation systems in the world...

Nasrene: Claustrophobia also impacts my like values with my reality so much. It’s like I got a car in November, 2019, and it's been amazing. And I also hate that people have cars in New York city. 

Saleem: They share many of the same habits, many of the same feelings — not just a fear of this type of commute but also a mix of shame and disappointment at times. But there’s one area where they’re different — what they wanna do next with their relationship to underground train travel. Mark wants to bring the subway back into his life and get comfortable with the option of taking the train wherever it needs to go. But Nasrene - she’s not quite ready yet. 

Nasrene: So I feel like in a way I've actually just started to live with it so much that I like justify it to a point where like, I can't even regret it - those decisions, because like I could justify why I didn't do it. And I feel so confident in that. And meanwhile, like at the same time, I, it sucks and I wish that it didn't exist. And like, I wish that I could change it. And like probably if I went to enough therapy and they like forced me to go on a train that I would do it, but like, I don't want to do that. So like, there's a little bit of just like disappointment in myself because I feel like I'm like, I'm a go-getter. I like when I set my mind to something I'm going to do it.

Nasrene: I haven't had that moment that's made me decide I'm ready to like really do what it takes. And quite frankly, I don't know if I'll ever get there. And I'm kind of okay with that which is probably why.

SALEEM: Neither of them have been on the train for two years. Nasrene’s gonna stay put. Mark’s gonna try to become a commuter again, starting with his old subway stop. 

[heartbeat-type music plus subway ambience]

Mark (subway): This is the Carroll Street stop. It's one I’ve used many times. I can't tell you how many.

[train entering station] There it is. Uh, feeling a little antsy. Being down here. Definitely my heart is…it's not racing, but I definitely feel, I feel it a bit, a bit faster. I feel like my mouth is a little dryer. There's another train coming. And like even the thought of getting on it, my legs are feeling a little weak. I can see the light.

[train pulls up to platform]  I think (chuckling) I think I’ve done enough today. It's a packed car. I'm not getting on that. [large metallic boom] [subway ambience] Okay. Step one, I guess almost taking the train?

Mark (in studio): This is where Dr. Luana Marques comes in. 

Luana Marques: Avoidance works. And why does it work? It makes us feel comfortable. We all want to feel comfortable. 

Mark (in studio): Dr. Luana Marques, she's a clinical psychologist who focuses on CBT, which is cognitive behavioral therapy. And beyond that, she's an expert on helping patients navigate fears and anxieties. And one of the things is acknowledging what Nasrene, myself, and many other people do, which is avoidance. 

Luana Marques: On average avoidance tends to limit our lives and make our life smaller. So how much is interfering? How much is upsetting you or those around you? Is there a long-term consequence to avoidance?  And so in therapy, specifically in cognitive behavioral therapy, we spent a good amount of time asking people to approach instead of avoid.

Mark (in studio): I basically told her, like, I think this is a fear and a phobia. I have anxiety about getting on a train, but this is a fear of trains. This is a fear of the actual train travel. And she said that there's, and this makes a lot of sense that there is a biological component to fear and phobia. 

Luana Marques: Panic, clinically by definition is when you have a host of physical symptoms. Difficulty breathing, sweating, heart pounding, dizzy, um, hot and cold flashes. They come really fast, right? And they come in, they usually peak within 10 minutes. That's when we're talking about a panic attack, versus anxiety has a more gradual reality to it. CBT also helps us understand that emotions are always valid, but they're not always reliable. 

Mark (in studio): And one of the things that Dr. Marques talked about is something called cognitive distortions, which is not just a good slash bad name for a high school punk rock band.

Luana Marques: Cognitive distortions are ways where our brains sort of either exaggerate, maximize, um, catastrophize scenarios. So for example, you know, you've had two or three incidents in the subway where they're pretty upsetting, right? Scary. But now your brain is saying every time I'm in the subway it’s going to be dangerous. Right? So that’s magnifying um what that was and is only focusing on those two pieces scenario. First, we need to identify that our brain is looking at data in a way that perhaps is not the most accurate. And two, to help somebody get to some more balanced ways of seeing the world.

