THE CONFIDENCE GAP
How acceptance and commitment therapy “saved a life”.
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.