These articles are written impartially by journalists who don't fully understand the disorder like we do, so please cut them some slack. They are also written as journalistic pieces and not for sufferers, so please bare this in mind.
Nadine Stewart was convinced she was going to die. Just ten minutes after setting off for a pop concert with her sister, she felt a tingling sensation in her arms and pain in her chest.
‘I knew I was having a heart attack,’ says Nadine, 41, a customer services adviser from Morecambe, Lancashire. ‘I begged my sister to take me to A&E: I ran in and screamed that I was having a heart attack.
‘They put me on a monitor and my heart was fine - what I had suffered was a panic attack. I have no idea to this day what caused it, but it terrified the life out of me.'
But worse was to come. ‘Afterwards, I developed a fear that if I didn't do something nine times, something terrible would happen to me, my husband Paul or a member of my family.’ says Nadine.
‘If I made a drink I had to stir it nine times. If I locked the door I had to check it nine times and if I used a cloth to wipe a surface I’d have to wipe it nine times. I don’t know why it was nine. I realised I was being utterly irrational. But every time I tried to curb it - such as only stirring my drink three times - I'd begin to panic.'
‘If I didn't do these things nine times, I’d imagine Paul and me veering off the motorway in our car and see his injured face in the aftermath.’
Nadine had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), recognised by the World Health Organisation as one of the top ten most disabling disorders in terms of its effect on quality of life.
Last month both the British actress Emily Blunt and the MP Charles Walker revealed they suffered from it, with Walker admitting he had to do everything in multiples of four - and felt the need to wash his hands hundreds of times a day.
They are not alone. Around a million people in the UK are thought to be undergoing treatment for OCD, the majority of them women. Women are twice as likely as men to develop anxiety disorders such as OCD - and high-achieving perfectionists are particularly at risk.
‘Everyone has these thoughts but most of us ignore them and get on with our lives. Someone with OCD will develop a compulsive ritual as a reaction to them. It can be continually washing their hands or something invisible like repeating the same phrase over and over in their heads.'
‘The time spent on these compulsions lengthens with time. A severe OCD sufferer might spend six or seven hours a day washing their hands in the hope nothing terrible happens to their children.’
The cause of the condition is not known, though a stressful event in someone’s life may trigger an underlying problem.
Nadine has never pinpointed the root of her troubles - though they began in the year she started a new job, moved house and got engaged. ‘I had no reason to feel anxious,’ she said, ‘though I suppose there was a lot of change.
‘I became scared of choking to death so I stopped eating and lost three stone in less than three months. I couldn’t leave the house without Paul, and even then it would take me three hours to pluck up the courage.’
Someone who can empathise with Nadine is Jeni Scott, 31, who’s had OCD for three years.
It began when her father had a heart attack and her mother was diagnosed with cancer, soon after Jeni left university.
‘I became obsessed with doing things in order,’ says Jeni, a tutor from Newport, Wales. ‘I started making lists but it had everything on it such as “get up, have shower, make a cup of tea” and if I didn’t stick to it I would punish myself by denying myself a treat.
‘I developed a phobia of being in the rain in the wrong clothes and had to take a backpack with spare bra, pants, coat, shoes and umbrella everywhere with me. I’d carry antibacterial gel in my bag and use it every ten minutes. I’ve still no idea why I did it, I just found it helped me.’
Aisha Faisal, from Reading, Berkshire, also suffers from OCD - and it’s getting worse. ‘I developed it in my teens when my mother fell ill and I had to clean the house,’ the 26-year-old says. ‘Now I’m obsessed with everything being super-clean. I wash my hands 14 or 15 times a day, I shower for an hour at a time and wash the shower head and bath thoroughly before I step in.
‘If someone touches me, I cringe. My neighbour touched my scarf to tell me it was pretty and I had to have a shower and put all my clothes in the wash.’ Aisha, who has three children under four, admits her obsession extended to giving birth.
‘Each time I had Caesarean sections - the thought of having a natural birth makes me feel physically sick.’ She made the surgeons assure her everything had been scrubbed thoroughly before each operation. Understandably, her OCD worries the rest of her family. ‘My husband Ali finds it very hard to see me like this. I won’t let him touch me when he comes in from work: he has to shower and put on clean clothes before he can hug me.'