Mark (in studio): There's a few things that Dr. Marques mentioned, which I'm going to try with these next steps for getting back on the train, is something called the TEB cycle. TEB is an acronym T-E-B for thoughts, emotions, behaviors. And it's a, it's a way of doing a self-assessment. And it's a technique to, really to like press pause.

Luana Marques: The TEB cycle is one way for us to sort of create a framework of what's happening in our brain, but also a way to sort of slow it down and understand, wait a minute, like what's going on here? Can you bring some curiosity? Can you understand what's causing some of that anxiety, tension or discomfort?

Mark (in studio): Another thing too, which is part of the process I'm going to start this week, is something that she calls looping and something that very much moves us away from avoidance. And that is becoming what she calls comfortably uncomfortable with a situation. 

Luana Marques: So every time, Mark, you walk by a subway, you see the subway and you're like, “yeah, I'm going to walk home or I'm going to take a Uber or Lyft or whatever,” your brain’s sort of getting this message of like, okay, this is so uncomfortable that I have to walk away. The opposite is based on the idea of exposure therapy, which I call “comfortably uncomfortable”, which really is the idea of training your brain to be able to approach discomfort, so that you don't have the same response. And the only way to do it is to be able to loop, which means repeating the same thing over and over again. 

[subway sound, train approaching combined with fast heartbeat sound in music]

Mark (subway): It is Friday, January 28th, 2022. I'm going to attempt doing this with Dr. Marques’s TEB cycle. Thoughts and feelings? Feeling nervous. Heart is going a little fast. Not super fast. Legs are…they're a little, little wobbly, but not like super, not Jell-o. And the train is a-coming.

[music, subway screeching to a halt]

Mark (in studio): So the big update is I have been on the subway. I’ve been on a train.  

Saleem (in studio): Whoa, Mark. 

Mark (in studio): Yep.

Saleem (in studio): You went on a train. Wait, how did you get to getting on a train? How'd you get to that position to get on the train? Did you just dive in like kids swimming or did you do the looping? 

Mark (in studio): Yeah. I told some passengers. I was like, when this train comes, no matter what, just throw me on it. Um…

Saleem (in studio): (laughing)

Mark (in studio): (laughing) And New Yorkers, they got your back.

[subway sounds and announcement: “The next stop is Smith/ 9th street. Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”]

Mark (subway): Here we go. Alright. Cue montage music. 

[subway doors closing, music with a steady beat]

Mark (in studio): I went back to the same station and I pretty much said, “you know what? I've set the conditions for myself. This is a train that's going to go to an above ground station. I'm only going to do a few stops above ground and just go back and forth as long as I feel comfortable.” I walked inside the train and I think my fear level was at like a six, or a five or six or 50 or 60 out of a hundred. But the doors close and then I just went.

[subway sounds]

Mark (subway): So far, so good. Alright.

[doors closing sound]

Mark (subway): Now we’re gonna turn around and do it again.

[doors closing sound]

Mark (subway): We’re gonna loop it. 

[doors closing sound]

Mark (subway): We are looping…

Mark (in studio): And so I went two or three stops. Felt okay. Turned around, uh, got on the other train, went back and I did it…I don't remember like three or four times. And it was fine.

Mark (subway): Let’s call it a day for now. Alright.

Mark (in studio): So looped that, and I thought, you know what? The next step is, I'm going to go further underground. You know, I've got these above ground stations and I'm going to go like a few stops underground. And there's…there's the third attempt. 

Mark (subway): We're gonna do this.

[subway sounds and announcement: “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.” Doors closing sound.]

Mark (in studio): And I started going underground. It got dark… 

[high-pitched tone added to music]

Mark (subway): It's still at a six. Okay. Yeah. Got dark real quick. We are underground. I am at a seven. Seven to eight.

Mark (in studio): The tunnel felt long. And my mouth got super dry. 

Saleem (in studio): Yeah.

Mark (in studio): I started to get really…my body got a little hot. And I just had this feeling like this feeling of clawing, like wanting to claw out of there.

Mark (subway): I'm going to turn around. I’m gonna…(chuckling). Yeah, I think one stop. That’s what I’m gonna do right now. I'm gonna turn around…

[subway ambi, announcement]

Mark (in studio): I got off at the station. I was like, I can't, I can't continue this.

