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How to prevent Mental Health 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. One of London’s leading therapists, Shomit Mitter believes that if you manage your inner world, the outside world will take care of itself. He’ll help you deal with turmoil and serious life difficulties. He also works with people who don’t have major issues but just simply want to fly, as he says. So Shomit will give you all kinds of tools to deal with different situations. He’s a member of the General Hypnotherapy Register and the General Hypnotherapy Standards Council. And he’s registered with the Complementary and National Healthcare Council. Shomit, welcome to the chat. So now tell me, at the moment, of every two or three messages I get, at least one of them is about mental health, if not two. So tell me, why are there so many mental health issues currently?

Shomit Mitter: Okay, that’s a very good question, and I will answer it. But before I answer, I want to make one qualification, which is that there have been periods in history when, if you think back, there wasn’t the same awareness of mental health issues as we have now, but I’m sure there were huge amounts of stress, huge amounts of what we now call depression, and so on. You think of periods like the 100-years War; you think of the Crusades; you think of people-based slavery; you think of all these things. There have been periods in history when people have been under tremendous pressure, even the Industrial Revolution, in terrible living conditions, and so on. But mental health was not an issue then, as it is now, and therefore we’re not aware of that being an issue in those periods. But we shouldn’t have an exaggerated notion of this being something that is unique to our time. I think it’s happened other times, it just wasn’t seen the way we see it. With that qualification in place, coming to today, I think there are two things that I’d like to highlight- one, over the last perhaps ten, perhaps ten plus years, is social media and I’ll come back to why, and the other obvious one over the course of the last two (or more) years is the pandemic. Now, I’ll come to the pandemic first. We are a gregarious species. We like to go out, we like to meet, we like to have human contact, and to lock us up and not allow us to have human contact with good reason because of the spreading of the virus and so on, makes for stresses that are not only kind of obvious ways- kids don’t just go to school in order to learn lessons, they go to school to play, they go to school to interact, and they go to school to do team-building (activities)- all of which require genuine human interaction, but the other thing that I found in my work, which is quite interesting—sad but interesting—is that it’s brought to the surface a number of things that have been issues but were suppressed because our busy, busy lives kept them concealed. For example, I’ve seen a huge spike in marriages falling apart over the pandemic. Why, You would think. Now, a couple that have kids: they go to work, the husband goes to work, the wife goes to work, the kids go to school, they come back, they manage the kids, and so on. They have a drink in the evening, go to bed, and do that again. There’s very little interaction in that sense within the family, right? They’re out there in the world, doing their thing. Suddenly you’re locked up with your immediate family, and all kinds of little tensions that were never apparent before suddenly start surfacing. And I’ve had bizarre stories of one husband just calling, texting his wife downstairs, and saying, “Just to let you know I’m leaving the house and I won’t be back. And he went and stayed at a B&B. Crazy effects as a result of being isolated, social media more generally has, again, two effects. One is the artificiality of the contact. It’s not genuine human contact. But the other thing with social media is that there’s artificiality in another sense. People tend to project an image of their lives that is idyllic. They’re all having perfect holidays and huge success.

AB: okay?

SM: And on the receiving end of that there’s a tendency often, I found, amongst clients to compare the idyllic lives that everybody else is having with the relatively humdrum life that you are having, and then you feel less than. And that’s one of the things we can’t cope with-feeling less than. We like to feel good about ourselves. And social media has the effect of often making us feel not so good about ourselves.

AB: I feel like there’s another thing. Partly it’s social media and the internet. Our brains are always occupied, so we don’t have downtime, we don’t have rest and recover time. So it’s not just about feeling better than someone else or feeling as good as someone else. It’s also the fact that the brain is constantly running, it’s buzzing.

SM: Yes, that’s a very good point. And I’ll add to that that it’s not just that the brain is occupied, it’s in the nature of social media that the brain hops from one thing to another. You’re on a screen, another screen pops up, you go to that screen and so on. Now, that is very stressful. And I’ll explain why every time your brain moves from one thing to another, there’s a release of cortisol because you’ve got to up your game. You’ve got to up your game to deal with this new thing. What is this new thing? Who’s this? What’s happening here? And then, as you’ve gotten used to it and your cortisol level goes down because you relax into it, something else pops up. So again, you go to that and then you up your level again. So you’re always upping your cortisol level to deal with a new thing you can’t settle.

