Conversations with Modupe Akinola: On coaching Chris Hemsworth through the most stressful situations during “Limitless”

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 and Jane Root’s Nutopia. It premiers today on Disney+.

New scientific research is shattering conventional wisdom about the human body and offering fascinating insights into how we can all unlock our body’s superpowers to fight illness, perform better and even reverse the aging process. This science is put to the test by Hemsworth, who, despite being in peak superhero condition, is on a personal mission to learn how to extend our health, strength and intellect further into our later years. Undergoing a series of epic trials and extraordinary challenges in order to understand the limits of the human body, he’ll learn firsthand how we can live better for longer by discovering ways to regenerate damage, maximize strength, build resilience, supercharge memory and confront mortality.

Modupe Akinola is one of the coaches who helped Chris Hemsworth reach beyond his limitations when it comes to tackling stressful situations. She discussed her work with us.

Dr. Modupe Akinola and Chris Hemsworth talk on the couch before Chris attempts an epic crane walk.(National Geographic for Disney+/Craig Parry)

How did you first get involved in this project? What was it like?

I initially got involved because that production team reached out to me about how I think about stress. What are some of the ways you measure stress? What are some situations that stress people out? I was providing guidance and advice on how to approach stress. Eventually they asked if I would be the expert, coaching Chris through the situations that I advise them on in terms of what gets stress people out. That’s how I became involved. 

It’s been truly a pleasure to be a part of this production because there’s nothing like coaching somebody who is very receptive to the types of stressors that Chris was exposed to, and also who is very determined to live a longer, healthier and happier life. He was very receptive to the tools and techniques that I had to share, which was fun. Also, the fact that these tools or techniques are things that anyone can adopt made it even more meaningful.

What exactly is stress and what role does it play?

I like to think about stress as a situation where the demands of the situation exceed your resources to cope. By demands, I mean that there’s some type of danger or uncertainty or extra effort you need to put into a situation and by resources do you have the knowledge and abilities, do you have the disposition, do external support to overcome that challenge? 

When there is an imbalance, you will be stressed. where the demands are too big, and you don’t have the resources, you will be stressed. What happens in our bodies when we are stressed is that our bodies tell us, “Oh my goodness, you are about to experience something life threatening. So let me mobilize all the energy I need to be able to fight that thing or to run away from it. Parts of your body – the sympathetic nervous system – gets activated, you get the hormones flowing and your heart rate increases. You’re ready to fight or flee from a situation. But what happens these days is that our bodies are staying chronically elevated, even though it might not be a life threatening stressor, which then leads to chronic health related challenges. That’s what stress is and how our bodies react to stress. 

It seems like while Chris Hemsworth was going through the entire process, there were three points where he experienced different kinds of stress. There was the actual activity of walking across the beam. Then there was the simulated situations in the pool or firefighting. But then there was a the third example, where you could see him talking about it the night before. He’s clearly stressed then as well. They seem like three different forms of stress.

So the way you can think about it is that there are different sources of stress and different types of stressors. Walking on the plank in virtual reality is psychological. You know that it’s not real, but your mind is telling you it’s real. The drown proofing and the firefighting are physically demanding things that are causing your body to react in a particular way. 

Then actually walking across that 900 foot high building or plank the way Chris Hemsworth does, that’s also another psychological and physical thing. You need to be able to breath your way through it and all that. Now our body still responds similarly so the key is how can you figure out the right tools that will properly help you in those different moments. You know, when you are going through this physical stressor, you can’t necessarily be like, let me be in the present moment and do my exercises. No, you need to breathe. So there are different tools that can be used to manage or be present with the different stressors that one experiences but they they’re all different types of stress.

Chris Hemsworth and frontline firefighter Tara attempt to extinguish a fire and locate casualties.(National Geographic for Disney+/Craig Parry)

Was there ever a point in the process that you thought he might not be making?

The drown proofing was intense, intentionally intense. He did fail parts of that. But what he succeeded in was trying again and doing better each time. One thing we need to remember is that part of the success in our journeys is that we can get better each time and that we’ll get better with time. 

That morning before he did the beam walk, he was definitely nervous. I didn’t know if he would actually do it. But he did. I do feel like he is the type of person that likes a challenge. I was happy to see him experience that challenge. 

You saw his heart rate when he got up there immediately. It would have been very easy for him to be like “No, I don’t love heights. I’m out of here.” I like to believe that the combination of the days that we spent together and the type of person he is who likes to push through tough situations helped him.

An aerial view of Crown Towers. (National Geographic for Disney+)

Do all calming techniques work for everyone, even if different people have different personalities and reactions to stress?

I would say that the techniques to use when you stress is not a uni-dimensional thing. We each react to different stressors differently. Different things stress us out. And so at the end of the day, each person needs to understand what works best for them.

For a person who likes a challenge, different techniques are going to work versus a person who might be more risk averse. I think each person needs to customize and tailor things for their own needs based on who they are.

That brings me to the next question. Different types of people, different types of stress, different situations. Is the stress of a policeman making an arrest and facing threat-related decisions, the same as the stress we go through negotiating our salaries?

One way to think about this is back to my definition, okay. If someone finds a salary negotiation difficult or the police officer feels that there’s danger in this situation, that there’s uncertainty and they need to put in an effort to fix it, and they don’t have other people around to help them. They’re going to be stressed. Their heart rate is going to increase. The walls of their blood vessels are going to constrict and dilate. They are going to be uncertain about what to do and how to address it.

Chris Hemsworth looks at a model of the crane he is about to walk across. (National Geographic for Disney+/Craig Parry)

So it depends on the person and their exposure and their experience. That determines whether or not that situation will be stressful preparation.

It absolutely can. That still doesn’t mean that when a person is about to have a salary negotiation, their heart might not be high, which is why you need to say oh, wait, let me still read because it’s sometimes it’s the anticipation of a situation, even if you’ve dealt with it 1000 times, that can lead to a stress response.

It seems like there’s a step missing between experiencing the stressor and utilizing your calming techniques. I don’t know what it is, but it’s sort of that recognition point where you realize that you’re freaking out and you need to slow things down. That seems like the biggest step, even bigger than the implementing breathing techniques. Is there something to that?

Absolutely. So I think that one of the biggest things that we need to get better at is noticing when we’re stressed and acknowledging it. One of the things I remind people to do is when you’re stressed, what do you do psychologically? What do you do behaviorally, and what is your body do? 

Some people say my body does not allow me to sleep. I don’t sleep. My heart inquiry rate increases. Those are some signs. Or they might say behaviorally that they drink wine and they eat potato chips and junk food. Or they yell at their spouse and their kids. Psychologically, they don’t want to wake up and they lie in bed in a fetal position and they keep on telling themselves they’re bad. That’s kind of the first step, asking what am I doing? What is happening? In other words, noticing and acknowledging it. 

Once you notice it, acknowledging it, then you can say, “Okay, this is what’s happening. What can I do? What do I need?” So those are the two things that you picked up accurately in terms of how you then diagnose what you need to change. Is it that I need to just breathe a little bit? Is it that I need to be present with my emotions? Is it that I need to recruit a friend?

PRODUCT ALERT! Charles Darwin Signature T-shirt – “I think.” Two words that changed science and the world, scribbled tantalizingly in Darwin’s Transmutation Notebooks.

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