Mark (subway): Yeah. My legs are weak. My legs are weak.

[subway ambi, leaving the station]

Mark (in studio): I got off of this at the next stop and I thought. I need to figure something else out here. One of the things I decided is like, I can't do this alone. 

Saleem: When we come back, we find out who's going to hold Mark's hand when he's underground and why. 


Saleem: Welcome back. Before the break, Mark experimented with getting life back on the tracks, it didn't go exactly as planned. So he started telling me about how he can't do it alone. And something came to mind. It was Mark's first story of being in a smoke-filled train car, where he saw a couple sitting in front of him and one of them got visibly scared.

Saleem (in studio): You mentioned someone holding a hand, right? Interesting parallel with what’s happening around panic attacks and travel is I've heard of the technique of, you know, people rubbing one hand into another to calm themselves down, but especially having someone else hold your hand.


Mark (in studio): The holding hands thing that actually came up. Nasrene was talking about the comfort of holding her partner's hand that mostly reflected during her times flying. Also Nasrene and I are both scared of flying. 

Nasrene: If I start to feel anxious, like he'll hold my hand or like rub my back. And I almost wonder like if he did that all the time, if in those moments that would have the same effect that it does.

Saleem: This brings us back to our history of evolution voice from the beginning of the episode, Tom Bunn. 

Mark (in studio): Tom Bunn is a former aviation pilot turned licensed therapist, which is not really a career transition many of us think of, but he did it. 

Saleem (in studio): (laughing) No.

Mark (in studio): And he came on my radar initially because I was looking for help with my flight phobia. I'm also scared of flying. But his techniques can cover other phobias.

Tom Bunn: In order to have a fear of flying, you have to have intelligence so you can think of a thousand things that could go wrong. And vivid enough imagination to make them real in your mind, so that you produce stress hormones, and then the stress hormones rev you up. And when you get enough stress hormones, you can run into this problem of not being able to really intuitively separate what's imaginary from what's real. Most fearful fliers slide into panic so quickly that they're overwhelmed and they have no cognition left to do cognitive with. 

Mark (in studio): He talks about this idea of the stress hormones, you know, the amygdala, our ancestral part of our brain that tells us, um, when something's not right.

Tom Bunn: What's happening here is the stress hormones are getting us ready to run or fight. So the amygdala sits there in the brain and it monitors what's going on. So when something changes, something unexpected happens, stress hormones are released. And you do get the urge to run. Sometimes you don't notice it, but it's there. And so you pay attention and you intellectually decide whether this is a false alarm or not. Where people go wrong here is that if you get enough stress hormones, you lose the ability to separate what's imaginary from what's perception. 


Mark (in studio): So I told Tom Bunn about this observation that you and I both had. And that’s the way people will sometimes soothe by maybe holding somebody's hand in a scary scenario. And this was really interesting to him and it pertains to this conversation we're having, because this is how he developed a program to specifically deal with fear of flying. It's a technique he calls the strengthening exercise and while it’s directly used for flight phobia. It's also useful for people who suffer from varying degrees of claustrophobia and panic.

Tom Bunn: Stephen Porges points out that what happens when the face, voice, and touch activate the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve is stimulated. And he says that if you're in a car with an automatic transmission and you put your foot solidly on the brake, you can pump on the gas and the car is not going to go anywhere. He says, if you fully activate the parasympathetic nervous system, so that the vagus nerve is fully stimulated, he says it causes vagal braking. It slows the heart rate down about 20 beats per minute. And he says that even if you then introduce stress hormones, it has no effect. Just as in the car. If we can get the parasympathetic nervous system to operate, we can override the stress hormones. So I played around with the idea of, what about shifting from an anxiety producing thought to some other unrelated kind of thought? So I started asking clients, “Is there something you've done in your life, which is kind of a big deal?”

Mark (in studio): Tom Bunn mentioned one client that talked about the joy of running a marathon. And so Tom linked certain elements of running a marathon like this client's experience with triggers of getting on a plane and being in flight. And it seemed to work for that client. But like you and I and most people, like we don't necessarily run a marathon and we don't necessarily associate running a marathon with joy.

Saleem (in studio): (laughing) Yeah. That’s true.