‘With three young children, being clean is impossible and I bathe them twice a day in the winter and sometimes four times a day in the summer if they’re hot and sticky.’
As a result of her obsession her own hands are red raw and she suffers from eczema. ‘I have been to the GP but it’s very difficult to treat. I know I must do something soon, because my eldest daughter, who is four, is picking up on my behaviour and I feel very guilty about that.'
‘The other day she came in from the garden and said she was dirty so needed to get out of her clothes and I washed her and cleaned her thoroughly. My husband can’t believe our electricity bill because the washing machine is on constantly.’
While Aisha is still in the grip of OCD, Jeni and Nadine have overcome the condition. According to the NHS, the two recognised forms of treatment are Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which helped Jeni, and anti-depressants.
But Nadine used another therapy called The Linden Method - a two-day workshop costs £995 - when she reached her lowest point early last year.
‘I was unable to work, leave the house or answer the phone,’ she says. ‘My vision became blurry, my hands would spasm and I’d get pains like rheumatism. I began to think: “What’s the point in living?” yet I was too scared to kill myself.’
The Linden Method - which has also helped OCD sufferers Jemma and Jodie Kidd - works by convincing the sufferer’s sub-conscious that they are safe.
‘I’m a different person,’ says Nadine. ‘I can leave the house, I’m applying for jobs, taking up hobbies and it’s transformed my relationship with Paul.
‘He says it’s like having a wife in a wheelchair who can walk again. Except I feel I can not only walk, I can fly.’
Charles Linden claims he has treated more than 150,000 people for anxiety. He has books, DVDs, dozens of workshops. business is booming. William Leith signs up for the cure
I am on my way to the Elms, a country-house hotel in Worcestershire, to attend an anxiety retreat. And, like an increasing number of people in the UK, I’m anxious. As my taxi waits in the street, I’m doing a last-minute check. I check the gas hob, the oven, the toaster, the washing machine. Are things unplugged? I feel dangerously close to an OCD “spike”; the more I check, the more I feel the need to check. I check my locks, my keys, my laptop. I hover on the threshold of my front door. I take a deep breath. I fight an urge to rush back into the kitchen, to check the appliances one more time. In my mind, I visualise the four dials of the gas hob. Off, off, off, off. Yes! I can leave. My house will not burn down.
I lock the door behind me. I check it’s locked. In reality, I know I’m not really worried about my locks, or my house burning down. I’m worried about other things. And I’m not alone. In Britain, six million of us now suffer from depression or crippling anxiety conditions. And fewer than a third of us get any help. That’s because it’s mental, rather than physical. People don’t think it’s real. But it accounts for almost half of all ill health among people of working age.
So, what is it I’m anxious about? The economic situation. My future. The future of the world as we know it. The charity Anxiety UK has reported a huge increase in the number of people who contact them because they’re worried about their job security.
“We are concerned that a mental ill health epidemic is looming due to the financial worries currently facing the population,” says Nicky Lidbetter, the charity’s chief executive.
Of course, there can be good reasons for being anxious. When you get anxious, you release certain hormones. Your heart beats faster. You sweat. Your mouth becomes dry. Your eyes stare. You could hear a pin drop. Your body banishes drowsiness. You feel “butterflies” in the stomach. Perfect, if you’re a Stone Age person, and you’ve seen a strange footprint in the ground, and you have a bad feeling about it. Not so perfect if you’re just standing on a station platform.
An anxiety disorder is when normal life - standing on a platform, say, or reading your e-mails - makes you feel as if you might be surrounded by predators. Myself, I’m on the borderline. I can cope. Mostly. Sort of. I’ve only ever had two panic attacks - that’s when your fight-or-flight system goes awry, and you get filled up with adrenalin, but also stop breathing normally. A terrible combination: I never want to go there again.
