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'Me and my mind' - Presenter Jess Dunsdon explains her experience of anxiety

Jess Dunsdon Photo:

ITV Channel TV Presenter, Jess Dunsdon, opens up about her experience of anxiety on 'Time to Talk Day 2017' - a national initiative set up to increase awareness and understanding of mental health issues. The following article has been written by Jess...

I’ve never had much cause to consider how my brain worked. I always thought it just worked. And worked rather well. A straight A* student, music scholar, Cambridge Law graduate, first job at Sky News and news presenter by 25 - why would I have reason to doubt it? But approaching my 32nd birthday, my grey matter decided to stage a mini-revolution. For no reason, with no warning.

It was November 2013. I had just suffered quite a bad injury playing netball causing muscles in my back and pelvis to go into spasm. As a result I had a pretty hideous couple of months not sleeping well. But as soon as I started to recover, a pernicious thought entered my head… “Gosh, wasn’t it awful when you couldn’t sleep well? Urgh. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you became an insomniac? Imagine never sleeping properly ever again.” Then bang. That was it. I didn’t sleep for nearly a week. My head became a swarm of anxious thoughts and my body a rigid vessel of worry. The underlying dialogue went something like this: “If you don’t sleep well, you’ll feel terrible, and if you feel terrible you won’t do your job well, and if you don’t do your job well, you’ll lose your job and if you lose your job you’ll be a nobody, you’ll lose your house, your car, your boyfriend, you’ll have to leave the island and be destitute. Who’ll look after you then?” The more anxious I felt, the faster the thoughts raced and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t switch on the rational part of my brain. I felt like I was going insane and I imagined myself locked up in a psychiatric hospital. In reality though, I had become locked inside my head.

Jess with her father the day she graduated from Cambridge

I remember standing in a local garden centre when a woman started talking to me. I’d been staring at candles for about 15 minutes, unable to breathe and totally incapable of reading the labels. It took me a good few seconds to tune in to what she was saying. That’s when I had my first dark thought. I thought, if I was going to feel like this for the rest of my life then I don’t want a life at all. I’d think about crashing my car badly enough so that a doctor would give me a sedative just to give me some respite from my mental agony.

The next day I went to my GP who told me I had depression. This was information I couldn’t process. I wasn’t depressed. I was the very opposite of depressed. I was experiencing anxiety that was off the charts, like I was being chased by a tiger 24/7. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, I felt like I was about to explode with nervous energy. In fact it’s a real shame the term ‘nervous exhaustion’ has been decommissioned from the medical books because that’s the only thing that accurately describes my experience.

My doctor suggested he put me on an anti-depressant and sign me off for two weeks. But that just made me even more anxious. I was scared enough about losing my job, so felt I couldn’t take time off. I had no idea how long it would take to feel better and the thought of taking a pill which could ‘give me lift’ nearly sent me over the edge. He prescribed some sleeping pills, which as it turns out, didn’t work either. They knocked me out, but an hour later I was having a panic attack. The non-drug alternative, talking therapy, was at least 6 months away which is an eternity to a catatonic person who needed help immediately. I walked out of my surgery and burst into tears which clearly alarmed some poor elderly lady, who remarked ‘You always look so happy on TV’. Ha, if only she knew.

Despite all of this, I doubt any ITV Channel viewer would have had a clue anything was wrong. I don’t know how but I still managed to hold it together well enough to do my job. I told my managers about my struggle with anxiety and they cut down my reporting duties for a month or so. But I didn't want to take time off for fear of having too much time to ruminate and make myself worse. So everyday I put one foot in front of the other and kept plodding through my personal hell. And in some weird way, I think it helped. I enjoyed my job and the social contact, so continuing work was very important to me. It helped colonise a small part of my brain that still functioned.

