We’ve all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives. That moment before an exam or a big presentation when butterflies start to creep into your tummy, your mouth gets a little dry and you feel like you would much rather disappear than face the task at hand.
However, in the UK, one in 10 of us will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in our lives – that’s eight million people.
In these cases, people struggle to control their worries and the anxiety can affect their everyday lives.
Professor Chris Williams, clinical advisor for Anxiety UK, said: “Anxiety is a normal reaction we all have to threat.
“It is designed to help us survive and respond quickly to urgent threats. At times, it can be helpful and life-saving when, for example, crossing a road and hearing a car sound its horn at us.
“However if the anxiety is triggered at times when it’s not needed, it can become an anxiety disorder.”
For some, they have been living with anxiety their whole lives and not realised. It’s only now that mental health is being spoken about openly that many adults are seeking help.
Professor Williams said: “Anxiety has always been around, but health professionals are now more aware of its presence and the impact it has on people. People are also more aware of what is happening to them, and looking for help.”
He added: “Many people have a life-long tendency to have a somewhat anxious or avoidant personality. We might see that right back in our early days, in toddler groups, or on the first day at school.
“Some children immediately run in and start playing. Others remain on the edge and watch. Being watchful is a good thing, but can become an issue when it is excessive and leads to the person becoming distressed by it later in life.”
For comedian Gavin Oattes, it took having a nervous breakdown before he admitted he had a problem.
Last week, he launched his first solo book, Life Will See You Now, which tells the story of how he performed his way through a nervous breakdown, after a lifetime of issues with anxiety.
“I have spent the last 20 years in front of audiences, but behind the scenes, having battles with anxieties,” the 40-year-old said. “But nobody knew. I performed my way through it.
“As a kid, I was the biggest worrier on the planet. And as a teen, it destroyed my confidence in so many ways.”
Gavin, who grew up in Troon, added: “I remember volunteering for a part in the school panto in primary one, but changing my mind as soon as I thought about getting up on stage, then running to the toilet and sobbing.
“And watching a news report about the Lockerbie bombing, and being terrified to get on a plane after that. I would spend weeks making myself ill with worry before a family holiday abroad. It stayed with me on and off throughout my life. I spent my years as a kid in my room writing comedy sketches and watching Reeves and Mortimer, desperately hoping for a career as a comedian. But I was too terrified. If I had to stand up in front of the class at school, my face went bright red.”
It was only when at university, training to be a primary school teacher, that Gavin, who lives in Edinburgh, discovered he had a confident streak.
“I figured if I could stand up in front of a class of 30 kids and entertain them all day, I could do the same with an audience in a comedy club for 15 minutes.”
He went on to perform all over the UK and in Australia. However, in 2018, dad-of-two Gavin’s anxieties got the better of him. “I still don’t know what caused it. I was working a good job, had a loving family and was happy. I was having a busy year and the best life on paper,” he said.
“However, behind the scenes I was really struggling. I felt incredibly lonely and scared. It started off with butterflies, but unlike when you are just nervous, they physically hurt. For about five months, I didn’t sleep for more than 20 or 30 minutes a night.”
Gavin didn’t seek professional help, instead he sought support from the few people who knew about his anxiety, and worked through it himself. “But it certainly helped to talk about it – and really realise that it’s okay not to be okay,” he said.
The best treatments for anxiety, professor Williams said, are ones we can do ourselves. “Slow down, pay attention to a good sleep routine, watch caffeine drinks, eat healthily and do some exercise. For more serious anxiety, I would recommend speaking to your GP.”
Life Will See You Now, by Gavin Oattes and published by Capstone, is out now. For more info visit anxietyuk.org.uk
Outside I looked okay but inside I felt very deep sense of shame
By Bill Gibb
As a child, Juliette Mullen remembers hiding under the bed to avoid the rows she could hear raging between her parents.
Although she couldn’t put it into words at the time, she was suffering from anxiety. What started in childhood went on to plague much of her adult life. Like many sufferers Juliette used comfort shopping as a crutch and she spiralled into £38,000 debt.
Having wed at 22, Juliette saw her marriage crumble before the age of 30 and the future looked too bleak to face as her anxiety spiralled out of control.
“I tried to make myself feel better by online shopping and I just didn’t earn enough to support that lifestyle,” said Juliette, 39. “You think that this coat is going to make you feel fabulous or that handbag will make you feel great.
“It’s all short term and you move on to the next thing, a hairdo, make-up, whatever.
“It really is comfort shopping. I had suicidal thoughts and that’s when I took the overdose.”
Juliette, from Carluke, admits it was a massive wake-up call but she still faced major issues.
A second marriage collapsed, she lost her dad at the age of just 57 and she faced weeks of treatment at the Priory Hospital in Glasgow. “The doctor diagnosed anxiety but I didn’t feel the medication was working and I didn’t want to try group psychology sessions.
“I didn’t want everybody knowing my business. You feel vulnerable and I felt a deep shame.” It was a secret Juliette managed to hide from the world, including colleagues at her high-powered job. “If you’d looked at me from the outside you would never have known what was going on. I’d go to work wearing nice clothes and with my make-up done.
“People would see what looked like a nice family life on Facebook and Instagram. No one saw the depths of the anxiety I was facing and how I’d drive to the shopping centre and be unable to get out of the car because I was having panic attacks.”
Juliette turned to studying life coaching, neuro-linguistic programming and more to help her deal with her anxiety. And it proved invaluable in the long and stressful recovery from a near-death medical emergency.
Juliette fell pregnant for the second time but had a difficult pregnancy and then a traumatic birth, which saw both her bladder and womb rupture. She needed life-saving surgery within minutes of her daughter being born. Fully recovered and with Willow Rose, now one, a healthy baby sister to seven-year-old Annabel, Juliette has put her training and experience to good use.
She set up life and business coaching company ClearQuartz Clarity (clearquartzclarity.com) to help others with anxiety.
“All my clients say they chose me because I came through it and I know how to come out the other side.”