At the station, everybody around me seems to be anxious. Waiting for the train, we are checking the time, looking at the flashing words on the sign above our heads, in case our plans might suddenly need to change. I find a seat on the train. Anxious-looking people sit next to me. I wonder how many of these people take anti-anxiety medication; since 2007, the use of antidepressants for anxiety disorders has jumped by 26 per cent. The passengers take out their laptops; before the train has moved, they are trawling through websites, processing information.
I take a deep breath. I look at my newspaper. Greece - imploding. The euro - on the brink. The future looks bleak. George Brown, a psychologist at the University of London, has described anxiety as “a response to future loss”, as opposed to depression, which is “a response to past loss”. Anxiety is the modern mental-health issue par excellence; it’s how we feel in a speeded-up society - living tomorrow’s problems today.
It’s also about living in a society in which we have so much to lose. We fear danger from all sides, but, in reality, we’re safer than ever. We fear death and disease, even though our life expectancy has never been higher. Here, in the anxious West, we have so much; it’s no wonder we are terrified of losing it. We go through life thinking that, but for a few tiny details, things could be perfect. Then we worry about the fact they’re not. We worry about our bodies, careers, children and kitchens. Anxious people make good consumers.
According to the 2002 World Mental Health Survey, commissioned by the World Health Organization, anxiety is overwhelmingly a condition of affluence. People in poor societies don’t have time for it. In North America, 28.8 per cent said they felt constant anxiety; across the border, in Mexico, only 6.6 per cent did. When you’re sold the idea that you can be perfectly safe and perfectly happy, it’s easy to focus on the fact that you’re not.
Psychologist Dr Cecilia d’Felice believes, “It’s the fallout from our modern life: the economy, the global positioning, the breakdown in family relationships, the constant demands on our time.” Over the past decade, she’s seen a growing number of people with anxiety. Lots of them are very successful. “These people are very performance orientated. They can’t maintain the amount of energy needed to keep so many balls in the air. This leads to stress, which in turn leads to anxiety. Anxiety in turn often leads to depression. Our lives have to be more about balance. We need time just to be.”
This is what I’m thinking as I arrive at the Elms, a 300-year-old establishment in the Malvern Hills: it looks serene and ordered. Still, as I wheel my suitcase into the hall, I can feel my anxiety levels rise. I will spend four days with a group of affluent people who suffer from anxiety disorders. I will be practising the Linden Method, which will banish my anxiety. That’s what Charles Linden, the method’s inventor, says. He seems to have devised a way of taking the negative energy that triggers anxiety and turning it into positive energy. The Linden Method. It has a ring to it.
It’s growing in popularity - according to the website, Charles Linden has treated more than 150,000 people. You can get yourself sorted out by correspondence, using books and DVDs, and a telephone back-up service that costs £137. There’s a junior version, for anxious kids. There’s a two-day workshop at £995 or you can go for the full four-day retreat - my option - which costs £2,800. Which makes me anxious about something else: is it worth it?
Linden clearly wants to be the Paul McKenna or perhaps the Allen Carr of anxiety. Whatever terrible symptoms you have, he says - chest pains, OCD, tingling, panic attacks or agoraphobia - you can get rid of them. Interestingly, he says that anxiety symptoms are “harmless and normal”. And he has plenty of celebrity endorsements. There on the website, next to Linden, are Gok Wan and a teenage boy whose symptoms Linden cured on Wan’s show. There is Jemma Kidd, make-up artist and sister of model Jodie, who swears by the Linden Method - she even said so on Lorraine Kelly’s show. And here is Rupert Young, formerly anxious brother of singer Will. He’s been on the Linden retreat and, he says, no longer fears life.
In the spectrum of anxiety sufferers, Charles Linden found himself at the far end. I go through the day feeling various levels of worry and dread; Linden, on the other hand, was crippled with anxiety. At his worst, he had constant panic attacks. He was on several types of medication. He couldn’t leave the house, the room, the duvet he was lying under next to a radiator. When he hit rock bottom, that was his life. A duvet and a radiator. He was even frightened to go to the loo. And then he came up with the Linden Method. Now he runs regular courses with his wife, Beth, a woman who falls into the “non-anxious” category. Beth is warm, attractive, controlled, practical. She has shoulder-length blonde hair and wears jeans and wedges.