Tom Bunn: And then I had an interesting situation. A woman told me that she was going to link being on the airplane to nursing her child. And Mark, what I thought was, “She's nuts. She's going to get on the plane and think she's never going to see her kid again.” She called back a week later. Perfect flight. The way she described her flight, nobody had gotten such good results, but I didn't know what else to do with that. But after it happened a couple of more times, I thought something's going on here that I don't understand. So I started looking into it. Sue Carter is one of the big experts on oxytocin. And it turns out that when a mother nurses a child, she produces a massive amount of oxytocin. When you produce oxytocin, naturally, you're probably going to shut down your fear system for a half an hour, but this is just a memory of that oxytocin producing situation. So that was helpful. But there was another thing that was puzzling. And that was when a client linked getting engaged to being on the plane, or when a client linked saying wedding vows to being on the plane, that was effective too. Didn't know why. And it took years for that answer to arrive. Stephen Porges has done research that shows that when we're with a person who is completely accepting. That is a person who is safe physically, and a person who's safe emotionally. When we’re with such a person, we unconsciously pick up signals from their face, from their voice quality, and from their body language or touch that activate our calming system, the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that overrides the effect of stress hormones.

Mark (in studio): Tom Bunn thinks that a number of things are linked. He thinks these things are linked. Number one, oxytocin-producing memories, which reduce stress hormones and memories of acceptance, which stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. So the idea is that both of these elements, both of these have a calming effect. And so the link for Tom Bunn and the link was that when you release or when you have an oxytocin releasing memory, that's a key ingredient to putting a brake on the stress hormones and making fearful, scary experiences, more palatable, which is phenomenal. This is really, truly phenomenal. And simple. So simple in a lot of ways. 

Tom Bunn: So now we had two ways to go that were finally understood. One: block the triggers with remembering a situation that produced oxytocin. And override stress hormones, if any are produced, by connecting those triggers and the feelings coming from the triggers to the memory of a face, voice, and touch. When we have someone who really accepts us, it's, I tell you, it's like a jar of peanut butter. You can spread it on as many crackers as you want. You can take one person you're okay with and you can apply it to, as a resource to any place that you need to have calming.


Saleem (in studio): It's really fascinating to me that for you, maybe a memory of a touch could also be calming. 

Mark (in studio): I have one specifically that I used for flying for a long time. And my father who is no longer around, I don't want to create too many generalizations, but my own generalization of Caribbean men is that they're, they can be very tender. He was the family member I'd say goodnight to. And so I, I usually lock in in this one memory, I was 12, probably around 12 or so years old. And he had an office upstairs. He just sat at his desk, but sort of brought me in. And my father had “a cup the back of your head” embrace. But he’d cup the back of my head and caress my hair across my head. And his embrace was so, it was just so full and he smelled, I’ll use the word masculine. It was probably like Old Spice cologne. It just felt completely safe. And he'd say “Goodnight, Mijo.” You know, “I love you.” And that was it. And in my memory, that is a…that is an epic. That is an epic tome. And it was probably like three seconds, you know, maybe, maybe longer. Maybe I lingered there, could have been 10. But it wasn't long, but it's the memory of that. And there's something really beautiful about that idea of like, I think in some ways it is the facing fearful situations in which you, you can project those areas of your life in which you felt fully supported and fully seen. Even if it's like a snapshot.

Tom Bunn: So what you're doing is you're answering, getting revved up with intentionally down-regulating yourself. And if you practice this, it’ll get to be a habit. Let’s instead of linking to walking on the plane and sitting down in the seat and so on and so on, let's link to driving your car and here's the tunnel and then you're just inside the tunnel. And then you're a quarter of the way through the tunnel. And halfway through the tunnel. Or the elevator, you go into a building, you see the elevator, you go over to it and you wait for it. And then it stops and people get out and you step in and you hit a button. And if you keep at it, it'll become something that works underground and it'll, you'll even be knocking out the anxiety before it reaches a conscious level. 

Mark (in studio): I think I'm going to need to do this. I'm going to need to both do it in my daily life and in my own life of like finding my safe places and people and, and building a sense of like, community and safety. As well as like using what I've experienced, the beautiful moments to map those on to, uh, nurturing when somebody can't be there to hold my hand.


