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Dealing with Anxiety and Sleep Issues

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. 

Welcome to our chat today on anxiety and sleep with Shomit Mitter. He’s here with me today and he is one of London’s leading therapists. And the thing that’s incredible about Shomit… He has an incredible CV, he’s written two books on theater; you can read up about him. He’s been covered by a lot of media. But what I find incredible about him is that he will get to the bottom of the issue and somehow in that short amount of time that you’re doing your therapy with him, he finds that issue. Welcome to our chat show.

Shomit Mitter: Thank you.

AB: So tell me, what is wellness to you?

SM: Okay, wellness in the emotional, psychological sense of the term is having a twinkle in your eye, no matter what the circumstances. And the interest of that is not the twinkle in the eye. We can all have a twinkle in our eye when things are going well. It’s when the chips are down, can you have a smile on your face? And the essence of that is encapsulated in a poem that is very well known. And I pulled it out and I’ve got it here and I want to read it. It’s a Rumi poem that everyone knows, but I’m going to read it anyway. So: 

This human being is a guest house. 
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, 
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, 
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

Now, when we read that sort of thing, we think, oh, well, that’s wonderful, and all the rest of it. But you know what? It’s not meant for the likes of us. I mean, that’s very exultant thinking. I will tell a little story just very quickly, which encapsulates the essence of actually living that, amongst people we know. I was trained by a celebrity psychoanalyst called Roger Woolger. Now, Roger used to live in New York, and whenever he came to London, he stayed with me. And on one occasion he turned up and he was falling down every time he tried to climb the stairs. He couldn’t stay upright and so on. Took him to the hospital, and it turned out he had more tumors in the brain than he had fingers on his hands. And he told me in a matter of a couple of weeks that he had only weeks to live. Now, this is pretty dramatic, given the three weeks before that— we were dancing at a fiesta in Brazil where we had done a workshop. It’s a huge sudden shock. Now, I couldn’t manage this. Roger was staying with me. I had kids, I had my clients. So, I set up a roster of many of his old students in London, and everyone took turns to come and look after him, some during the day, some at night. And Roger was deteriorating very quickly. One morning, with a smile on his face, he said to me, Shomit, you’re going to get into trouble with the neighbors. And I said, why? He said because you got a different woman coming out of the house every morning. Now, look at this. This is a guy who’s just been told he’s got weeks to live and he’s got that twinkle in his eye. Now, that is emotional wellness.

AB: Amazing.

SM: And in the face of that challenge, you can still smile. That’s the real test.

AB: Amazing. So now tell me, on that note, what is anxiety to you?

SM: Anxiety is the precise reverse. If you’re using the word anxiety, I’m going to distinguish between two kinds of anxiety. Acute anxiety: it’s happening now. The lion is attacking me now. And chronic anxiety: when there is no lion at all, but I’m thinking the lion may attack and what’s going to happen? And what happens when the lion attacks next week? What’s going to happen? Chronic stress. Acute stress is when you’re in the face of danger, something is happening and it’s not a bad thing. Acute stress, everyone knocks stress, we got to get rid of stress. And stress is terrible. Actually, acute stress is not a bad thing because if you are really in danger, you do have to react first. So, there are three acute stress responses. Two of them are well-known, one is not. The two that are well-known are under the term fight-flight. We all know that. When the lion attacks me, I will fight it with my spear. Flight— when the lion attacks me, I’ll run away. And third is, when the lion attacks me, I’ll play dead and hope the lion goes away— which is freeze. The other ‘F’ that people often forget is the rabbit in their headlights. Kids study for an exam, they turn up at the paper and suddenly their minds go blank. That’s not a good thing. But fight-flight is not such a bad thing, because if you’ve got a Wimbledon final, you’ve got to up your game. And if you think of Nadal doing ‘vamos’ in the dressing room and adjusting his headband for 45 minutes, he’s in a state of great stress, but it’s what helps him build himself up. Acute stress is not necessarily bad, but it has to be managed. And we can talk a little bit about how you manage it.

AB: So, that’s the healthy adrenaline.