“I couldn’t eat,” Linden tells me. We are sitting in a quiet room in the Elms. He’s telling me about the worst moments of his anxiety. “Beth used to drive seven miles home at lunchtime to lift me off the floor and take me for a pee.” Sitting here, he definitely does not look like a man consumed by anxiety. As he will tell me, he has, in some mysterious way, channelled the negative energy in his brain elsewhere; this, as far as I can see, is the Linden Method. Linden wants to help people; he is curious, entrepreneurial, ambitious. He has a shaved head and wears nice clothes. He looks trim, an alpha male.
He says that wasn’t always the case. The son of a civil engineer and a textile designer who later became a nurse, Linden says he remembers being anxious from an early age. Growing up in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, he can’t recall his parents being anxious, but other members of his family, he says, were - his grandmother, for example, was frightened of wearing a seatbelt. As a child, Linden says, “I started making inappropriate risk assessments.” For instance, he was afraid of rope swings. “I was seeing the world through anxiety-coloured specs.” Linden has what he calls a “creative intellect” - like a very high proportion of anxiety sufferers, he has a vivid imagination.
At school, Linden’s chronic anxiety attracted bullies. At 13, he began to develop school phobia. He was put on antidepressants. “I kept telling my mum I wanted to die,” he says. He was constantly seeking, and failing to find, “a safe place to go” - the classic refrain of the anxiety-sufferer’s brain.
When you suffer from an anxiety disorder, your brain keeps telling you that you’re not safe, and obsessively searches for safety. With OCD, for instance, you guard against your obsessive thoughts (“My house will burn down”) with compulsive behaviour (endlessly checking your appliances). Hypochondriacs keep seeking reassurance that they’re not ill. An anxiety disorder is inappropriate, stultifying fear - fear turned inward.
As the German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein said, “Fear sharpens the senses; anxiety paralyses them.”
To stop being anxious, says Linden, you have to stop endlessly seeking reassurance - that safe haven the anxious brain yearns for. “There isn’t one,” says Linden. “When you’re born, the umbilical cord is cut, and you’re on your own.”
We talk about my obsessive search for safety and reassurance. When I’m cooking, I buy the same ingredients twice over, just in case. I fantasise about having spares of everything - I’d like to have two laundry rooms, two washing machines, two dryers. I sometimes think I’d like a spare house in the same neighbourhood, just in case. Anxiety, says Linden, is about hiding from reality. “You become more and more restricted - not just geographically, but in every way.”
After leaving school, Linden did an art foundation course, and then briefly worked as an ice-cream man. Then he went to Germany in pursuit of a girl. Sometimes he was focused and entrepreneurial. But then the anxiety would come back. In Germany, he set himself up as an agent for Chrysler and General Motors. But then he had a breakdown. It happened at a petrol station. He got out of his car and tried walking towards the pump. “My legs couldn’t carry me. I hit the deck.” The emergency services were called. He’d had a massive panic attack. After this, he came back to England. “I dumped my life in Germany,” he says. “I left an apartment, cars and a girlfriend.” He was 23.
In England, he studied electronic media at the universities of Hull and Wolverhampton. He took diazepam and Prozac to ward off the anxiety. It didn’t work. After graduating, he got a job making training videos. That’s where he met Beth. For a while, Linden hid his anxiety from his new girlfriend. But then he came clean. On a trip to Wales, “I felt like I was dying.” Beth was understanding. Even when she had to drive seven miles every lunchtime to take Linden to the loo.
Full of Prozac and Valium, terrified to leave the room, Linden realised he had to take action. Medication didn’t seem to work. He had to do something - but what? With help from his mother, he got a job at a volunteer centre. He did clerical work. Answered the phones. Kept his mind busy. Applied his intellect to the subject of how to help the people there. His panic attacks abated. That’s when the light bulb went on. “I thought: ‘Hang on a minute. Clearly there’s some interaction between intellect and anxiety." In other words, if you find a way of channelling your intellect away from chronic anxiety, it begins to disappear. Hence the Linden Method.
