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Nadiya Hussain reveals reality of living with debilitating panic attacks

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Helen Bownass
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Nadiya Hussain on anxiety - Stylist cover star

Nadiya Hussain has had a phenomenally successful three years, but unbeknownst to most, she’s also been living with panic disorder. Now, she’s ready to open up about her anxiety.     

“It feels like you’re going to die. Your airways close up. Your head spins. You collapse. Imagine not being able to take a breath freely. It’s so scary.”

Nadiya Hussain is describing what it feels like when she is in the middle of a panic attack. It is something she frequently experiences due to the panic disorder she has lived with since she was a teenager growing up in Luton. The NHS cites panic as the most severe form of anxiety. It is something that can “create a cycle of living […] in fear of fear”. This can make it paralysing to live with.

Hussain is not the first person you might associate with this condition. She is the brilliant 2015 winner of The Great British Bake Off, who cemented her place in the hearts of 13.4 million viewers with her moving winning speech that included the line: “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.” And maybe it’s her association with baking – cosy, comforting, cathartic – that made us assume that everything in her life was domestic bliss. Proof that you never, ever, know what’s going on in someone’s head. And Hussain is far from alone – Anxiety UK has said that more than one in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life.

Despite the sometimes crippling effect of her own anxiety, the 33-year-old has ploughed ahead with an enviable career. Her CV includes cooking shows and documentaries such as 2016’s The Chronicles Of Nadiya where she travelled to Bangladesh to trace her culinary roots, six books and even making the Queen’s 90th birthday cake. Her latest cookbook, Nadiya’s Family Favourites, is out now, and the TV show based on it arrives on the BBC this month. But she accepts her condition is part of all this, and is incredibly matter of fact about her struggles and how she has learnt to live with anxiety.

Now based in Milton Keynes with her husband of 12 years Abdal and their three children, Musa, Dawud and Maryam, Hussain’s take on popular culture is equally enlightening and rousing. She talks passionately about the “eye-opening… intense and important” book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, referencing in particular a chapter that recounts the whitewashing of the Stephen Lawrence case; the movie Black Panther and the importance of the on-screen representation of women of colour; and her current TV obsession Black Mirror: “All I’m saying is prime minister and pig!”

Before we start talking about her panic disorder I nervously say to Hussain, “This isn’t something I’ve experienced and I want to make sure I’m talking about it in a way you’re comfortable with and not triggering or upsetting you.” She quickly reassures me, “There are no eggshells here.” And so we begin… 

Are people surprised to learn you are someone who lives with anxiety?

People say, “What have you got to be anxious about?” It’s not about that, it could be tiny things like putting the laundry basket away that’ll wake me up in the night. If I don’t get up and do it immediately, that’ll bubble up and sit there.

As a teenager, were you able to talk about it?

Growing up I had a brother and sister [Hussain is one of six siblings] who were really poorly, literally on death’s door. It felt daft for me to go to my parents and say, “I’m feeling a bit panicked.” “What about?” “Don’t know.” Saying it out loud as a child is scary, but saying I felt unstable out loud as an adult with children was really scary. The fear of losing your children stops you from saying anything. It’s a never-ending battle.

How do you cope when you have an attack?

My husband has had to deal with it a lot, which is quite frightening for him. He holds my face and says, “Breathe with me”. It lasts a couple of minutes, but as soon as you’ve had a panic attack it takes about three days to come back to normal – the last time I had one, I was in bed for two days. Once you’ve had a panic attack you live in fear that another one is going to come. From the second it’s gone, every moment every day is about the next one. The longest I’ve gone without a panic attack is about two months. Even then I can feel it bubbling away under the surface.

Do you know when one is coming?

I know the signs. I get this tension here [she points to her head]. But what’s really helpful is that my husband recognises those signs. When I’m having a bad day he knows when to stay out of the way and when to give me a hug. Sometimes my feelings need to come out of my mouth and my head so the universe can have them. That’s what the universe is there for: to take my bad thoughts away. Sometimes when I didn’t have people to talk to, I’d talk to my cats – I used to have nine cats – and I’d feel much better.

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What professional help have you had?

When I was a teenager I had one session of CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy]. That was all they offered on the NHS and it was too expensive to pay for myself. Then, at about 26, when I had my little girl, I realised I wasn’t doing that well. I went to the doctor and within 10 minutes he’d given me pills. I took them and I felt nothing. Numb. When the kids did a nice painting at nursery, I felt nothing. When they fell over, nothing. I thought, ‘This can’t be good.’ I came off the medication even though the doctor said I shouldn’t and that’s when I discovered walking. I used to do around 7km every day because I felt so good afterwards. Walking means sleeping well and waking up fresh. It gives you time to iron out your thoughts.

So you learnt to trust your own mind…

I’ve spent my whole life not trusting myself. But when you give yourself the right tools you realise you’re the only person you can trust to look after yourself. I’m my own worst enemy, but I’m my own treatment too. For a long time I felt like the awkward, difficult teenager who was always moody. I hated being moody. When I came off the medication I realised that feeling nothing is far worse than feeling something. My biggest step was realising panic is a part of me and I have to accept it. It wasn’t easy: I had a panic attack last week – I was stressed thinking about everything I had going on – but that’s life. Now I deal with it a lot better.

