How I learned not to panic in the thick of it: Comedy actress Rebecca Front on conquering anxiety



21:00 GMT, 18 August 2012

Back in control: Rebecca at her London home

Back in control: Rebecca at her London home

Last February, actress Rebecca Front, the BAFTA-winning star of Grandma’s House, The Thick Of It and Nighty Night, accidentally unleashed something very unBritish.

After confessing, via Twitter, that she had panic attacks – using the hashtag ‘whatstigma’ – thousands of others started revealing, many for the first time, their own mental health problems.

‘I had been watching the news and there was an item about mental health,’ she says. ‘They kept showing Nick Clegg talking about the stigma. And I was thinking how odd it is that there’s still such a stigma.

‘I sent the tweet, went out to an awards ceremony and by the time I got there, the response had become unbelievable, with mental health organisations such as Mind and Anxiety UK on the phone saying, “Can we talk to you It’s extraordinary what you’ve done.”

‘I was thinking, I didn’t do anything!’

But that day it became the most discussed topic on the website, prompting reams of commentary on blogs and in newspapers. It made Rebecca, 48, a ‘poster girl’ for phobias and panic attacks.

However, until now, she has never spoken in depth about her struggle with the claustrophobia that causes her attacks.

She recalls: ‘I was seven years old and my parents took us to Durham Cathedral. We thought we’d walk up the spiral staircase. It was a very hot, very busy summer’s day and I think they let too many people in, so we were halfway up this staircase and we got stuck.

‘I remember suddenly thinking, “I’ve got to get out of here now,” and saying that to my parents who replied, “We can’t, it’s not going to happen.” That’s when it started. A few months later, I was on the Tube with my mum when it stopped in a tunnel and it made me think, “Oh my God, this is that feeling I had before” and I suddenly associated the two – another small dark space and the thought, “I can’t get out.” ’

And so the panic attacks began. ‘The first thing I would always feel is hot,’ says Rebecca. The physical symptoms start kicking in – palpitations, shakiness, breathlessness – and a sense that she’s losing her mind.

‘You feel the symptoms and think, “Oh my God, here it comes  . . .” The problem with a panic attack is what you’re fearing, more than anything, is having a panic attack, so it becomes a cycle.’

The turmoil is mainly internal. Sufferers won’t fall over but they often describe becoming ‘unable to talk’ or ‘being rooted to the spot’. Rebecca tries to remove herself from whatever situation she is in, and find somewhere quiet to sit.

She continues: ‘It makes it worse if people say, “God, are you OK”

Brave: Despite her Twitter confession, Rebecca conceals he panic attacks from her children Oliver, 13, and 11-year-old Tilly

Brave: Despite her Twitter confession, Rebecca conceals he panic attacks from her children Oliver, 13, and 11-year-old Tilly

‘Once I was on a long-haul flight and my husband very sweetly said to the stewardess, “My wife’s anxious about flying, would it be possible to have a drink” And she was lovely, but was in my face the rest of the flight going, “Can I get you anything Is there anything we can do” and kneeling down in the aisle so everyone was looking. It was the most embarrassing thing ever.’

She even hides the attacks from her children – Oliver, 13, and Tilly, 11 – in case it rubs off on them.

Rebecca’s claustrophobia has stopped her using the Tube, trains and planes. Even going through tunnels in a car started troubling her.

She became – and remains – unable to use lifts. As an adult, the anxiety started seeping into other areas too. ‘I developed health anxiety – hypochondria,’ she says. When physical symptoms surface, the actress explains, she can assume the worst, thinking, for example, that she has cancer.

‘I wouldn’t be able to get that out of my head,’ she says. And while this didn’t always bring on a full-throttle panic attack, the anxious thoughts became ‘all-pervading’.

Seven years ago, she became aware that the anxieties were growing, affecting her day-to-day life.

Rebecca with her The Thick Of It co-star Peter Capaldi

Rebecca with her The Thick Of It co-star Peter Capaldi

‘I started avoiding things and having
more and more reasons to wake up in the night thinking, “Tomorrow’s
going to be a problem because I have to do this and this and this.”

started with thoughts such as, “I can do that live broadcast as long as
I don’t have to get the lift up to the studio,” spread into, “Actually,
I’m also not so crazy about the Tube getting to the studio.”

wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “I’ve only got two days to
go and I’ve got to be on a flight to Italy.” The anxiety starts to
define you.’

So in 2005, she sought help. Taking the advice of her GP, Rebecca embarked on 18 months 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.

One in ten of us will have a panic attack at some point and Anna Albright, a cognitive behavioural therapist, says: ‘They can happen to anyone and 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, out of context, with the stress hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and blood pressure. Most episodes last about 20 minutes and the onset is abrupt with no obvious trigger.

Attacks can also be a symptom of anxiety, a separate mental-health condition characterised by overwhelming 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 the symptoms will go. We talk about worries that might be triggering the attacks and look at ways to avoid actions that exacerbate things.’

Rebecca’s therapist tapped in to one of her talents – writing – as a way of unpicking her thought patterns: ‘He gave me homework to do, where I would have to write about why I think in an anxious way about a situation. I’d then have to write ten points about why this is irrational, using research to explain why.

‘One of the patterns we looked at was that I would get more anxious if things in the rest of my life were going well – I would start to think, “Things can’t go on like this” – and ruin it by being anxious.’

Learning to challenge these thoughts meant that gradually the treatment started working. Rebecca was able to use planes again. She also gained control of her hypochondria.

The fear that can strike 1 in 20

‘I’m much better now,’ she says. ‘With hypochondria, I can recognise the panicked thoughts and start looking at probabilities and think, “There are lots of symptoms for cancer, let’s not go there.” ’

Rebecca, who lives in London with her husband Phil Clymer, a writer and producer, and their children, has developed action plans too, so that rather than going to the doctor straight away, she’ll tell herself to wait a few days and if she still has the symptoms she can go then.Despite her general improvement, she still refuses to use the Tube or lifts. But, she explains, these last two phobias serve a function.

‘My husband says to me, “You’re scared if you let go of these anxieties you might get performance anxiety.” And I think there’s truth in that. I can go on Have I Got News For You, which many people would find terrifying, and do it pretty chilled, as long I don’t have to get the lift up to the studio.’

Does she want to get rid of all her triggers, though, and learn how to use the Tube and lifts Rebecca smiles. ‘I do,’ she says, cautiously. ‘One of the worrying aspects of anxiety is you start to think, “It’s what makes me interesting or funny.” But it’s actually boring being anxious. I would love to be able to do everything but I think it’s going to be quite hard to knock it on the head, because it’s very ingrained.’

She is, however, proud that her tweet, 18 months ago, had such an effect. ‘I totally understand why someone might not want to tell their boss, for example, that they have a mental health problem, but isn’t it awful in this day and age that it’s such a big deal Even now, I still get responses to my tweet; people are still coming out about their problems using the hashtag “whatstigma”. And that feels great.’