Over the next four days, I pursue the Linden Method. During this time, I have four sessions of physical therapy, working on my posture, my breathing and my core muscles. I have a full-body massage for 70 minutes. I have a “troubleshooting” session with Linden. But mostly, I have hours and hours of group therapy led by a psychologist called Jenny Brookes. I sit with a group of anxious people talking and talking. Brookes tells us she used to be cripplingly anxious: she blushed and overheated all the time. Worrying about it made it worse, she says. So she found a way of not worrying about it, pre-Linden.
By the end, I feel uplifted; I also feel that a non-anxious life is possible, and even likely.
I feel that the answer is in my hands. I realise that it’s up to me to make the most of the world as it is, or even try to improve it. I see that going round in circles, worrying, is much less interesting than, say, getting up early in the morning and writing books. I see that it is possible to replace my pernicious worry with a sort of excitement.
Having signed a confidentiality agreement not to identify the people on the course, I won’t. But here’s what I can say about them. They are all affluent and intelligent. Several have worked in the anxiety-provoking world of the City. Some have extremely successful businesses. They arrive in Audis, BMWs and a Porsche. They seem very good at not appearing anxious. The anxiety is trapped within. They are haunted by obsessive thoughts and live each day with desperate fears - of heights, enclosed spaces, crowds, social events, other people.
In the sessions, we talk about our anxiety. I explain that I live my life in a constant state of dread, which is also tinged with nostalgia; the American psychologist Rachel Herz has shown that certain anxious states tinker with levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which fire up its limbic system, filling you with memories and regrets. I explain that I fear heights, dread walking near the edge of cliffs, and often wake up believing I am about to be executed. While we discuss these things, a police car draws up to the Elms. I feel a twinge of fear. Are they going to arrest me? As we talk, we laugh. Talking to other anxious people is therapeutic.
As the days go by, something happens. We all begin to see our anxiety for what it is. It’s a bad habit. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility. It’s childish. It’s part of not wanting to grow up. It’s about not taking control. In our lives, we are, in one way or another, afraid to be the instigator of things. Maybe it’s because of things that happened in childhood. Perhaps, on one level, we are unconsciously searching for someone to look after us. Whatever. After a couple of days, it seems clear that anxiety is not the answer. Not the right one, anyway. Obsessively worrying about things won’t help.
Somehow, I begin to step outside myself. I watch myself being anxious. And it seems very silly. All that worrying - that was a bad habit. Why not do something else instead? After all, our neural pathways are not set in stone. We can rewire our brains, to a certain extent. Gradually, over the four days, it occurs to me that I could try to develop better habits. Like not sitting around worrying. Like doing something constructive instead.
It would be easy to say that’s what the Linden Method is about: stop worrying and do something instead. But that would be like saying that Allen Carr’s method for smoking cessation is about stopping smoking and doing something else instead. Both are about getting your mind to turn bad habits into good ones by getting you to understand how a bad habit works, and simultaneously building up your trust in the future, minus the bad habit. One of the keys to quitting a bad habit is developing a firm belief that you won’t miss it when it’s gone.
Brookes tells us that it’s important we kick away our crutches as soon as healthily possible - Prozac, Seroxat, diazepam, recreational drugs, alcoholism, therapists, whatever. To her mind, they all, in the end, remind us of our anxiety. I’ve already quit just about everything, including booze. But I can see that if I wasn’t eaten up with anxiety, alcohol would not be a problem. The future non-anxious me, I begin to see, would be able to drink! Sensibly!
We say our goodbyes. The German cars draw away from the Elms, possibly towards less anxious lives. I get in my taxi. I think: don’t be eaten up with anxiety. Instead, do stuff! Don’t be controlled by dread. Instead, be excited! You might be walking along a cliff path, slip and find yourself teetering over a 500ft precipice. Thugs might drag you into a car park and summarily execute you. But these things almost certainly won’t happen.
Five weeks later, I walk down my hall, and go through the front door. I have an urge to check my cooker, my plugs and my toaster, but it’s much smaller. It rears up; I smack it down. Do I think this is worth £2,800? Over a lifetime, well, yes, it almost certainly is.
I lock my door and walk along the path outside my house. Will my house burn down? Possibly. But probably not.