Our founder Brendan caught up with sleep therapist and expert Heather Darwall-Smith, talking WFH life, wellness journeys, switching careers and sleep habits. We’re thrilled to welcome Heather to our panel of a+ Experts – friends of anatomē who have come on board to further support your wellbeing journey.
Heather didn’t always work in sleep therapy – once upon a time, she was an art director in London and Sydney, working with startups from her own design and marketing business. While pregnant, Heather attended a two-week yoga retreat in Portugal that changed her life. She noticed that this retreat and others similar attracted people searching for purpose, for answers, for well-being. This experience inspired her to retrain as a psychotherapist, a need she identified within this community of wellness chasers.
How did you become a professional in sleep, and what was your journey?
At the start, I was a body-focused, mindfulness focused psychotherapist and training in massage therapy. I really wanted to understand the body from the bottom up, not necessarily from the cognitive process, but coming up from the limbic system as to how we respond to how we feel.
In my work with psychotherapy and stress management, I noticed a common problem coming up over and over again in clients: sleep. From a psychotherapy perspective, I found it really interesting because sleep is the ultimate in letting go. So, my work started to diverge in the direction of sleep. Initially, I was always going to be very trauma and addiction-focused. But sleep issues just kept pulling me in because it is fascinating. The more we try and control it, the harder it gets.
What’s your sleep routine like?
We are basically a lot of clocks, so I’m very routine-based, and it’s a very consistent sleep, wake time. The room is always very dark. But as someone who works with sleep, I’m appalled to say that it’s not something I ever think about. I believe in not focusing on it. The more you focus on sleep, the harder it gets, and the number of people who will come in and say, ‘I’m trying really hard to sleep,’ that immediately makes it harder.
Being a therapist, how do you actually support your own mental health and wellbeing?
One of the things that I adore, and really benefits my mental health, is noticing that everything changes. It’s never the same. For me, part of meditation practice is very much noticing change. Being outside is the key for me, and I have a movement meditation practice when I’m running. I’m very interested in breathwork as to how the body changes while I’m running. You might get up and get out and think, ‘oh, gosh, this feels awful today,’ but by really focusing inwards on the breath, you’ll notice what changes in the body because the body is going to just do what it’s going to do. The environment is going to do what it’s going to do. I can talk myself out of a run. I can talk myself into a run.
What’s your morning routine like?
Green tea, fresh bread and fruit and a morning jog when the morning light is at its best.
When do you feel most energised?
I tend to really wake up in the evening. I'm a bit of a night owl, so I tend to have quite a lot of energy between seven and nine.
How do you relax and destress?
Running, reading, music, being with my family. We did our garden up last year, so being outside, putting all the technology away, and just hanging out.
Coming out of lockdown, where are you desperate to visit that you haven't been to in recent times that you find inspiring and wonderful?
Skiing in Austria and a trip to New Hampshire and Boston to see family and one of our nieces we haven’t met due to the pandemic. I am currently booking a trip to The Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi in the far north of Sweden.
Within the UK, I am looking forward to a trip to Hay Bluff, in the Black Mountains in Wales, Alfriston and the surrounding area in Sussex and a half marathon on the coast of North Devon.
Who or what inspires you?
Dr Gabor Maté, psychotherapist Irving Yalom, vegan runner Fiona Oakes and the older couple who ran the yoga retreat in Portugal. I’m also inspired by some of the Buddhist teachings. I try to take a mindful approach. One of the things I would say that has specifically changed me through my training is the ability to look outside of myself and the interconnectivity of all that we are.
What have you read recently?
- Chatter by Ethan Cross
- The Nocturnal Brain by Guy Leschziner
- The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
- The Enlightened Spaniel - A Dog's Quest to be a Buddhist by Gary Heads and Toby Ward
- Educated by Tara Westover
- Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
So if you were giving others tips or mottos, how do you find and write your own life's philosophy?
There’s a poem by a Greco-Roman philosopher called Pliny the Elder, and he talks about when things are good and when things are bad:
When things are bad, remember:
It won’t always be this way.
Take one day at a time.
When things are good, remember:
It won’t always be this way.
Enjoy every great moment.
So I really focus and ask people to focus on when things are good to really feel it, to really be it. So if you are out in a field, just stop and feel what it’s like to be in that field – what can you smell, what can you see? Really let it permeate you because we need to take on the good things. It’s like nourishment. But being able to sit in it is so important because we rush through things so much. So I’m very pro-slow down, slow down and breathe. So that’s always what I’m working on—slowing down.