THE CON­FI­DENCE GAP

How ac­cep­tance and com­mit­ment ther­apy “saved a life”.

North & South - - Cover Story -

When Min­istry of Jus­tice stenog­ra­pher Matt Hamilton had his first panic at­tack at the age of 26, his fi­ancée called 111 for an am­bu­lance.

“I woke my­self up. It was just un­bri­dled fear… of noth­ing. I was just in­tensely afraid. I felt su­per-light­headed. I was so weak that I couldn’t stand. The adrenalin was just drop­ping out of my body. Heart pump­ing, sweat­ing, every­thing.”

His anx­i­ety dis­or­der has af­fected his life since he was about 13, although he be­came fully aware of it only in his 20s. “I used to be quite outspoken and not shy – ex­tro­verted even – and I just re­mem­ber slowly clos­ing up. I be­came very re­served, ex­tremely shy. I put my­self down as an in­tro­vert and thought I would never change, but a lot of it was just anx­i­ety.”

Even­tu­ally, he would do every­thing in his power to stay in “my lit­tle bub­ble”, shut­ting him­self off from friends and fam­ily. He rarely went out and, when he did, was the first to leave.

That panic at­tack led to a deep de­pres­sion and the first of sev­eral break­downs. He be­lieves it may have been partly trig­gered by the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of his first job – un­til then he’d been work­ing from home be­cause “I couldn’t func­tion in the real world. I was crip­plingly shy. I taught my­self up to that point to just avoid every­thing that made me feel that way.”

In the weeks that fol­lowed the at­tack, “every­thing ba­si­cally shut down. I didn’t un­der­stand what was go­ing on and I thought some­thing was se­ri­ously wrong with me, even though the hos­pi­tal said I was fine. I wasn’t eat­ing, I wasn’t sleep­ing. I was afraid to sleep be­cause that’s when it hap­pened. Ev­ery wak­ing hour, I was cry­ing. I was con­vinced I had ei­ther an aneurysm or a brain tu­mour – the anx­i­ety is just so il­log­i­cal it jumps to the worst-case sce­nario pos­si­ble.”

His first ef­forts to get help weren’t too suc­cess­ful, with a GP es­sen­tially telling him, “Here, take these pills, you’ve got a good life; don’t dwell on the bad stuff.”

Even­tu­ally di­ag­nosed with a

“Ev­ery wak­ing hour, I was cry­ing. I was con­vinced I had ei­ther an aneurysm or a brain tu­mour – the anx­i­ety is just so il­log­i­cal.”

gen­er­alised anx­i­ety dis­or­der and re­ferred to pub­lic men­tal health ser­vices, he found the coun­selling un­der-re­sourced, with time lim­ited and the ses­sions of cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy not par­tic­u­larly use­ful. “I didn’t re­ally gel with CBT; I had a hard time chal­leng­ing my thoughts.”

He says a psy­chol­o­gist he con­sulted pri­vately who used ac­cep­tance and com­mit­ment ther­apy – ac­cept­ing in­stead of chal­leng­ing the anx­ious thoughts and re­al­is­ing “they hadn’t killed me yet” – saved his life.

“It wasn’t easy by any means, but even­tu­ally it be­came easy. My mind de­cided that be­cause I’m safe in it and noth­ing is hap­pen­ing, it can’t be that bad. I ba­si­cally just faced it.”

At 34, Hamilton says his fi­ancée is now his wife and he is still work­ing for the Min­istry of Jus­tice in Auck­land, where his bosses have al­ways been un­der­stand­ing, al­low­ing him to take time off to man­age his men­tal health is­sues. He re­mains on anti- de­pres­sants but is com­ing off his anti-anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion.

He says his em­ploy­ers’ at­ti­tude is more of­ten mir­rored in the com­mu­nity now, when a decade ago, it was not. “All I’d say is, ask for help. Ask ev­ery­one be­cause you’d be sur­prised at how many peo­ple are em­pa­thetic.”

“All I’d say is, ask for help. Ask ev­ery­one, be­cause you’d be sur­prised at how many peo­ple are em­pa­thetic.”

Matt Hamil­ton had his first panic at­tack at the age of 26.

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