Saleem (in studio): Something that's so cool to me about what you're talking about is the process itself encourages you to hunt beauty. It's just kind of cool that there's a process to deal with something so stressful that also involves looking for beautiful things. Okay. So what's your next step? 

Mark (in studio): I am not gonna get on the train until I, I think I need a companion on the train. Which is very embarrassing. If I'm going to engage with this fear, if I'm going to use the subway I either need to go back into my memory and build some connections related to riding the train. And/or I need to build those connections in real time with people in my life here in New York city.

[subway sound & announcement “Stand clear of the closing doors please.”]

Kim (subway): Do you want to sit?

[doors closing sound]

MARK (in studio): So I went on the train with Kim Buikema, who is one of our producers on the show. And she was nice enough to come with me, accompany me.

Mark (subway):  So right now we are in Carroll Street. We are going towards Bergen street. My palms are sweaty.

Mark (in studio): We decided to go a few stops underground. She was of course documenting, but she was there to act as a companion of sorts. She knew that I had this fear and also knew things like the TEB cycle and ways in which panic might manifest. But was also just very supportive. 

Kim (subway): Does it help having someone here? 

Mark (subway): It does.

Mark (in studio): So we went two stops underground and did pretty well. 

Kim (subway): How you feelin’? 

Mark (subway): Well, that felt good in the end. Uh, we'll see how this next run goes. I'm still a little parched. Mouth is dry from, from feeling a little anxious.

Mark (in studio): And then I said, “Alright, let's turn around and let's go back.”

Saleem (in studio): That's a lot 

Mark (in studio): It's a lot.

Saleem (in studio): It’s significant.

Mark (in studio): So we went and turned around and we went in the opposite direction… 


Mark (subway): So we are now going back into the tunnel. Train is slowing down a little bit. Six, sixish. Yeah, I’d say a sixish right now. 

Kim (subway): Is that out of ten? 

Mark (subway): Out of ten. Yeah. 60 out of 100, six out of ten.

Mark (in studio): We started going to the next stop and then the train was slowing down 

Mark (subway): We are stopped in the tunnel

Mark (in studio): And then it stopped.

Saleem (in studio): No. 

[music stops]

Saleem (in studio): I just wanna make sure I understand. This is your first, this is your first real significant underground ride in how long? 

Mark (in studio): In over two years.

Saleem (in studio): And it stops. 

Mark (in studio): (laughing) And it stops. So I was…I had talked to you about the sort of marking where, where in the range of one to ten or ten to 100 I was. And I was at a eight, or an eighty. And I talked it out with Kim. 


Mark (subway): So right now we are stopped in the tunnel. They made an announcement, which we can't hear. I feel an eight, maybe a nine. Maybe an eight. I've been in this situation before. I'm getting sweaty. 

Saleem (in studio): Wait, can you walk me through that, what that was?

Mark (in studio): Yeah. I was saying, “Okay, well I'm thinking the train is gonna be stopped here for a long time.”

Mark (subway): I am worried that the train won't move. I’m worried I'll have a panic attack. I'm worried that I'll embarrass myself. But I know that I will breathe. I know that my body physiologically will do that. I’m with…I'm not alone here. I'm with a colleague and a friend who understands my situation. And we're just sitting here. Nothing's happening. 

Mark (in studio): And it actually helped. 

Mark (subway): It's moving very, very, very, very slowly right now. That's… 

[subway pulling into station, announcing “This is Bergen Street.”]

Mark (subway): So we're here. We're here. Alright. That was an eight.

Mark (in studio): I think the biggest thing, and Kim said this to me, is that I was at an eight, and I didn't go above that. Like I didn't…in earlier times it would’ve been like six, seven, eight, nine, you know just like, “ahhh,” and to this point where I’m freaking out. And it was totally…wasn't perfect, but I just did not go above that eight. 

Kim (subway): You did make it through the thing you were afraid of. 

Mark (subway): Yeah

Kim (subway): At an eight. 

Saleem (in studio): While I would not wish a stopped train on anyone in any average situation, it feels almost good in a way that you have that happen with someone with you. You know, and now you kind of know what a stopped train feels like now, now that you've got some techniques. 

