Since I started sharing my struggles with panic attacks these past few weeks on Instagram and in this new column, The Panic Diaries , I've been contacted by so many supportive people. They told me how surprising it was to read that an outwardly successful and confident woman like me could be struggling with such awful anxiety – and how refreshing it was that I was sharing it.
But why do we find it so hard to comprehend that confidence and crushing anxiety can – and often do – go hand in hand?
Many of us are programmed to think mental illness equates to failure or weakness, when in fact quite the opposite is true. Sometimes it takes every ounce of strength.
Acute anxiety can appear at the most unsuspecting of times. In my last column , I wrote about how mine had suddenly returned after 20 years. It had never truly gone away though, I’d just been able to keep it in check. So it was a shock when sitting on my best friend’s sofa and chatting away over G&Ts, I was plunged into the mother of all panic attacks. It seemed unrelated to the happy situation I was in; I was suddenly in another space entirely. The fear, the sweating, the shortness of breath was enough to make me feel that the world was ending, that I was losing all control.
Anxiety is no respecter of success
I’ve met or read about so many other outwardly successful people who have similar struggles, from CEOs of huge beauty brands to comedians, world-famous sports stars. Nicola Elliott, the founder of Neom, shared her experience of anxiety with me on my Outspoken Beauty Podcast . It became the catalyst for her to leave her corporate job and set up her now hugely successful wellbeing business.
I truly felt for Emma Raducanu during her exit from Wimbledon last year, when many people thought she had ‘bottled it’. It was later suspected that she had an anxiety attack. She revealed that she felt dizzy and struggled to breathe as the “whole experience caught up with her”. Leaving the court, with the weight of expectation on her young shoulders, was “the hardest thing in the world,” she said afterwards.
I know from experience that a battle with mental illness takes a level of guts, bravery, and strength that I never thought possible. I have huge respect for anyone who suffers with their mental health and am never surprised when another person (however successful) comes forward to tell me that they too have had a similar experience. In England alone, one in five women has anxiety, depression, or self-harms according to the Mental Health Foundation.
The medication conversation
Once you’ve opened up about mental health (and got over people’s surprise that) there’s another hurdle to contend with: the medication conversation. Tell someone that you're taking levothyroxine for your underactive thyroid, and they don't bat an eyelid. But get out your packet of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors aka SSRIs [which increase serotonin levels] and there is often an added layer of interest – and, at times, judgement. You can see it in the reaction on their faces - if you’re taking medication, they think you must be really ill.
There is still shame and misinformation that surrounds taking medication for mental health. This was proven to me the other day when a depressed family friend told me that she would never take antidepressants as she didn’t want to “walk around like a zombie” for the rest of her life. She was clearly scared of it. I told her she was wrong, that she didn’t need to worry. Plenty of people take it; it helps people like me go about their normal lives. I probably didn’t change her mind, but I felt it was important to educate her.
I get it. People like my friend worry that when you take medicine for your mental health you will somehow lose a vital piece of who you are, that you’ll somehow lose your character. I remember opening up to one person who told me, “Well, your husband will never know the real you.” I was crushed, but at the time not confident enough to correct her.
Now though to those people, I say, firstly, that this has not been my experience. Secondly, what would you rather - carry on feeling this awful or do something proactive that can change your life for the better?
My journey with meds
That’s what I did when I was 23 and struggling and admitted to the doctor that I needed help. I had suffered from panic attacks and anxiety since the age of nine. At this point in my life, there was a piece of me I was only too happy to leave behind: the part that stopped me from going on public transport because of sheer terror or flourishing in my radio presenting career.
I went on the SSRI Citalopram and for the next 20 years, I thrived on it. I was stable, everything was calm, my career blossomed.