Lying about restless in bed with the clock ticking away and unable to stop a cycle of thoughts and worries isn’t something that’s uncommon for people with anxiety, insomnia and depression.
Dr Giresh Kanji has spent a decade exploring stress-related conditions and how to fix them. His interest was piqued by his own childhood trauma that led to nearly 40 years of stress symptoms.
He was hospitalised as a child for tuberculosis, then had to be admitted again after a car accident, and later his family also had to deal with the death of two of his siblings.
It took a large toll on the family and resulted in lifelong trauma for Dr Kanji.
“I had regular nightmares and night sweats, poor sleep. I had a feeling of anxiety, sort of overly concerned about things. A lot of people would sound pretty irritable,” he told Kathryn Ryan.
“I think after a night’s sleep I’d flare with anger quite easily. And this sort of went on for years until I was 40.”
That’s when he started to dig deeper, to find some of the reasons behind the symptoms and how stress amplifies pain. He collated his own worldwide research into a book entitled Brain Connections: How to Sleep Better, Worry Less and Feel Happier. This is his third book, after Fix Your Back and Fix Your Neck Pain, Headache and Migraine.
Sleep is a central point in looking at these symptoms because it’s the “barometer” of mental and physical health, Dr Kanji says.
“That’s the one thing if you want to measure [your health and wellbeing], measure your sleep. The studies show actually if you sleep well you really cannot get depressed.”
While experts commonly recommend staying away from devices before sleep, Dr Kanji says such sleep hygiene rules are useful but probably only in the short term.
“But I think when I looked at this research over the past four or five years, specifically concentrating on insomnia, anxiety, depression, it's about habits that unwind your stressed brain.”
Dr Kanji’s looked into headaches as a type of chronic pain syndrome, because the risk of chronic pain patients developing insomnia, anxiety or depression is increased to 300 percent.
“I was looking for patterns and that's when I sort of stumbled upon the sympathetic nervous system, which is the stress nervous system … and discovered that that can generate electricity in multiple parts of our brain.
“It’s designed basically for the wild, it's designed for that sabre tooth tiger, and you see the tiger, the stress chemicals in your brain, your spinal cord, and throughout your body, they're released.
“Basically, the design is to keep you awake. You want to stay completely awake and you want to be really anxious, as well because you want to be on edge. Because if you're not on edge, you're going to be eaten.”
And lying down awake doesn’t help the stress levels either, because the stress chemicals stay in the brain and they’re not depleted, Dr Kanji says.
“If you get increased electricity in the part of the brain that feels pain, you're going to experience more pain, it's gonna be heightened. If you have extra electricity in the part of your brain that, say looks after sleep, you're going to have insomnia. Because increased electricity is sort of when you're awake and reduced electricity is when you're asleep.
“Another part of your brain, the amygdala, an increase of electricity will create a panic attack, anxiety, and, more interestingly, that's the part of your brain with other parts that sub serves anger. When you're faced with that tiger, you want complete aggression, you actually want to be in that frame of mind.”
He has three useful tips for people who suffer from anxiety, insomnia and depression – heat, meditation and exercise.
“When you think about it, as soon as you see the tiger, the stress chemicals go up, they’re in your brain, they flood your body, and then when you run, fight, sweat, they go down. So you've completed the cycle of stress chemicals, so to speak.
“Running had been a thing for me for years, and whenever I run I sort of cope with life I think, and sometimes if you stop because other things are on your mind things spiral backwards.”
Studies show exercise also helps with depression significantly, and Dr Kanji advises doing about 30 minutes, four times a week, of rigorous workouts as a minimum.
“You’re almost invoking the stress nervous system and that's how heat works as well.
“The breathing meditation basically almost blanks the brain. So it's a time where you have no thought whatsoever, and it's almost like winding down the electricity.”
In terms of food diets that can help, Dr Kanji says smoking, alcohol and caffeine (although at a lower standard than the previous two) may aggravate these symptoms.
“This is very difficult actually for people, because generally speaking you might pick up smoking because you're feeling a bit anxious or uptight. Then you get addicted, [because] the nicotine hits your brain, releases the pleasure chemicals, and then all of a sudden you can't shake the habit.
“You might get a very quick fix, you feel a bit better for a few minutes while you're smoking. However, in the long term, it winds up your stress brain and would make you more depressed, or keep you depressed.
“Alcohol also winds up the stress brain … too much alcohol will give you a very light sleep and a disturbed sleep.
“A lot of people will have a bottle of wine after work to forget the day sometimes and think that'll help me sleep. But in fact, it'll actually do the opposite.
“I think my advice would most things as most things in moderation are fine and it's really about excesses, they're probably going to get people in trouble.”
But not everything will work for everyone who suffers from these symptoms, Dr Kanji encourages people to keep trying different approaches.
“If you don't exercise or do other habits, that’ll release the stress chemicals, they just start building up and creating problems.”