Panic attacks almost ended my TV career, says Daybreak's Anna Williamson
00:10 GMT, 25 March 2012
Stressful time: Anna says the attacks left her rooted to the spot
Few would accuse Anna Williamson, showbusiness reporter for ITV’s Daybreak, of a lack of confidence.
As well known for her long blonde hair and short skirts as for her insider gossip, she exudes the self-assurance of someone who has spent more than half of her 30 years in front of a camera.
Yet five years ago, she feared her career may be over due to crippling, inexplicable panic attacks – something that one in ten of us will experience at some point, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
For Anna, they became so unbearable that her doctor prescribed the anti-anxiety medicine Xanax, and later she underwent cognitive behavioural therapy to conquer her problem.
Now free of the attacks and wanting to help others facing mental-health problems, Anna took an Open University course in counselling and volunteers for children’s charity ChildLine.
Recalling her first episode in 2007 while she was working for GMTV, Anna, who lives in North London, says: ‘I was under a lot of emotional stress and I couldn’t sleep. I was in a controlling relationship which made me feel isolated from my friends and family. And as much as I loved my job, it was a pressurised work environment.
‘I was having tea at a friend’s house when, without warning, a wave of cold washed over my body. My chest felt tight, as if a huge weight was pressing on it. I thought I was having a heart attack and I was going to die. When it passed, I remember thinking, “I never ever want to feel like that again.” ’
Yet she did. Each time, seemingly without cause, Anna would find herself rooted to the spot as the familiar feeling of panic rushed through her.
‘My heart raced and my hands would be clammy. I’d gasp for breath,’ she says. ‘Mostly they happened at night. I’d be in bed and my mind would race with lists of what I had to do. Then I’d get worried that I was still awake. I’d be thinking “Please don’t have another panic attack” and I’d work myself up into a such a ball of anxiety that I would end up having another attack.’
Anna’s anxiety eventually led to her suffering attacks every day. She says: ‘I wasn’t sleeping or eating and I felt consumed with stress.
‘The worst attacks happened when I was about to start filming. I spent a lot of time hiding in the bathroom saying, “Come on, you can do this.”
‘The breaking point came when I went into GMTV one day. I hadn’t slept all night. A colleague asked if I was OK and I just burst into tears and thought, “That’s it, I’m done. I can’t cope any more.” I was ushered out of the building, put in a taxi and told to get whatever help I needed.’
Anna before her days at Daybreak, as a presenter on Scary Sleepover
Initially Anna saw her GP, who diagnosed an anxiety disorder and prescribed a short course of Xanax. Anna was also referred to a consultant psychiatrist, and she says: ‘I was petrified that I’d lose my job so I told the psychiatrist I wanted to get back to work within three weeks.’
Anna started a twice-weekly course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy available on the NHS. Sessions help patients ‘relearn’ fixed attitudes, thoughts or behaviour patterns that are problematic, in discussion with a therapist.
Anna Albright, a cognitive behavioural therapist, says: ‘Panic attacks can happen to anyone and they are usually straightforward to treat.’
Although it’s not known why some people suffer, experts believe attacks are the result of a ‘fight or flight’ response when the body is flooded with the stress hormone adrenaline ‘out of context’.
Adrenaline increases the heart rate and blood pressure. Most episodes last about 20 minutes and the onset is abrupt with no obvious trigger. They can also be a symptom of anxiety, a mental-health condition characterised by irrational, overwhelming feelings of tension, uncertainty and fear.
‘As an attack begins, sufferers start to hyperventilate, breathing faster and more deeply,’ says Albright. ‘This can bring about light-headedness, numbness, dizziness and chest pains as the brain is starved of carbon dioxide.
‘We teach patients to tell themselves they are safe, that this has happened before and the symptoms will go. We talk about worries that might be triggering the attacks and look at ways to avoid actions that exacerbate things.’
Anna says CBT helped her to think about things in a positive way and saw improvements almost immediately.
She started to feel less stressed at work by speaking up more and saying how she felt about certain situations.
CBT is seen as a problem-solving therapy and can help people in a relatively short period of time. After three weeks Anna’s panic attacks subsided, and she continued with weekly counselling sessions, which included elements of CBT, for six months.
She says: ‘I know how to cope with it. It’s not going to kill me. I try not to get stressed and I feel positive in general.’
lYou can talk confidentially to ChildLine at childline.org.uk or by calling 0800 1111.