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A tightness in the chest, a cold creeping rush enveloping the body, sweaty palms, palpitations, a racing heart. A feeling like one is dying. These are the symptoms of a panic attack.
TV presenter Anna Williamson is known as the bright and bubbly face of the ITV children’s show, Toonattik, and entertainment reporter on Daybreak. Yet, five years ago behind the “smiley” façade, Anna was suffering.
“It’s like you’re having a heart attack,” says Anna describing her panic attacks. “I didn’t identify what was happening to me, I just remember feeling so desperately unhappy and I didn’t know why.”
It was the most desolate, lonely time of her life. Anna knew she was fortunate to have a “fantastic” job and was also surrounded by close friends and family. So why did she feel like her life was “imploding”?
Away from the cameras she was troubled in her private life and embarrassed to admit to those close to her she wasn’t coping. Anna put pressure on herself to feel happier. The panic attacks worsened.
“Like a rabbit in the headlights you want to be anywhere else than where you are,” Anna says.
“It was so awful that I feared having a panic attack again. The fear of a panic attack created a panic attack. So I got locked in a cycle, where I thought: ‘I never want to feel like that again.’”
About 1 in 10 people will have severe anxiety or phobias at some point in their lives. However, most people with these problems never ask for treatment, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
‘Life changing’ therapy
Defeated, Anna took time off work, and despite the stigma, sought therapy. She felt the “tight elastic band” of emotions inside her start to unwind.
“I found counselling absolutely life changing.”
Tears came as the therapist asked questions that allowed Anna to pinpoint what was bothering her.
“It was so liberating. I remember walking out of that office an hour and half later knowing that I was going to be ok, because I had found someone who understands me,” Anna says.
Two sessions a week of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for three weeks helped Anna get back to work. CBT, which is available on the NHS, is a talking therapy that helps people to recognise and change habitual thinking patterns causing anxiety.
Every session was “more about self-discovery, more unburdening and unravelling of things that were going on in my head.”
Anna worked through the jumbled mess in her mind, filing it away with the help of CBT and, combined with anti-anxiety medication, felt better and better about herself. She also found a deep sense of relaxation using self-hypnosis.
Anna became a huge advocate of talking therapies and trained as a counsellor. She regularly volunteers taking calls from children on the free helpline Childline.
Online peer support
Recently, Anna is supporting another cause close to her heart: Elefriends.org.uk, a newly relaunched mental health online peer support platform.
“Anybody, you, me, can go on and just talk. It’s for like-minded people who are, perhaps, having a bad day,” says Anna, who explains that with the option to be anonymous, the forum is a safe place to share feelings and opinions about mental health problems.
“Maybe you can identify with someone,” Anna says.
Started on Facebook, Elefriends outgrew the limit of 5,000 friends. Mind, the mental health charity, secured Social Action Funding allowing Elefriends to expand to an unlimited platform. Thousands more people can now access the popular support network.
More than four out of five people feel that talking about their mental health problems helps, according to Mind.
President of Mind and the voice of the Elephant animations used on Elefriends, Stephen Fry said in a statement: “If you have a mental health problem, talking to someone who’s had a similar experience can be an absolute lifeline.”
Twenty per cent of people have to wait more than a year for talking therapies on the NHS. A Mind survey revealed that almost four out of five people who have accessed on- or offline peer support networks have found at least one kind of peer support effective.
One forum user, Sam, 31, who suffered depression for more than ten years, was signed off work for two months following bereavement, his mother being ill and a difficult time at work. A former colleague recommended he join Elefriends.
“No one will naively tell you to ‘get over it’ or be patronisingly over-concerned. You get empathy rather than sympathy and the support is mutual, which can help give you perspective and explore new ways of managing your mental health,” said Sam in a statement.
Another member, Katie, 31, has battled over the years with depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsions and self-harm. She wanted to use her experiences to help others, but found to her surprise that she got so much more support back from the community itself.
People may be concerned: Will they be employable if they speak out about their mental health problems?
For Anna, through confronting her demons, and going public has only helped her career.
“I’ve had more work since I’ve got to know myself better and corrected any errors in myself and I’m a much better TV presenter as a result of it,”
Anna hopes her story can inspire others.
“If one person identifies with my story, and takes heart and comfort in that, that’s the right reason for me to speak out about it.”