TV presenter and ChildLine ambassador Anna Williamson talks about the battle to overcome the anxiety which threatened her career, and how it inspired her to work with the children’s charity
CHILDREN’S TV presenter Anna Williamson rushes into the cafe and exudes confidence and charm as, barely pausing to draw breath, she sits down and launches into an entertaining potted history of her life.
With her long blonde hair, good looks and bubbly personality, the 31-year-old, who appears as an entertainment correspondent on ITV’s Daybreak and presents on children’s channel Nickelodeon, seems a natural performer.
But five years ago, she reveals she suffered such crippling, inexplicable panic attacks that she thought she’d have to abandon her career.
“I was with a friend when I had my first attack,” she says, recalling the moment in 2007 when she was working as a co-presenter on popular GMTV children’s shows Toonattik and Action Stations.“Without warning, a wave of cold washed over my body, my chest felt as though a weight was pressing on it and I thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die. When it was over I remember thinking, ‘I never want to feel like that again’.”
But the attacks continued, often occurring at night and preventing her from sleeping, until eventually they regularly affected her just before she was due to start daily filming.
“Having a panic attack is the most frightening and lonely feeling you can have.
“You feel so isolated as though you are the only person in the world suffering from this, and you just want to run away and be anywhere rather than the place you are in.
“You can’t focus and it’s very much like an out-of-body experience. They are absolutely debilitating and can ruin lives,” she says.
One in 10 of us will experience panic attacks at some point, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. They can be a symptom of anxiety, which is a normal response to stressful situations, but can become a problem if people begin reacting with disproportionately high levels of anxiety in ordinary situations.
The symptoms of a panic attack, which can last up to 20 minutes, can include an increased heart rate, dizziness, shaking and feeling faint, as well as feeling emotional overwhelmed.
Although the cause is unknown, it’s thought attacks are the result of the fight-or-flight response when the body is flooded with the stress hormone adrenaline ‘out of context’.
“One day I got to work, after not sleeping all night because I’d had an attack, and I just burst into tears.
“I truly thought I couldn’t cope any more. It was so difficult having a high-profile job, where all eyes are on you from your colleagues to millions of viewers, and battling a problem like that,” she says.
“My bosses were wonderfully supportive, though, and simply told me to take some time off and get whatever help I needed.”
Williamson was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder by her GP. She took a short course of medication and was referred to a consultant psychiatrist.
“I was so worried that I would lose my job. I told him I had to get back to work within three weeks - and I was,” she says.
Over 18 months she had a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of psychotherapy available on the NHS, where patients are taught to relearn fixed attitudes, thoughts or behaviour patterns in discussion with a therapist, and hypnotherapy sessions.
“Although my job can be stressful, it turned out that was not my problem, instead it probably stemmed from the fact that at that time I was in a difficult personal relationship and under a lot of emotional pressure.”
The therapy taught her how to cope with feelings of anxiety, gave her techniques for deep relaxation and helped her alter her perspective on tackling stress.
“I realised the fear of the panic attacks was causing me even more anxiety and making the panic attacks more likely,” says Williamson, who lives in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
“Once you recognise the attacks for what they are, and realise they are not going to kill you, the fear of them can start to subside, the attacks lessen, and with treatment the whole horrible vicious cycle can stop.”
She’s fully recovered and hopes that by being open about the problem she will help others and raise awareness of something which is suffered by millions but is highly treatable.
“I want to remove the taboo about talking about this and help people realise they are not going mad and aren’t weird if they suffer from this,” she says.
“I’m now aware of what could potentially make me vulnerable to anxiety and I immediately take avoiding action, just as people do if they are prone to migraines.
“It can be as simple as taking a 15-minute break, or perhaps rejigging a few commitments, or ensuring I just get some early nights.
“I just slightly lighten the pressure I put on myself and then I’m back on track.”
Experiencing that episode of vulnerability and benefiting from talking therapy inspired her to help troubled youngsters by listening to their problems.
She took a year’s diploma course in counselling in 2009 and then underwent a training course at ChildLine, where she now works once a week as a volunteer counsellor and for whom she is also an ambassador.
“I realise how powerful talking therapy can be. It sounds dramatic but it saved my career and afterwards I was determined to give something back.
“I care so much about children and I wanted to help those who need someone to listen to their problems and provide support and advice,” she says.
“It can be very tough emotionally and there are some stories that have brought me to tears. You hear a whole range of problems from sexual abuse through to bullying, parental or friendship problems, self harm, or just general adolescent difficulties.”
It’s a world away from the glamour of showbusiness, reporting from the red carpet and talking to A-list stars as an entertainment columnist for Digital Spy.
“Working on TV is fun and glitzy and I absolutely love every minute of it, but also I’m aware that in the audience there are young people who are suffering or going through their own turmoil,” she says.
“It’s incredibly fulfilling to offer an ear to a youngster and feel that you may have helped make their life a little more bearable or helped connect them with an agency who can support them and potentially change their life for the better.”
:: INFORMATION: Anna Williamson is a ChildLine counsellor and key spokesperson. You can contact ChildLine on 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk