It has been a condition that has crippled her socially since her childhood, but Kate Henderson has mastered her anxiety and is now helping others to do the same as she hosts the Panic Room SA.
As a child, she recalls being withdrawn — uncertain of her place in the world and nervous to participate in it.
“I spent a lot of time clinging to my mum’s leg at school and she spent a lot of time trying to get rid of me,” she recalled with a laugh.
“I really struggled with separation anxiety.”
Teachers would describe her as a “sensitive child” with “inner confidence”.
“It wasn’t really recognised that I was struggling, struggling with other children, struggling with the school system itself,” Ms Henderson said.
As she progressed into her teens, her anxiety worsened and she withdrew even further to avoid social failure and judgement.
“I guess I was perceived as someone who was very shy and as someone who did not have a lot of confidence,” she said.
“I would spend a lot of time going home and crying to Mum and saying ‘what’s wrong with me?'”
It was a few kind words from her mother that helped Ms Henderson first begin to be able to confront her condition.
“She’d say to me ‘don’t worry, because this is a very small world and when you get out of it, the world is much bigger and you will find your place’.”
Ms Henderson described it as the best advice she received in her teenage years.
After completing high school, Ms Henderson moved to Adelaide and began to study social work.
“The worst times were actually in the breaks, when I wasn’t studying and I had time to be in my [own] head,” Ms Henderson said.
Her anxiety lead to depression, compounding her problems.
“I don’t think people really understand how exhausting anxiety is, and how much energy it takes to survive,” she said.
“When you are in isolation, in your own mind, and when there are not people around you that act as a reference point … it was difficult to look outside of what is happening inside your own head.”
Finding the answers
By her mid 20s Ms Henderson had been to several doctors, searching for the source of her problems.
Diagnosis varied from asthma, cancer and hormones to a mixture of other possibilities.
“Doctors weren’t very well informed in mental health issues, particularly anxiety, and to an extent depression,” she said.
When she was 25, Ms Henderson was finally diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder.
She remembered the doctor drawing a diagram outlining the stages of anxiety.
“It was the first time somebody made sense to me, and that was a huge turning point for me,” Ms Henderson said.
The diagnosis empowered Ms Henderson with the information she needed to gain help.
She visited psychologists and psychiatrists, read self-help books and began to learn more and more about her condition and how to control it.
Once she had finished her degree, Ms Henderson was working in retail and beginning to feel the effects of her anxiety once more when she discovered the Panic Anxiety Disorder Association (PADA).
She contacted the association with thoughts of volunteering and ended up being offered work.
The two women who ran PADA had both suffered from and conquered anxiety, and helped Ms Henderson.
“They gave me a safe place to go to, they gave me a fantastic education, they gave me the time and the space and the patience to be able to work out things for myself.”
Turning adversity into advantage
Ms Henderson found herself unemployed after a forced merger resulted in the closure of PADA.
With a burning ambition to break the emerging business model she described as “mental health superstores”, Ms Henderson was keen to return medicine to its former days and place patients before quotas.
“[There were] places that did a whole lot of things but struggled to offer a level of intimacy, care and consistency,” she said.
Ms Henderson decided to create Panic Room SA to offer regular group counselling sessions for people in the Adelaide area.
“It was obvious that there were people who had nowhere to go,” she said.
Her first group at the Thebarton Community Centre quickly grew and Ms Henderson found she had gone full circle — utilising her counselling skills to confront her own social fears and help others facing the same issues.
“It’s very validating and affirming for me to see people move through this process and have success,” Ms Henderson said.
“To see people come in, often in a really bad way, really lost, really isolated, really anxious and move through that and move out of it — you couldn’t hope for a better job.”
The Panic Room SA is hosted at the Thebarton Community Centre each Tuesday night from 6:30pm until 8:30pm, and the Tea Tree Gully Library Community Learning Centre every second Monday from 10:30am until 12:15pm.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 26 August 2015.