SM: Adrenaline, yes, exactly. And that’s not a bad thing. Don’t knock all stress. People often… I posted a workshop with one of Roger’s friends, who was a Nigerian shaman, and people said, you know, I want to be calm. I want to be calm at all times. And this guy… I forgot his name now, but he’s a great character, a big personality. He said, you want to be calm? You think that’s a virtue? Yes, I suppose he needed a virtue, but it’s a dead person’s virtue. Do you want [to be] a dead person? Do you want a flat line life? No. You need your ups and your down. So, we do need to live. So, it’s not necessarily always a bad thing. What is a bad thing is chronic stress. ‘When I was attacked by the lion once, I’ve been attacked by the lion again and oh, my God, every time the wind blows in the grass, I think, oh, my God, there’s a lion. Oh, my God, there’s a lion.’ And of course, there isn’t a lion there at all. What we don’t do is switch off. Notice. I don’t know whether you’ve been on a safari or whether any of your business has been on a safari. I go on safaris a lot. When you watch a hunt, many hunts end in failure. Nine out of ten times, the lion will not get the antelope. Now, what do you think the antelope does when the lion gives up the hunt? The lion collapses under a tree, hunting puts them out of breath. What does the antelope do? It starts grazing. The grass is sweet, the sun is warm, and life is great. Why? What’s not to like? If you chase me again, I’ll run again. But you don’t chase me; you’re out of breath; I’m going to graze.

AB: Interesting.

SM: Human beings don’t do that. And the reason we don’t do that is, our USP is we’ve got brains and the brain is a good thing, but it’s double-edged. Brain means memory. It’s a learning. So the brain touches a hot potato, ah, mustn’t touch hot potatoes, right? Similarly, a lion attacked once; I got attacked again; I will never put myself in that situation again. I will make sure that my alarm function never goes off. Because if you switch off, I could be gobbled up by the lion, so I never switch off, unlike the antelope. That’s chronic stress, and that’s a big kill that leads to all kinds of health things and so on.

AB: Right. And the third one?

SM: I said there were three kinds of acute stress despite fight-flight, freeze, and one is the chronic stress [which] is the bad one.

AB: Okay, so the freeze was part of that. So now show me the other thing which I think is very unusual about the way you treat people, [which] is you give them very vivid visual ways of dealing with them. So, it’s very easy to recall what you said to deal with the situation when you have it again. So, can you tell us in your very nice Shomit way— how to deal with anxiety? I know that’s a huge question.

SM: Okay, let me distinguish between acute and chronic again. So, let me give you a few tips about acute and a few tips around chronic. We talked about Nadal, ‘vamos, vamos’ and old worktop and so on, right? So, let’s take the example of the elite sportsman. Why? Because they are very high-performing individuals. And we can see them. There may be a high-performing individual in a Buddhist monk in a cave somewhere, but we can’t see what they do. What do great sportsmen do when they are under pressure? What’s the first thing that a footballer does before they come in to take a penalty?

AB: He prepares himself. 

SM: Yeah, but how? What’s the physical thing they do? They breathe. You think of Ronaldo standing on the ball like this. It’s not just a breath. They breathe out. Exhale. So, how does that work? I got a fright. A sharp intake of breath. I’m very anxious. I’m hardly breathing. But imagine that I was really worked up about a letter that I was going to receive. And the letter turns up, I tear it open, my heart’s pounding and palms sweating. And the letter says exactly what I’d always hoped it would say. What’s the reaction?

AB: Relief.

SM: Yeah relief. And in the mind means the body sighs. The reverse is also true. When the body sighs, the mind reads that as relief and says, oh, I’m sighing. I do that when I’m relieved. Huh, maybe I’m relieved now. I’m dramatizing it. But actually, it’s accurate. When the mind sees the body doing something which it associates with stress relief, it increases its stress. That’s why people breathe. You think of these footballers, they get paid £200 a week. They don’t want to bind to some crappy theory that no, that doesn’t really work. They do these things because it works. So, that’s the first thing to do. 

