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TV host Anna Williamson on her controlling relationship and panic attacks

When TV Presenter Anna Williamson, 42, from Hertfordshire, woke up struggling to breathe and desperate to run away, she worried she was losing her mind – until she was diagnosed with a panic disorder. To mark Mind’s tenth Time to Talk Day, she shares her story.

Anna Williamson had an anxiety disorder for 17 years but has learnt effective ways to manage it. (James Rudland)
Anna Williamson had an anxiety disorder for 17 years but has learnt effective ways to manage it. (James Rudland)

I was in Tesco, browsing the aisles and trying to decide what to buy for dinner, when a familiar, awful feeling came over me. My mind started racing, I felt hot and cold, and I had an urgent need to escape. I’d only been trying to make a simple decision, but the anxiety of it had sent me spiralling.

Putting my shopping down where I stood and running from the supermarket, struggling to breathe, I knew I needed help. This wasn’t the first time I’d had a panic attack, and my mental health was shot to pieces. It was time to find out what on earth was happening to me.

The first time I’d experienced that same terrible feeling, I was 25 and working away from home for Toonatik, the children’s TV show I presented, when I woke from a deep sleep at 3am, gasping for breath. It felt like someone had reached into my chest with a clawed hand and was gripping it with their fists, squeezing it harder and harder.

My heart pounding, I felt an intense urge to run, so I leapt out of bed and went outside. It was one of the worst moments of my life – a feeling of overwhelming panic that was almost too much to bear. When the feeling eventually subsided, I went back inside the house and phoned my brother. He told me it sounded like I’d experienced a panic attack and helped to calm me down.

Waking through the night

I knew I’d do anything to avoid experiencing that feeling again. But unfortunately, I didn’t have any choice, and over the next five months, I started to feel like I was losing my mind.

Almost every night, even when I was at home in my own flat in London, I’d wake up the same way – feeling trapped, panicking, and struggling to breathe. It was completely exhausting, both physically and mentally, and I began spending every day like a rabbit in the headlights, trying desperately to avoid another attack. I was living in a sort of hell, my every move dictated by fear.

I began spending every day like a rabbit in the headlights, trying desperately to avoid another attack.

Back in 2006, no one talked about mental health, and it was still steeped in stigma, so I didn’t feel I could talk to my friends or colleagues about what was happening to me. I did confide in my family, though – and my mum, who worked at a private hospital, knew of a consultant psychiatrist who she thought might be able to help me.

Anna Williamson says her diagnosis came as a big relief and enabled her to get the help she needed. (James Rudland)
Anna Williamson says her diagnosis came as a big relief and enabled her to get the help she needed. (James Rudland)

Exploring the triggers

Relieved that at last, I might get some answers, I made an appointment. As the doctor tried to find out what had triggered my anxiety, I found myself telling him things I’d never talked about before. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to tell a complete stranger about what's going on in your life, because you don't have to worry about feeling judged, or protecting other people’s emotions.

I told him that for the previous nine months, I’d been in a psychologically controlling relationship. My boyfriend would tell me what to wear, and insult me if I didn’t do what he wanted me to, and if I decided to go out and see my friends and family, he’d insinuate that I didn't love him enough.

It’s a classic trick of someone who is controlling – they pull you away from everything you know and love, until they have you exactly where they want you.

It’s a classic trick of someone who is controlling – they pull you away from everything you know and love, until they have you exactly where they want you. But although, deep down, I knew I could never appease him, it had become easier to do what he wanted than to argue.

Receiving treatment

When I’d finished my story, the doctor said, "You've had a mental breakdown – and no wonder, when you're going through all that stress. Nobody could keep functioning like that."

Although a lot of people don't like to be labelled, when I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder, I was so relieved. For a doctor to tell me I was ill, and that there was something that could be done about it, was enormously cathartic. I just thought, 'Thank God.' Suddenly, I wasn’t on my own with this terrible thing.

I was so relieved to get my diagnosis. For a doctor to tell me I was ill, and that there was something that could be done about it, was enormously cathartic.

I hadn’t slept properly for weeks, so I was put on a short-term course of benzodiazepine to help me get to sleep, and on SSRIs – a type of antidepressant. I had therapy with the psychiatrist twice a week for six weeks, including regression therapy, which explained what had triggered my panic attacks.

After her diagnosis, Anna Williamson went on to study psychotherapy and write books on mental health. (James Rudland)
After her diagnosis, Anna Williamson went on to study psychotherapy and write books on mental health. (James Rudland)

Unlocking the past

I remembered that when I was eight years old, I’d had a swimming lesson and become trapped under one of the floating foam mats the teachers had put in the pool for us to play with. I wasn’t a strong swimmer, and I panicked, terrified, pressing my hands against the mat and desperately trying to find the edge so I could escape.

Speaking to someone about what I’d been going through was a huge turning point.

When I finally managed to pull myself out of the water, the swimming teacher thought I’d been messing around and told me off, which only made me feel worse. During therapy, I was taken straight back to that traumatic moment, which until then I’d forgotten all about. It was such an eye-opener – it explained why I had such an overwhelming fear of being trapped and why, trapped in a relationship with a controlling man, my mind and body had activated the same panic response.

Speaking to someone about what I’d been going through was a huge turning point. Alongside having therapy and taking medication, I told my parents what had been going on, moved in with them, and ended my relationship, which played a huge part in my recovery.

Creating a new life

I began to rebuild myself, learning about who I was and who I wasn’t, and strategies around how to set boundaries and compartmentalise my time. Despite having gone through such an awful time, several weeks later I wasn’t just back to my best: my life had become even brighter than before.

Despite having gone through such an awful time, several weeks later I wasn’t just back to my best: my life had become even brighter than before.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve gone on to train and study in psychotherapy, written books including Breaking Mad: The Insider's Guide To Conquering Anxiety and am a proud ambassador for the mental health charity Mind.

I still have times when I feel those familiar fingers of anxiety and panic creeping up my spine – especially when I’m in an enclosed space, like a train or plane. But I recognise that by avoiding those things, it’s only going to limit me, so I try to face up to them.

Anna Williamson has learnt to 'accept' panic attacks, rather than try to fight them. (Supplied)
Anna Williamson has learnt to 'accept' panic attacks, rather than try to fight them. (Supplied)

Learning coping strategies

I’ve learnt breathing and distraction techniques, how to stop catastrophising, and to congratulate myself when I get through a difficult situation. I’ve also learnt that the more you try to push a panic attack away, the more it's going to fight back and go, 'Nope, I'm doing this.' It’s like a petulant toddler. But if you think, 'Alright then, go ahead,' and let it happen, it won’t be quite as bad as you feared.

I’m a big believer that a problem shared is a problem halved, so check in with your friends and family, ask how they’re doing, and tell them what's going on with you.

On 1 February, it’s Mind’s tenth Time to Talk Day, and the charity’s latest research shows that almost two-thirds of people are putting on a brave face when it comes to being open about their mental health. I understand that – there's a lot going on for everyone right now, and we don't want to burden other people. But here's the thing: you're not alone, and it's not about burdening people: it's about sharing with them.

This Time to Talk Day, I'm really encouraging people to talk. I’m a big believer that a problem shared is a problem halved, so check in with your friends and family, ask how they’re doing, and tell them what's going on with you. If you need it, you can also head to Mind.org.uk for support – they have so many fantastic resources.

There’s nothing to be ashamed about if you’re struggling. We all have mental and physical health, either of which can be rocked at any time, so it’s all about accepting that sometimes, you might have a bit of a blip – and that’s perfectly OK.