AB: So now that we know that there’s a lot of mental health issues, how would we recognize if something is starting either within us or someone in our family?

SM: You’ve heard the term fight or flight. When the wooly mammoth is going to attack me, I will go into fight mode. I will kill the wooly mammoth, or I will go into flight mode. I will run away from the wooly mammoth. And there’s a third F, which is freeze. When the wooly mammoth attacks me, I will play dead and hope the wooly mammoth goes away. So those are the three signs of fight. Which means that when you notice that someone is getting very strappy, very easily irritable, flying off the handle, prone to rage, that’s a sign. Flight-when they get increasingly isolated), they lock themselves away. Teenagers often do this. They go off to their bedroom, lock the door, don’t want to see anybody and don’t want to eat- when they get more and more isolated, that’s not a good thing. And freeze, when people have brain fog, they can’t think clearly, they’re finding ordinary things difficult. Focus is difficult. To give you one trivial example of that phenomenon, a client of mine reported to me one day that she’d gotten three parking tickets in one week just because she forgot to pay the parking and she was so stressed that she parked the car. She would always park them. It’s a silly little thing, but it’s a clear sign. Why are you forgetting to do an ordinary thing like paying a parking meter? Because you’re stressed, because you’re looking out for the wooly mammoth, and you’ve forgotten about this silly thing. So those are the three things: irritability, rage, anger, isolation, and brain fog.

AB: And you’re saying, even with teenagers, if they isolate too much, we should be looking into that?

SM: Yeah, a certain amount of isolation in teenage years is quite healthy. I mean, they are doing their own thing. They don’t want mom, it’s “get off my back”. So that’s perfectly healthy. They’re growing independently. They can’t be supervised by you all the time. They’re certain of their independence, that’s different. It’s when you get isolated. You don’t want to meet people. You’re not going out at all, don’t want to meet your friends. I mean, isolation in that sense, when they go into a cave, you don’t want people going into a cave.

AB: In terms of maintaining a healthy mind, what are the best ways of maintaining a healthy mind? So things will be thrown at us. This is life. So there’s good circumstances, there’s bad circumstances, there’s pandemics, there’s wars, there’s all kinds of things, and there’s things that happen in our personal lives. What would you recommend to just maintain a healthy mind?

SM: So let’s take the analogy of the body. How do you maintain a healthy body? By nourishing it, exercising it, and resting. And you do the same for the mind, but with the difference that with the mind, nourishing it and exercising it are much the same thing. When you exercise the mind, in effect, you nourish it. So you’ve got to be an explorer. You’ve got to do new things, challenge the mind, whatever it takes. There’s no one thing that you can do (that’s) the best thing. It’s whatever takes your fancy—read, do puzzles, whatever it takes. I mean, I’ll give you an example. I’m visiting my 94-year-old mother here in India and every morning she does the accounts, and she will write down so and so, Rs. 200, paid Rs. 30 for this, Rs. 20 for this, and Rs. 27 for that and she tops it all up in the old way with the carryover and all the rest of it, and so on. She’s 94 and touch wood, I mean, fortunately, she’s physically able to do all that. But that’s an active mind. I mean, she’s doing all the calculations, and she goes and reads and reads the newspapers and has huge discussions with me about politics and the state of the world. You’ve got to have aliveness in the mind—that’s health, but also rest. I’ll explain how rest works when I imagine a library—a college library, let’s say—and the library is open nine to five, and the librarian deals with all the students coming in, taking books, and returning books. All the books that are returned and the new books that are bought are in a big pile and the librarian can’t put them away because the students are coming in and out. When the library closes at 5:00, she gets an opportunity to put the books back in the appropriate places on the shelves. If, in a big library, you don’t put it in exactly the right place, you’ll never find that book because it could be lost. There are thousands of books. So when we sleep, when we rest, the brain is still active, but it’s doing all the putting away of things, ordering things, and tidying things up. So rest is very important.

