“If my story helps just one person, it’s worth it”

In September 2017 I was invited to become a Patron of Anxiety UK. It is a cause close to my heart and I hope that by sharing my own experiences that I inspire people to talk about their mental health and follow their dreams.

“I was officially diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder in 2014. I was getting ready for my first Indy 500 race in America – a big moment in my career – and as a team we planned to put on a charity indoor karting event in the run-up. My PR people suggested that I hosted it and for the four months leading up, I woke up every day in panic. I couldn’t sleep because of the fear of having to speak at the event and I had constant heart palpitations.

Convinced there was something wrong with my body, I went to see my GP and he carried out some tests, but found nothing wrong physically, and instead diagnosed me with generalised anxiety disorder. I felt a little bit of disbelief as what I had been feeling was very physical, so it was hard to rationalise that those problems were mental.

Drying up 

As a racing driver, public speaking for me may be a Q&A session in front of media or sponsors before or after a race, or impromptu TV interviews when you’re getting ready to race and a microphone is put in front of you. Sometimes I have to hold the room for five or ten minutes in front of sponsors, and a speech block can come out of nowhere.

For every ten public appearances I’ve done ok in, there have been a couple when it’s been so bad that I’ve had to excuse myself to go and be sick.

People say that the more you practice public speaking the easier it gets but for me, it doesn’t matter how many times I do it or how good people say I am; every time is like hitting a re-set button.

Obviously, public speaking is not many people’s cup of tea, but the anxiety I have around it goes much deeper. There are even times when I’ve been at home, or on a phone call, and I’ve had an enormous speech block. One day I remember going into my kitchen, where my nan was, and I went to say good morning and nothing came out.

Managing my anxiety 

A lot of the talking therapies I’ve had have been from a sports performance angle, and I’d like to explore more. It’s still a case of finding out what works best for me – I’m still very much a work in progress! Some days I’m thriving, some days I’m surviving; there’s no rhyme or reason for it. I have found a number of good coping strategies however that allow me to function as a professional racing driver.

I know there is no one magic cure, and that a lot of it comes down to lifestyle changes; exercising more, less alcohol, getting enough sleep, and even taking time to stop and making sure I’m breathing properly.

I notice a drastic change if I don’t work out for a few days, for example when I have a week off. At the end of the week the anxiety levels reach fever pitch, to a point where I feel I can’t even leave the house or make a phone call.

Becoming a Patron 

I moved back to the UK from America earlier this year, and I knew I wanted to carry on the charity work I did out there. I’d been following Anxiety UK in secret for about a year, so I knew about their work, but I’ve kept my own experiences with anxiety quiet until now. For many people, reading this article will be the first time they hear about it.

I want to raise awareness, and I feel compelled to get my story out there. Even if it helps just one person it’s worth it. I want people to know that whatever they are going through, they can still follow their dreams and live a full and successful life.

Starting conversations 

As a man, it can be hard to talk about mental health. And motorsport is a very masculine sport, where anything a little bit out of the ordinary can be seen as a sign of weakness.

When you’re at the track you never have a moment to yourself and are always dealing with mechanics, engineers, team members, and media. I’m not an outgoing person, so it’s hard.  But when I put my helmet on, I’m in my happiest place in the world and any problems with anxiety disappear. It’s never affected my performance as a driver.

It’s important the people open up about what they are feeling. There’s been such a huge stigma about mental health for such a long time, but more sportspeople and celebrities are coming out and sharing their stories, which is helping. Just talking about it is the first step to getting better.”

You can find more information on Anxiety UK here