The second thing they do is they move around; they take time out. Now, footballers can’t do that on the pitch. But if you think of a tennis player, [like] Serena used to go to the screen at the back and just face towards the screen and go back and play, that’s like a little time out. Why do you need a little time out? Because it gives you a little perspective. It gives you a little bit of detachment. It gives you a little bit of distance from what’s going on. Alastair Cook, a cricketer who was captain of the England team, used to go for a little walk between deliveries. You go for a little walk… look around, look at the advertising hoardings and look at the picture and come back and then be ready for the next thing. You need time out. And the third thing is when, let’s say a batsman plays a shot badly because that was a crazy delivery. What did it mean? They correct their shot. I did this, but I should have done that. They play an air shot.

So, think of putting these three things together, they correct what they should have done. They get a picture in their mind of what they should do, they take a break, move away from things, they breathe. I’m going to give that to you as an exercise [called] B.E.N. B is for breath; E is for escaping temporarily from the situation. If you’re under stress, just check out. Just give me a second, I’m just going to pop into the loo. No one’s going to say, you cannot go to the loo, you can check out, you can get a glass of water; N: new role. Think of how some friend of yours would have behaved in this situation. You’re panicking and you’re in panic mode. You need to have a picture in your mind about how someone would go about tackling this situation in a calm way. So, B.E.N— B for breathe, E for escape, N for new role. How would my friend John…how would my friend Ann act in this situation, and do precisely that. Now just give me a second. I’m just going to dramatize this with one of my pictures. Imagine a field of grass. I come to the field of grass, I go here, I come to the field of grass, I go there. If I go ten times, the grass stays down 20 times as a path, 30 times and I go there automatically without thinking. The brain makes all responses automatic to save energy, thinking time, processing time. Red light break, red light break. Now the red-light break is good automatic, but many stress responses are bad automatic. It’s like, oh my God, I panic, I run away, I fight, I get struck, et cetera. So, what do I do then? I breathe. I step back and I visualize. What would my friend have done in this situation? She would have gone this way. So, I start going that way. I train myself to overcome my response and I go that way. And what happens? You get two for the price of one. Every time I go down this way, I get a new part there and the grass grows there because I’m not there anymore. And that’s the precise analogy of how synaptic connections change the brain. You do bend often enough and you will rewire your brain in a good way, and that’s a very lasting and robust response to acute stress.

AB: So, just very quickly clarifying. You’re saying when you’re in a situation first breathe. Then take some time out.

SM: Yes. And take some timeout for just a couple of minutes. Just step away for a moment, just so that you’re not in the line of fire, just so that you get your act together.

AB: And then visualize something someone would do which is different from your reaction.

SM: Your panic reaction.

AB: Your panic reaction. Okay.

SM: Yeah. If you’re on top of it, that’s fine. If I’m good, show me, that’s fine. If I’m a child, show me. Then I’m panicking. Whoo. Hang on a minute. Check out ah. Now, my friend John would have done this alright, fine, and I do that, but it won’t work at the time unless you practice it. So, every day, every couple of days, you got to spend a couple of minutes just thinking, I was in a bit of a panic, then that wasn’t good. How would my friend John have reacted? You would have acted like that, and you trained your brain [that way]. You reformatted the panic response in the past as a creative thing going forward. So, the next time you’re in that kind of situation, the brain says, I know what to do here. This is how I behave.

AB: Fantastic. The other thing that we’re talking about today is another huge issue that is bothering so many people, which is insomnia. So, what is insomnia and why does it happen?

SM: Insomnia is outside of anything medical. So, I mean, there may be medical reasons why you’re not able to sleep. You may be on some drugs, et cetera, et cetera. But all things being equal, insomnia is one of the effects of chronic stress. You are lying dead and your mind is racing to this problem and, oh, my God, and I answered that problem and, oh, God, what if I don’t? And your mind starts dripping. So, if you start dealing with chronic stress, you will start dealing with sleep. So let me give you a few tips on chronic stress, and then I’ll give you a few pointers for sleep in particular. Chronic stress is about looking after yourself. Now, this health warning, everything I want to say is horribly ordinary. That’s bad news. It’s everyday things, but the good news is they work. There’s no point in me having a clever theory about chronic stress. It won’t help it. I’m going to give you everyday things that work.