Mark (in studio): Yeah. I feel this isn't gonna turn around overnight. Like I'm not hopping, I’m not Mr. Subway again.

Saleem (in studio): (laughing) If there's ever a Mr. Subway pageant, I do want you to try and get that pageant though, please. 

Mark (in studio): I will. I promise you. I will take home some kind of sash. But I think that this is a positive memory that will move towards future rides. 


Saleem: Spoiler alert: There’s no makeover moment ahead. We’re not gonna reveal a “new, panic-free Mark.” Even after trying multiple techniques and some successful encounters with something that scared him, Mark still has this fear. He knew going in that “removing it” wasn’t necessarily the end goal, more a goal of how to manage it. But the idea of eliminating fear - and this is really important to point out - it led to a revelation, of sorts, to us. Especially when we looked at how this fear showed up for Mark in adulthood. 

Saleem (in studio): How did you feel about becoming afraid of the subway? How did you process the fact that something in you had changed? 

Mark (in studio): My honest response is it felt like a sense of failure. 

Saleem (in studio): Oh man. Yeah. 

Mark (in studio): I'm very guilty of this. Fear feels like something that needs to be cured. So I have to get to a point where I'm completely over this and if not it's failure. I mean, that's also why things don't, I think why things don't change is because I'm not going to open up about this with people. Besides my own discomfort and just not feeling comfortable and being on trains, I'm embarrassed by it.

Saleem (in studio): Has that shifted through this process? 

Mark (in studio): Yeah, it has. It has actually. 

Saleem: I know, it’s easy to interpret some of what you’re about to hear as looking through rose-colored glasses. But what if in this case those glasses point to something grand about the human experience?

Mark (in studio): I've been thinking about the emotion of fear. Nobody wants to be scared of anything. And when it happens, it's like, this is, this is the worst. And we diagnose it as this isolating thing. It's like, I have to be alone with this. I have to huddle. I have to like, survive. We don’t tell people when we're scared. We don't want to show it. We're embarrassed, all of these things. I would like to offer fear as this sort of like a re-evaluation of fear. Yes, it's needed for the reasons that we need to survive as a species. Maybe also using it as a, as an emotional tool for deeper bonds for connection.

Saleem (in studio): Cause it's so relatable? 

Mark (in studio): It's so relatable and it immediately sort of, it can immediately create an automatic bond. When we open up about it, when we talk about it, when we make that connection with people, it is, it is a tremendous human bridge. When I initially told you about this fear, when you started to learn more, what was your impression? How did you feel?

Saleem (in studio): It's such a cliché to say, but it immediately makes you human. it is something where I'm like, “Oh, you're a three-dimensional person as soon as you acknowledge a fear.” And it did make me want to ride the subway with you. It immediately made me wonder like, “Oh, what am I supposed to do to be helpful to this person?” Such a practical kind of actionable takeaway to be like when you're afraid of something, what happens when you don't think of that as something to be concealed, but think of it as something to be shared. 


Saleem (in studio): You know, I, I will take that. If it's not an episode that quote unquote “cures a fear,” but it's an episode where the process of making this made you feel better about a fear you have…I'll take that, man. That's a baby step in the right direction. Like I will be super happy that we're all on the same team going through this process. If the result of this fear discussion is just feeling better about fear and feeling less shame about it, that's good. That's not bad. That's not a bad result for this.

Mark (in studio): I'll take it. I will take it. And you saying that and, and us reflecting on that, going back to you asking me, has that changed? It has. So that's a success. You know, that feeling of like…[crosstalk with Saleem]

Saleem (in studio): [crosstalk with Mark] That’s a success.That’s something. That’s something. 

Mark (in studio): That sense of failure has changed. It has changed significantly. So I'm speaking in sort of like a theoretical philosophical but very reflective way of like what this journey has meant to me. And especially, sort of a moving forward as I embrace this emotion and embrace fear more in my life. 

Saleem: If we look close enough, sometimes the places that scare us the most, they offer us the most connection. Yes, even in New York’s subways. 

Mark (in studio): I was getting on the R train. Rush hour, empty seat. My eyes were like, “doot doot doot doot doot doot doot” like laser beam - I'm going to sit in that seat. Went to the seat was just like rushing over there. Was putting my butt back and somebody put their hand on my back. And sort of like pushed me away from the seat. And automatically I was like, “Oh, damn.” Like, “What were you trying to do?” Like, “What's going on?” 