Another huge game changer was discovering mindfulness meditation. It’s scientifically proven to work as well as drugs and physically changes the brain’s structure. You have to give it time though and commit to it everyday. It works by bringing your awareness to your breath (i.e the present moment) and teaches you to watch your thoughts and notice your feelings, label them and let them go. I signed up to some one-to-one sessions with a local teacher and then continued my practice using a mindfulness app.

It made me realise I was identifying far too much with my thoughts and feelings. Because my mind had served me so well in life, I had become very attached to it. I believed everything it told me, I reacted to everything it wanted me to do. Mindfulness has now taught me that I am separate from my mind. A bit like the sky and clouds. Some will be dark and stormy and some light and fluffy, but if you can distance yourself from them and don’t cling onto them, they will move on in their own time. You may even see glimmers of sunshine.

Those rays of light for me were things like horse-riding, reading, walking the dogs, jogging, cooking new recipes, joining a choir and playing netball. Activities that don’t put too much pressure on an already stressed mind but allow you to focus on the here and now. I realised I was stuck in an anxious state because I was obsessing over a magic cure and put huge amounts of pressure on myself to get better quickly. The truth is, there is no silver bullet. Indeed the more time you spend googling your symptoms and looking for instant treatments, the more power you give your thoughts and emotions. What you resist, persists. So if you can accept that you’ll feel terrible for a while, accept that there’s no instant cure and recognise there's no shame in it, the quicker you can pull yourself out of the quagmire. Counter-intuitive I know, but acceptance is the key.

Jess with dogs Maisie and Bella

Other things that helped me included cutting out sugar and caffeine, introducing supplements like 5-HTP and valerian, regular exercise, acupuncture, massage and seeing friends no matter how bad I felt. I also started volunteering by taking my dogs into a care home, which gave me a valuable purpose and quite frankly stopped me focussing on myself. I also cut out unnecessary stress from my life after having some talking therapy to identify my thinking patterns. I now try to say no to things, stop taking control over tasks that aren’t within my remit and I try not to compare myself to others. There’ll always be someone richer, thinner, prettier, cleverer or more powerful than you, but if you use this as your life measure, where does it end? You’ll always be striving and never really be content.

So what do I take away from my experience? Well three things really…

First, a personal insight into the provision of mental health services in the island. I was told it would be a three month wait to be referred for therapy, plus a further three months to begin treatment and that doesn't seem to have changed. A friend of mine was recently referred to a psychotherapist in the summer and is only now seeing them - that’s a six month wait! Do we make people with broken legs walk around on them for six months without treatment? If the government really is committed to parity between mental and physical health, surely more money must be invested to ensure everyone who’s in real distress can see a therapist within weeks, not six months? Is it right that we currently have a two-tier system where those with money can treat themselves immediately, and those without are forced to wait and mask their symptoms with drugs? Hardly dealing with the source of the problem is it?

Secondly, I’ve learnt that focussing on the shortcomings of the health service is too reactionary anyway. We have to address why so many islanders are getting ill in the first place. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but clearly people are under too much strain without the pressure valves to mitigate the effects. The long hours, the 24/7 contact culture, the high cost of living and the breakdown of relationships are pushing some islanders to breaking point. And the things that used to buffer stress are in ever-shorter supply - the concept of community, faith, family networks and authentic friendships where we talk about our feelings rather than what we’ve been doing. If I were a GP, I’d certainly prescribe more care and compassion in our community, and to put people before profits. But for an island whose heart beats to the sound of money, that may send some into cardiac arrest.

Finally and most importantly, I’ve learnt that this too shall pass. If there was one thing that kept me trudging along on the treadmill was the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, not even emotions. The brain has the most incredible power to heal. But getting help is the first step. And there is no shame in that. Statistics tell you one in four of us will experience clinical anxiety or depression in any given year. The World Health Organisation says depression will be the number one global health problem by 2035. It’s as common as the cold, but left untreated can be far more deadly. So if you’re reading this and know in your heart something’s not right, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to seek help. Because after all, there is no health, without mental health.