AB: Okay…

SM: I always talk about day mode and night mode. Day mode is to go up there, do things, challenge yourself, but you also must have rest mode, night mode, where you chill, sleep, etcetera.

AB: Now let me turn that on its head and ask you another side of the same thing. For those of us who don’t have mental health issues at the moment, how do they make sure they stay like that?

SM: It’s a very boring word but a very important word, which is routine. “It sounds terrible. I mean, what do you mean by routine? We should be spontaneous.” Be spontaneous by all means, but within limits. The main thing is routine. The brain is a creature of habit, and it loves to do the same things at the same time. So when it’s 01:00 in the afternoon, my tummy tells me it’s lunchtime, etcetera, etcetera, why do we get jet lagged? We get jet lagged because the brain expects to go to sleep at a particular time, and suddenly you’re asking it to do a weird thing (and) go to sleep at a different time. You’re breaking its habit. So habit or a schedule is very important, and in your schedule, you can accommodate day mode, night mode, and all its different sorts of bits. So hours for work, hours for leisure, hours for rest, etcetera All in its appropriate period. So if you do have a daily schedule, that’s the best way to stay on track.

AB: So are you talking about the circadian rhythm? 

SM: Yeah. Well, yes, that’s one aspect of it. You’ve got to be in sync with the circadian rhythm, but that’s a very big overarching rhythm. I’m breaking it down into “what are your meal times, what are your work times, what are your leisure times?” So I mean, if you are, for example, you’ve got your core activity, your work, or whatever it is that you do, and then you’ve got your support structures; you’ve got your time at the gym, your time for meditation, your time for reading, time for friends. There’s a time for each thing, and if you start mixing up those things, then many things fall by the wayside. Either work doesn’t get done because you’ve been doing something else, or people say to me, “Oh, I didn’t get to the gym for the last month because I got caught up with this or that. No, if there’s a time for it, your body will tell you, your mind will tell you it’s time for that thing, and you’ll do it.

AB: So in terms of preventing mental health issues, what is the single most important thing that you would say? Either don’t do or do or stick to this. I know you’re saying that routine is a good thing but some people say meditation, some people say, is there one element that you would say, pick this and this will sort you out.

SM: Meditation and all that is great, they’re support structures, but the one most important thing overriding, bigger than anything else, is to have a meaningful goal for your life and for your day. And by your life, I don’t just mean the macro vision—what am I going to do for the next ten years? Even for your day, for your week, for your month, have a meaningful goal—something that gets you out of bed, that gets you excited, that gives meaning to your life. The single deepest, most profound imperative that impels us as human beings is to feel like “we are somebody, I add up to something in the world. I have a contribution to make. My life has meaning”. One of the most awful sources of mental health problems and so on, is the gradual erosion of that thing. So if you get out of bed in the morning and you just don’t know, “What am I doing? Why am I here? So always make sure you have a goal. The goal can be a very big goal or a small goal. It can be to do with you, it can be to do with others. It doesn’t matter that there must be a goal.

AB: Okay,  

SM: So I have a friend here in India, in Delhi, who runs a huge charity, the goal of which is universal primary education for children in India. Now, that’s a massive goal. It’s a huge thing. It started many years ago, 20 years ago, as a small little slum in Bombay, and she did the whole of western India, the whole of northern India et cetera. It’s a huge project, but it’s meaningful. But that’s a big thing. Not everyone can take on something of that size. So you can have a very small goal. I mean, again, coming back to my mom—I mean, I was visiting—it’s very sweet. She still believes that I’m a child coming back from boarding school. So she’s racking her brains as to what foods he likes. Yes, absolutely. And his room must be tidied up, and this and that. It’s very sweet, but it gives her meaning. It gives her a sense of purpose. I mean, my visit was being built up too, for about three weeks before I arrived because she was getting things ready and this and that. It gave her focus and alertness. So you must have a goal. That’s the single biggest thing.