So, number one, at the end of every day, you’ve gotta ask yourself three questions and answer them positively. Number one, what did I do for my body? And with the body, there are three things. One, how well did I eat? Now, eating well is not about protein, carbs five-a-day, and so on. From the emotional point of view there is a primal bond between the wise-you, like the parent and the child, which is the potential panic side. It’s the first thing your mom did with you when you were born. So, it’s about calming yourself. It’s about loving yourself. It’s about a tough day. A nice meal. It’s a very primal relationship with yourself. Exercise. When you go for a run, it is about getting away from it all. Structured expression to the flight response. I’m getting away from it all. The third is, of course, sleeping. And then we come to that. The second question is, what did I do for my mind? When you exercise the mind, when you feed it stuff that is inspirational and challenging, you have a certain distance from your stressors. I give the example of reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. He talks about Leonardo’s to-do list. So he’s got things like: examine the tongue of a woodpecker, speak to Giovanni Bellini about the trajectory of a cannonball. He’s kind of mad but in an inspirational way. And when you immerse yourself in that and you come back to the things that are stressing you, there’s actually a bit of distance. You spend a little time in a rarefied world, and that’s quite inspirational. And so that’s the mind. 

And the third is, what did I do for my soul? On the soul there are two. There’s what I call quiet time, and there’s what I call interestingly noisy time. So quiet time is like meditation. So, to give you a quick exercise here… one quick little way of stilling the mind. It’s a difficult exercise, more difficult than it sounds. Spend ten minutes. Try and count up to, let’s say, 25 breaths without losing focus. Spend a little time and try to count up to 25 breaths without losing focus. Why does that count you? Because one thing that happens when we are in stress mode is the scattered mind. What’s going to happen here? Oh, my God. What about that? But when we just focus on the breath, even for a short period of time, everything calms down. It is very, very important that you spend a little bit of time every day doing that. That’s ‘quiet time.’ What is ‘noisy time?’ This is, in the end, noisy time is freak out time. It’s when you go crazy. If you were to watch my son and me watch a football game, I don’t think you’d invite me onto this program. But it’s good to be a nutter sometimes. It’s good to let it all out. You think of a restaurant with a dance floor and you’re sitting there, very civilized, having a classy wine, and someone says, let’s dance. And you go, and you cross an invisible line, a threshold, and on the far side of the line, you can go crazy. And you come off and you sit down again, and you’re very civilized with your wine again. But we needed to go crazy for a little while. All right? So, football matches, dance floors, these are places in which we can give structured expression to… I don’t know whether you know your way around Nietzsche, but in Nietzsche, there’s this opposition of Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is on it, on it. Focus, focus. Dionysus ‘Bacchus’ got a wine… freaked out, got pissed, whatever. And you need these two imbalances. Too much of our lives today is Apollo based. It’s get on it, be on it, et cetera. So, if you do these things and I know I’m saying ordinary things, I’m saying things like watch football and scream at the television set, I’m saying eat properly. But if you do each of these things, if you look after your body, your mind and your soul, you will be in a better place over time. It just works. It just is a very healthy way of being. So, when you do these things, it has an effect on insomnia because you just feel good about your day, I think. Well, I went for a run. I screamed at the television and said, hey, life is looking up. And when you’re in that space, the chronic anxiety comes down, and insomnia. You sleep better and so on. But I’d like to take a minute. I know you want to say something, but let me give you a second. I want to say a few specific things about sleep, but do you want to go first? 

AB: No. So, what I want to ask you, Shomit, is about what you just said. So, you’re saying that this deals with chronic insomnia.

SM: Chronic stress. Chronic anxiety.

AB: Okay, so that deals with the chronic stress that causes insomnia. What happens if something has just happened, like the pandemic, where so many people are not sleeping at the moment?

SM: Absolutely. But the same principles apply when you’re under the cosh, when there’s things happening. Always go back to the basics. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t try to find some profound intellectual thing or reason to do some crazy thing like, I don’t know, chant with the moon or whatever. That’s all very well, but if you just get the basics right, that’s the best, best thing. I’m eating properly, I’m exercising properly, I’m freaking out. I’m reading inspirational things. It’s a good place to be, notwithstanding. The first thing is getting your day together. But now I’m going to give you a few tips for sleep specifically, all right? Now, the first one is I’m going to take you through the day, because getting sleep right is not just getting the evening right, it’s getting the day right.