Do you still walk a lot?

Me and the kids and my husband walk 5km a day. I’m slightly obsessive. If I don’t walk that 5km, I’ve got it in the back of my mind that I haven’t been able to do it and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to have a bad day today.’ I’m obsessive about patterns. If I don’t do something that I do every day, I start panicking.

Are you strict with your schedule?

I think deadlines really help. When someone says, “You’ve got three months to get this done”, I think, ‘No, I’m going to power through and do it in two.’ I was deputy head girl, on the school council, head of the choir. I’ve always bitten off more than I can chew and I like that. It distracts me from my own thoughts.

The writer Carson McCullers, who struggled with her own mental health, once said, “Sometimes it feels like everyone is part of a we, except for me.” Do you feel like a “we”?

It can be really lonely. Someone said once, “Look after your strongest friend because you just don’t know what they’re going through.” I became really good at faking it. You don’t want people to know you’re weak and vulnerable. It’s difficult when you’re growing up in a family where everyone appears really confident, but I’ve got brothers and sisters who suffer with panic disorder too. And when you marry someone who is so confident and appears to have no issues whatsoever… Before we married, I didn’t tell my husband I suffered from panic disorder. I asked later, “Are you upset that I didn’t tell you?” He just said, “No, that’s who you are. And we deal with it together.” He is my we. 

How have you explained your condition to your children?

I’ve explained to my kids that sometimes Mummy feels really sad and she doesn’t always know how to control it. That’s really hard to say to kids and sometimes they replicate that behaviour and that’s a little bit scary. I’m scared one day they’ll have it.

Is mental health awareness changing?

I’m hopeful. In the Nineties, when I realised I had it, I didn’t speak to anyone but now it’s out there a lot more. I could easily not say anything and smile and pretend I’m totally OK but no. I have good days and bad days, sometimes I love what I do and others I don’t want to wake up in the morning; I want to stay in bed and not do this. There are days I feel I’m not cut out for this then I get the buzz and I’m like, “I love what I do.” Lots of people ask if I’ve changed after Bake Off. I haven’t changed, I’m the same person but a different version of myself. I have days when I feel like the old me, and days when I feel like the confident person I’ve always wanted to be, and sometimes days in-between where I don’t feel like either.

What pushes you through when you have dark thoughts?

Some days I do just stay in bed but I also know how it feels to be on the other side of that feeling and that’s what gets me up. It’s comforting knowing I’ve done this all before: gotten up, brushed my teeth and left the house.

Can you still see light in those dark moments?

Sometimes. On really dark days, not so much.

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Has your illness pushed you to achieve more?

It’s that desperate need to be normal. Normal people do normal jobs and can go through life events, be they big or small, without falling apart. That’s a lot of pressure because in many ways I’m not [normal]. And sometimes I realise I shouldn’t put that much pressure on myself.

What does normal look like to you?

A very standard, traditional job. My husband. Nothing stresses him out. I see the negative in everything, every conclusion ends with death. I’ll go out thinking, ‘Yep! Going to die today. That’s me gone.’

What do we need to do as a society to change the way we treat mental health?

You’ve got A&E for people who have an accident and that should be available for mental health. Suicide, self-harm, so many outwardly destructive things can be a result of mental health. Why isn’t there something in place where people can say, “I am not coping, I am not well, I need to be seen”. And be seen by someone who will give you more than 10 minutes. It’s a taboo subject and that is being broken slightly; more people are talking about it. The royal family are talking. But the problem with that is the royal family are Disney, I don’t feel any connection to them. I am like everyone else. I suffer like everyone else. I have to worry about my mortgage and paying my bills. It’s so important to talk about. Saying it out loud can be terrifying: the fear of being judged. And what if you don’t have someone to talk to? But that’s [also] where we’re going wrong. Because there are people who don’t have someone to talk to.

Is mental health widely talked about within the Muslim community?

Absolutely not. If you’ve got problems they’re either brushed under the carpet or you’ve been possessed by a jinn [supernatural creature]. If anything, it’s now even harder! There seems to always be an answer [to how to ‘cure’ it], but that’s not the answer. It’s finding out what the problem is.

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Talking so openly about your mental health strikes me as brave. Do you feel courageous?

I don’t feel brave but I understand the importance of talking. I’ve suffered for years. If you’re a child, it’s a phase. If you’re a teenager, it’s hormones. When you’re an adult, you’re just not coping. We have to stop giving these random sporadic labels and say, “No, this is a medical condition and it needs to be recognised.” There’s something broken on the inside that needs fixing. We need to talk more.

Nadiya’s Family Favourites by Nadiya Hussain (£20, Michael Joseph) is out now. For more information and support about panic disorder and anxiety, visit anxietyuk.org.uk

Photography: Matthew Shave