AB: If you give us tips that we can go away with, that we can incorporate into our lives, which will help us prevent mental health issues, keep a healthy mind…

SM: Let me give you six. Two for your work life, two for your leisure life, (and) two for rest. Okay? So two for your work life. One, obviously, have a goal. Two, as we’ve talked about, have a routine so that you fulfill that goal. That’s very important. Many people have goals, dreams, (and) ideals, but (they) don’t get done because they get waylaid. So not only must you have that goal, (which) is where I’m headed, but you must make sure you don’t go off the path. You must make sure that you get a unit of that work and a unit of progress towards that goal done every day. You don’t have to do a great deal, just do your little bit every day, and you’ll get there. But that’s very important. I’m going down this road, and I do that little bit every day. So goal and schedule, right, with leisure. Two things exercise your body and exercise your mind. We’ve talked about exercising the mind, but exercising the body is a very important part of mental health because it gives structured expression to the flight response of the brain. We talked about flight and running away from the wooly mammoth. So when you’re stressed, or even when you’re not stressed, it’s very good to go for a run, go for a walk, get away from it all. When people go for a run, they’re not just looking at their Fitbit and asking, “How many steps did I take?” They’re also, for a little while, getting away from it all. They’re out there. The sun is setting, the gulls are in the sky. There’s a getting-away factor to exercise that’s very important. And two for rest. First, we talked about sleep. Sleep and routine are very important. It sounds boring, but you’ve got to try and go to sleep at the same time every day and wake up at the same time so that you sleep deeply. The brain is expecting to sleep, you give it what it expects, and it feels very safe, rested, and restless.

AB: Wow, that is fascinating.

SM: But there is also the other part, and this is overlooked. It’s a very trivial-sounding word, but it’s overlooked, and I think it’s very important. It’s “fun”. You’ve got to schedule in some fun. You’ve got to clock up fun hours the way a pilot clocks up flying hours. People forget that they’re either stressed or having fun. “What do you mean by ‘fun’? I can’t have fun, I’m stressed. The only one that the mammoth is attacking is me”, so that’s not good. But equally, even when they’re not stressed, the humdrum of life takes over and that is to be avoided. You can’t just sink into your chair, do the same old thing, and fall asleep. That’s not good. You need that fun value. So you need to schedule it in the same way you would schedule a client meeting. You need to know I’m going off to do this, and I’m low. I’m really excited about going to that play, or I’m really excited about meeting these old friends who are visiting, or whatever it is. There has to be a lot of fun because when we have fun, everything rejigs in the brain—lots of things fire. They don’t fire otherwise, but it is quite shocking. I find it sad how many people just allow fun to slip out of their lives.

AB: And also, I guess you’re talking about the human connection comes into the fun element for you.

SM: Absolutely, yeah. One of the things that we can do for others is be there for them. You’ve asked me about what we can do for ourselves and I’ve been talking about ourselves, but what can we do for others when we see that they are irritable or getting isolated etc? It’s be there for them and the key thing there is communication—what we can do for others and communication has three benefits. One is that it is stimulating to the mind when you meet people, and so on. So the stimulation is good. The other is that it gives perspective. It’s when people are isolated that their minds trip and they go down all kinds of rabbit holes and go off into funny, money-making places in their minds. Whereas when you communicate, you keep them real and grounded. And the third is that you’re there for them. And that is the single most important thing you can do—just be there for people. You don’t have to solve their problems by just being there. I was in Brazil doing a workshop. A young woman, 25 years old, collapsed to the floor and started crying and beating the floor. And so I went and knelt next to her, gently put my hand on her back for a second, and then took my hand away. It can be intrusive, too, just to let her know I was there. And I just sat there on the floor next to her, doing nothing at all. After a while, she quieted down. And then she looked at me, and I said, “Why don’t you go and wash your face? so I’m going to come back”. And she did. She nodded and went off, washed her face, came back, and joined in with everything. That evening after the workshop, we were in the bar having our Kaiperinas, as you do in Brazil and suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder. And I looked around, and it was this girl. And she put her arms around me and gave me a really lovely hug. And she said thank you. So I said “thanks?”. I mean, I didn’t do anything. And she said, “That’s just it. You didn’t try to solve my problem. You were just there for me”. That’s a very important thing. Don’t wade in. You can be a bull in a china shop if you wade in and try to take over and solve all the problems of the world. Just be there for people, communicate.

AB: Wonderful. That was such a lovely story. Thank you so much, Shomit, for being here. 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.