Limitless with Chris Hemsworth is now streaming on Disney+ and ahead of its launch, we were able to sit down with a number of experts to talk about their incredible work with the one-and-only God of Thunder and how he pushed himself further than ever before.
In the series premiere, Hemsworth must confront stress and is tasked to remain calm during a terrifying walk across a crane that's projecting out from the roof a massive skyscraper. Working with psychologist Modupe Akinola, he learns powerful physical and psychological techniques that will help him conquer this challenge.
We caught up with Modupe, a social psychologist and an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, and asked her about her time with Chris and the tools she taught him to deal with his stress head-on and we can use these same tools to control the stress in our lives and combat the risk it poses to long-term health.
Check out the full video interview below and please remember to SUBSCRIBE to my channel!
ROHAN: You're in the first episode, which deals with stress, and there's a moment where Chris Hemsworth, the movie star, just disappears and we see Chris Hemsworth, the man, who is having a very real reaction to outside stressors when he finds himself unable to perform at the level he's accustomed to. Is that a natural reaction you see from most people, especially when they find themselves facing something unexpected?
MODUPE: The thing about stress is we all experience it in some way or another, and so, to see somebody who is that physical, that agile, also deal with stress is a reminder that we're all human. We're all human! And, I think that we need to tap into and realize our humanity when we think about stress.
ROHAN: It was a little eye-opening when you ask about stuff that's stressing him out and he just talks about personal stuff, about being a husband, a father, a son - he doesn't even mention being this huge movie star. What's sort of the difference that you've seen between personal life stress and work stress?
MODUPE: We all face very similar personal life stressors, and so, that's the idea of being human is that most people have some type of a family, people we love, they're going to affect us in particular ways, and then also have things in our jobs that are gonna affect us in particular ways, and the best way to actually think about stress is when you think about it as life is too demanding, and the things you're experiencing, are too demanding, and what's demanding, there's some danger, uncertainty or some effort associated with it. So uncertainty, you don't know if your kids are gonna act crazy one day at a restaurant and people are filming you.
Effort, like you need to put effort into every relationship you have, if you want it to be a flourishing relationship. Those are three of the ingredients to stress, then you can see that play a role in work too. There's danger and uncertainty about like, am I going to do well here? Am I going to get promoted? Effort, you're working really hard, late nights, the phone is always available. So, the same ingredients play a role in many of the things that cause us stress, which means that we need to figure out how to kind of give ourselves what we need to overcome those ingredients and to overcome those demands.
ROHAN: When we see Chris first attempt the walk, he's stressed, but he's prepared, and then he changes his breathing and uses some of the other techniques you spoke with him about, which helps him relax. How can you incorporate these techniques in our everyday lives to make us better at dealing with stress?
MODUPE: Yeah, you hit it on the nose when you said, you wake up and you have no idea what stress is going to come your way, but if you practice and figure out what tools might work for you, then when that stress comes, you will be better off for having practiced. So, because of how our bodies work and react to stress, naturally, our systems will amp up so that our heart rate increases, the walls of our blood vessels can either expand or contract whenever, and so as a result, it becomes really important to breathe. So, I will definitely say that a universal tool that is helpful is breathing to counteract what your body is doing, when you are stressed.
Now, the other techniques, we have to realize that yes, they work for many people, but not for everybody, which is why I'm like, I'm not gonna necessarily call it universal. I'm gonna say that, yeah, it can be helpful when you do some mindfulness and your present and aware of your strength in a non-judgmental way. That helps kind of get your mind a bit more clear, and a bit more focused less on the danger, and less on the threat and more on kind of what you're experiencing, and then, you know, positive self talk is another thing that we engage in the episode.
When we face threatening or stressful situations, our body, our head tells us like, this is stupid, why are you doing this, you're gonna die, you're ridiculous. So, being able to override that by saying, oh, you're being courageous, you're up for a challenge. It's okay, whatever the outcome is, as long as you try it. So, those are some examples of what I used with Chris, that can be used in other situations, but there are many more techniques and each person really needs to dig deep into what could be helpful for them.
ROHAN: One thing that immediately stood out to me was all the positive motivation you're giving Chris throughout, even when it feels like he's down on himself, you're always encouraging him and getting him in a positive mindset. In addition to Chris, what kind of real-time changes have you seen with patients after getting them to think more positively? And, when stressed, how can you avoid the negative thoughts that are quick to flood your mind?
MODUPE: Yeah, I mean, well, one of the things I like to make sure people remember is the importance of just acknowledging their stress, you know, we're kind of told, like deny it, remove it, get rid of it. No, what works best is when people get good at diagnosing that they are stressed in the first place and acknowledging it, and so one of the things I have people do is, think about, okay, when I'm stressed, what do I think? How do I behave? And what does my body do?
For some people, it's breathing heavily, and if the body doesn't shut off, it won't sleep, they can't sleep, they're not digesting. Behaviorally, they might eat potato chips, and candy, and drink a lot of wine, or they might yell at their family. So, part of what I tell people to do is first self diagnose, and then ask yourself, well, what do I need? What do I need right now? Do I need more time? Do I need to say no more? Do I need someone's help? Do I need to practice something? What do I need? And, I feel like that is the first step in addressing our stress.
ROHAN: Chris talks about some of his early stressors, talking about his own family and how he wanted to help get them out of debt at a young age. Can stress be something generational, maybe even passed down?
MODUPE: I don't necessarily study the sources of trauma, but what I have done is study myself, and my friends have studied themselves, and it's very true, like you absorb a lot from your environment, we all absorb a lot, and part of being present with our stress is understanding some of those traumas that shape why you react in a particular way.