Now, I’ll start with the most unpopular thing, try and wake up at the same time every day, regardless of whether it’s a weekday or weekend. Mind is a creature of habit. And if it knows, this is my waking up time, this is my going to sleep time, it does it very well. When you, you know, party till three in the morning on a Friday and a Saturday and you wake up at noon, you jet lag yourself. And then on the Monday and the Tuesday and Wednesday, you’re picking up the pieces and you just got your act together around your workday routine. And then you jet lag yourself again. And that’s not a good thing. So, the first thing you have to try and do, is try and wake up at roughly the same time every day, number one. Number two, once you’re awake, have as much exposure to daylight as you can. Natural light. I don’t mean lights indoors. Have breakfast outdoors if you’ve got an outdoor space or a conservatory. If you’ve got a conservatory, have a coffee outside. This is very, very important— to have as much light intake first thing in the morning because it’s important to signal to the brain, it’s morning, wake up, get your act together as it is at night, to say, hang on, switch off, it’s night. Facets of the same thing. All right? That’s the second thing. The third thing is to keep yourself calm through the day by breathing. Now, how do I remember to breathe through the course of a day? It’s not a habit. I mean, I’m breathing a little bit, but I’m not breathing optimally. So, take one deep breath before any significant new activity in the day. I sit down to do my emails, whom am I emailing? I sit down for lunch, what am I eating, et cetera, et cetera. One deep breath. And what we’re doing is it’s called anchoring. We are linking the breath to the activity, and a few times you do it manually. You got to think about it. But after a while it becomes a habit. It’s a bit like you get in the car, you put on a seatbelt now without thinking about it because it’s just a habit. Similarly, breathing through the course of the day becomes just a habit and it’s very good. Calm down, I get a little worked up, a little workout. You’re constantly breathing through the day. As you get into the evening, a couple of things, and this again, sounds a bit crazy, but behind downlights and so on, not just before you sleep… darken a room, well before you’re going to go to sleep.

That way you’re simulating a sunset. The sun doesn’t just suddenly die, you know, people have a breakfast room, tons of light, run to bed and say, not being able to sleep. No, you need to calm that down. You need to simulate a sunset. Another thing, as you’re approaching bedtime, have a hot bath or a shower for two reasons. One obvious, one not obvious. The obvious one is that warm water relaxes the muscles. You sleep better. The second one is more interesting. The shower is hot and the room is cool in comparison. So, when you go from hot to cool, what does the brain think? The sun is set? Sunset brings two things. You see, the light goes, and we all focus on the light and so on. But actually, if you can somehow trick the brain into believing that the sun is set because the temperature went down as well, that’s a very good way of also coaxing the body to sleep.

AB: Lovely.

SM: Those are just a few pointers, a few couple of don’ts. Don’t ever work in bed. Don’t work in bed because the brain, as I said, is a creature of habit and association. If you start working in bed, every time you get into bed, the brain says, oh, where’s the laptop? I’ve got to get back. The bed has to be completely associated with sleep, with pleasure, but not with work. Nothing that needs you to focus and beyond it.

AB: Okay, that’s lovely. And Shomit lastly, what advice do you have for people in this chat?

SM: I think the one biggest bit of advice that I can give, which is difficult to do, and I in my work, train people to do this… Easy to say, but it’s hard to do, but it has to be said— you’ve got to set your sights really high, try as far as possible to have an open heart.

AB: To have a?

SM: An open heart, just to be open. And for the purposes of a podcast, you have to do a podcast. My arms are wide open. Your podcast. I’m covering my face. I’m covering my eyes. I’m behind a wall. I’m in my cave. That’s anxiety. Precise reverse is to have your arms wide open in the fixed life. And when you’re like that, things happen. You talked about manifestation. You have got to manifest. You got to be like this. You got to be outside the cave, open to everything, and that’s a very good way to be. And vis-a-vis the anxiety and stuff— it’s just the precise reverse.

AB: Lovely. Thank you, Shomit. This was such an incredible chat. I’ve learned so much. Thank you. Thank you very much.

SM: Thank you for having me on this.

AB: Take care.

SM: Okay, bye.

AB: Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you leading your best life.