Anna is as bright and effervescent in person as she seems on the National Lottery, which she presents, but the TV presenter is also a professional therapist and behind the big smile is a woman who not only empathises with mental health problems, but also wants to break down the barriers around discussing it.
Released in February this year, her book Breaking Mad: The Insider’s Guide to Conquering Anxiety is designed to be accessible for everyone, and clearly she’s doing something right because it flew to become Amazon best seller on the first day of release. “It’s a handy book written in ‘real speak’,” she says: “there’s no professional jargon, it’s really for everybody and it’s the book I wish I had read when I was suffering from anxiety.”
In addition to recounting personal experiences and empathy however, the book contains Anna’s professional tips for helping to cope with and conquer everyday anxieties: “I want it to offer peace and comfort for everyone experiencing anxiety; it’s a totally normal thing, we all get it and the book is there to help normalise a common condition.”
The book comes at a time where we’re all grateful that the conversation around mental health appears to be increasing. The stigma that has been so long felt is being fought against, and Anna herself has been a longstanding supporter of the mental health movement that aims to make it less scary to talk about, even though it can be very scary to experience.
‘welcome to the club – it’s the weirdest club in the world but we’re all members!’
“We can all suffer varying degrees of mental health problems. We all have mental health but while we all take care of our physical health we don’t put the same time and energy into looking after our mental health. If you don’t look after it, you are much more likely to have a blip,” she says: “I am a big fan of early intervention – if you can work out why you’re feeling a certain way, you can do something about it before it goes into the realms of self medicating with alcohol or drugs or whatever else.”
“I’m passionate that we have got to stop judging and being scared of something that can happen to anybody,” says Anna: “without a doubt it’s because of all these campaigns that we are starting to wise up. I also think that a lot of the elements of modern life contribute to mental health problems; social media for example can be a wonderful thing, but it can also invite so many insecurities. I chose a controversial title for my book because I wanted to drop a bit of a bomb in the destigmatisation of mental health and use words that people usually shy away from.”
Anna’s book doesn’t just theorise about mental health and long term solutions, she looks at advice for when you’re in the middle of a panic attack. So without giving too much away, what does Anna recommend? Number one on her list of tips is to talk: “talking is so important; based on personal experience, not once has it backfired. If I had a penny for every person who has said ‘oh my god that’s me!’ when I shared something of my own. We’re all anxious about talking because it can be scary and mental health is deeply personal. We get scared of judgement but I have reached a point where I don’t care anymore because any judgement says more about them than it does about me, and not once by talking have I been met by anybody saying anything other than ‘me too.’
This is one of the lovely things about Anna – her own candid attitude towards sharing her experiences. After she had her baby last year she talked about having postnatal anxiety and had wonderfully warm feedback: “I have an NCT group on WhatsApp and early on after we had our babies one of the girls messaged saying: ‘is anyone else find this a bit boring?’ – and it was like the floodgates opened – it was brilliant because it normalised the feelings we all empathised with. We are all healthy happy, functioning mothers because we’re honest, we’re not hiding behind a facade. I truly believe that has helped us all.”
“Not once by talking have I been met by anybody saying anything other than ‘me too.’”
She also advocates breathing, which sounds a bit obvious, but stay with us: “when we’re anxious we forget how to breathe properly,” says Anna, adding: “it sounds so simple, but it’s effective. All actors and speakers will breathe slowly and properly because it calms us down. Try the 7-11 technique where you breathe in through the nose for the count of seven and then out through the mouth for 11 seconds to reduce adrenaline.”
Crucially, Anna does not purport to have a quick fix or a permanent solution for mental health problems: “it’s not a question of being cured,” she says: “if you think like that you just place even more pressure on yourself and if the problem comes back it feels like you’ve failed. The important thing is that you get back on the horse and what’s done before isn’t wasted. Life happens. Your mental wellbeing is the biggest thing that drives you everyday and it stands to reason it will be challenged at times. I manage anxiety well, but I am human. I documented having a panic attack on the Tube the other day, and when I had my son I was walloped with postnatal anxiety. If we take the pressure off and learn management techniques, we can learn it’s ok to just ‘be’. Don’t measure yourself.”
It appears there’s definitely a market for Anna’s book because the sales and feedback have been phenomenal: “at the risk of willy waving, the most overwhelming reaction was going to Amazon best seller on the first day of release. It showed me how needed this book was and how common these issues are for people. I think it speaks volumes how many people wanted it. I get so many emails from people saying they read it, and for me it’s lovely to know people are happy to talk about their mental health and feel empowered. It’s like, ‘welcome to the club – it’s the weirdest club in the world but we’re all members!’