One of the examples that I often use is I am the child of immigrants. My parents moved to the US, a different land, none of their family was here, different language, they had to navigate everything, it was stressful. So, I watched that, I absorbed that, and so, what I've had to learn to do is to say, oh, my gosh, don't worry about scarcity, you're going to be okay, because my parents worried about scarcity, and even when things aren't scarce, you're gonna naturally - unless you kind of are present - be like, oh, my gosh, there's scarcity here, and so, I've had to learn to teach myself like you are okay. Positive self talk. There's nothing to be afraid of. This is okay. So, all that to say, we have a lot of stuff that we've absorbed through our long lives, hopefully, that you need to unpack, to really, really get to the source of why you get stressed over certain things relative to another.
ROHAN: It often feels like the anticipation of something can be more stressful than the actual activity. Like, we can dread something for days, but when it arrives, it's really not that bad. How would you recommend getting into a mindset where we can better prepare for the unexpected?
MODUPE: I'm so happy you said that, because stress is the experience for anticipation of some type of kind of, and so one of the ways you do that - I often have people actually write down their typical cycle. Okay, so I asked them to think about something that you experience regularly, that you always stress out about, and then map your cycle. \
So, I'm just gonna use an example of you as a reporter, a person in press. You interview people all the time, all the time, but I'm sure there are times where you're really stressed before an interview, and so, what can happen, okay, what do I want to change? I'm stressed before an interview, what do I do? I feel like I'm not prepared. Well, what happens when I feel like I'm not prepared? Did I speak negatively about myself and tell myself I can't do it, then what do I do that I'm really behind and I procrastinate.
So, you literally should map it out, because if you map it out, then you can figure out where can I potentially intervene? Now that I've mapped out this regularly occurring thing, it's your job. It's a critical feature of your job, and so when you figure out where you can intervene, then it makes each time that you're about to do that, that interview again or whatever, a little bit better.
I'm a teacher, I'm a professor, I've taught for decades, and I think I'm finally at the point where the first day of class, I'm not nervous at all, because I've had to tell myself, I've done this, I've done this for 10 years, I've done this over 1000s of students, I can do that. Like, why am I stressed over the anticipation of this one.
ROHAN: When you're starting to feel stressed, it can really derail you. I mean, a little stress comes your way, and suddenly, you've stopped exercising or are downing a box of Oreos. What are some immediate steps that we can take to maybe get out of that feeling before it spirals out of control?
MODUPE: So, one of the reasons why I study stress, and why I think it's really important is that when our stress levels are chronically elevated, and we're chronically in anticipation of it, then that has implications for our cardiovascular function, can lead to heart disease, blood pressure issue, digestion issues, cellular aging, cancer, like all of that.
So, that's why it's really important to kind of address it earlier on and be present with it. Now, with regard to what you do about it, the reason why it's important for people to understand what their behaviors and their emotions and their physiological responses are, or something they can notice.
The first step is you need to know the moment you see yourself going for the brownie, you need to say, wait a minute, am I hungry? Or am I stressed? If the brownies are your thing, the moment you feel you're not sleeping? You should ask yourself, okay, did I just eat something that's keeping me up? Or drink too much coffee? Or is there something underlying that I'm stressed about? And once you start noticing and acknowledging, and then you can welcome it more and kind of channel that stress.
ROHAN: It feels like sometimes when you're not thinking, it can become easier to deal with stressful situations. Like, for example, my dad's a physician and if there's a code or something, he can just jump into action and he knows exactly how to take care of someone. Why are people able to perform with such clarity when there's this unexpected emergency and why can't we always perform at those levels?
MODUPE: So, here's the thing, again, this stress that we have, our bodies were designed to deal with life threatening things and to want to approach things that are in the appropriate way that are stressed that are threatening in some way, and it gives us like this laser-like focus. So, a physician, their alarm system goes off, like oh my gosh, this person almost coded. They go into action, they're focused, and they can see it and feel it and change things and maybe help someone live.
The problem with us is that we are having that - and they get the excitement, they get the adrenaline and the energy to help them focus - what's happening to us is like, I don’t know, some dumb thing happened that makes you have that same reaction, and instead, you're attentive to the threat, the negative side of the thing, when it's really not life threatening, and so this is where we need to figure out okay, is this a real life threatening thing that I need to deal with and recruit all resources towards that situation? Or, do I need to say, whoa, my mind and body are telling me, I'm stressed, but I don't need to be. That's the noticing, and that’s the acknowledging peace.
ROHAN: There is something I've always wanted to know more about and I think you might be the best person to ask - what are your thoughts on the Clutch Gene? We see guys like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady perform at this otherworldly level in the most stressful of situations - is that something extra like a clutch gene or are their years of preparation just mitigating the effects of stress?
MODUPE: Look, it's a combination, okay, remember the things I said that make you stress: danger uncertainty, effort. Well, what helps you overcome that in clutch moments, knowledge and ability, your disposition, and having external support. What Jordan and what Brady have is the knowledge and visibility, Jordan his practiced that shot 1000s of times, so yes, he's stressed in the moment, but then your muscle memory comes in and you're laser-like focus on the threat of losing that can help you rise to the occasion.
So, the one thing I like to remind people of is that it's not stress in and of itself that's harmful or helpful. It's also your mind stress that influences whether you'll have this positive outcome, this making the shot or whatever. So, we need to kind of rethink that and shift our perspective on stress to approach it in the way I just described, versus it's always bad for you. I'm going to miss the shot.
What if you could combat aging and discover the full potential of the human body? Global movie star Chris Hemsworth explores this revolutionary idea in the new National Geographic original series, “Limitless with Chris Hemsworth,” created by Darren Aronofsky and hailing from his production company Protozoa Pictures and Jane Root’s Nutopia. Entertaining, immersive and life-changing, “Limitless” rewrites the rulebook on living better for longer. Coming to Disney+ November 16.