Saleem (in studio): What’s that about?

Mark (in studio): I was about to be really upset. And I turned, and it was this woman and she had her hand on my back and she just totally, non-verbally just nodded just sort of like nodded and pointed her eyes at the seat. And we both looked at the seat and there was a puddle… 

Saleem (in studio): Oh no. 

Mark (in studio): And I was like, a true person that lives here would not let a person sit in that seat. 

Saleem (in studio): That's right. That's right. That's what I'm saying. That's that's real New York. I love that. I love that.

Mark (in studio): And our interaction was non-verbal. It was just like, I got your back and you better believe, stranger, I've got yours, too. And so that's, that's the New York subway and New York I want to get back to. But I still remember my, my heart is here and sort of like this, this fear and so much about it has also led me to sort of not reevaluate — it cements my, the way this place functions as community and also, uh, functions as, uh, as support.

Saleem: On our next episode of More Than A Feeling, we visit a place where two people have created a real sense of belonging for anyone who walks in the door.

Marilyn: Fran, you look gorgeous!

Fran: Thank you.

Barb: They’re artists when it comes to hair.

Saleem: This beauty salon, y'all…it’s where you wanna be…

Cindy: She was a riot, Edith. I loved her.

Ruth: She was. She loved her shampoo so much.

Cindy: She would moan.

Ruth: No, it wasn't moaning. It was woooooooowwwwww.

Saleem: Going there can be as therapeutic as...therapy.

Cindy: Each person that sits in your chair has different needs. I think there's a little therapy going on at times.

Saleem: This story - it’ll give us some insights into coping with the really hard life stuff that can happen at any age.

Ruth: Right! And they'll say right to you now, I feel better. Now I feel more like myself. Now I know I'm going to be okay, you know.

Cindy: Isn’t it beautiful out? Can you see out there? The snow and stuff? It's gorgeous, huh?

Fran: Yes it is...

[theme music]

By the way, this show, More Than A Feeling, is part of the Ten Percent Happier podcast network. Our companion meditation app, also called Ten Percent Happier, has an excellent meditation course called Taming Anxiety, featuring Dr. Luana Marques, who was in this episode. The course teaches you how to overcome your own particular anxiety feedback loop, while building the skills of mindfulness, compassion, and bravery along the way. Because you listen to More Than A Feeling, you can try the course and the app for free for thirty days. To try it out for free, visit tenpercent.com/more (that's ten percent, all spelled out, dot com slash M-O-R-E), or go to the link in our show notes.

If you’ve got a specific question or story about an emotion that you’ve been grappling with, tell us about it. Send us a voice memo at morethanafeeling@tenpercent.com - again you gotta spell out T-E-N percent. You might end up hearing yourself on one of our future episodes. You can also hit us up on twitter at “pod feelings” - P-O-D-F-E-E-L-I-N-G-S. If you like what you heard in this episode and you want to let us know, give us that five star rating on Apple podcasts. That’ll help other people find us. Another way is just share the show with your friends, email it to ‘em, whatever. We sincerely appreciate it.  

More Than A Feeling is produced by Reva Goldberg, Mark Pagán, Will Coley, Palace Shaw, and Kim Buikema. Our managing producer is Kimmie Regler and executive producer is Jen Poyant. Scoring, mixing, and sound design provided by Ultraviolet Audio. And huge thanks to Violet Boynton for that awesome scream at the top of the episode. Production support for this episode was provided by Connor Donohue. 

Our theme music was composed by El Michels Affair. Much love to Leon Michaels and Piya Malik for this beautiful theme song. They made that just for us. Thank you to Danny Akalepse and Big Crown Records. Additional music provided by APM. Music licensing by Rebecca Grierson of SixtyFour Music. Fact checking for this episode provided by Diane Kelly. Special thanks to Jess Goldberg, Ben Rubin, Dan Harris, Matthew Hepburn, and Toni Magyar. This show could not have been created without you. I was going to say huge thanks to this fearless team, but they're not fearless. We all got fears. It's okay if you do. I will see you soon. 


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