If you met Danielle Londra now, you’d never guess this confident, articulate young woman once suffered anxiety so bad it threatened to ruin her life. As a child, the now 25-year-old from Baunacloka, Raheen, Co Limerick was constantly anxious. “Both at home and at school, I was considered nervous,” she explains. “I used to worry about every little thing constantly and replay events over and over. I never thought that there would be a day when I wouldn’t be anxious. I just thought those were the cards I’d been dealt in life.” In fact, Danielle is one of many Irish people suffering from crippling anxiety. A study by Aware in June found Ireland is in the grip of an anxiety epidemic, with a shocking 80pc suffering from it and 48pc experiencing it frequently. One in five say their anxiety is so bad they can’t function. Women (82pc), compared to men (67pc), are most affected. Young people (86pc were under 44) in particular are at risk. Like many of these people, there was no reason for Danielle’s anxious condition. The middle child of three children, she grew up in a stable and happy home. But she was, by nature, sensitive. “I was attuned to other people’s feelings and if someone wasn’t feeling good, I’d try to make them feel better,” she says. She found herself taking on unnecessary responsibility at home, not because she was encouraged to but because it helped to control her anxiety.
“If I could control my environment, I felt I could control my anxiety.” Her issues intensified at the age of 15 when she started transition year in school and was frozen out by a group of friends. “I felt left out and isolated. I just didn’t know how to deal with it and it spiralled,” recalls Danielle. “I was constantly on edge at the time. It was extremely draining and it came out in physical ways.” She developed severe pains in her stomach which doctors couldn’t explain, and she found “If I could control my environment, I felt I could control my anxiety.” Her issues intensified at the age of 15 when she started transition year in school and was frozen out by a group of friends. “I felt left out and isolated. I just didn’t know how to deal with it and it spiralled,” recalls Danielle. “I was constantly on edge at the time. It was extremely draining and it came out in physical ways.” She developed severe pains in her stomach which doctors couldn’t explain, and she
found it difficult to eat: “I just couldn’t get the food down. It felt like I had a ball of stress in the back of my throat and someone was choking me.” It came to a head when she went on a camping trip with her classmates. “I told my mother I didn’t really want to go beforehand but they say feel the fear and do it anyway, so I went,” she says. “I remember sitting on the bus on the way there, experiencing waves of extreme panic. I’d think to myself, ‘I can’t do this’ and start hyper-ventilating, and then I’d say, ‘No, I can do it’ and I’d calm down momentarily and then it would start again…” They got to the campsite and set up the tent, despite the fact that there was a storm threatening. “I lay awake listening to the torrential rain that night after the other girls in the tent had fallen asleep,” continues Danielle. “I couldn’t stop thinking and worrying myself sick. At that stage, my anxiety was so bad, no breathing or relaxation exercises could calm me down.” By morning, she hadn’t slept a wink. She was shaking, and couldn’t talk. The teachers called her mother. “I was brought straight to the doctor and prescribed antidepressant medication. Once it started working, I felt immediate relief,” she says. However, the medication alone was not enough to fix the problem. She attended a children’s mental health facility every day in Limerick, doing counselling sessions and learning cognitive behavioural therapy to change her thoughts. She was eventually diagnosed with severe generalised anxiety disorder. “Little by little, with the support of my family, I got through that very difficult time in my life,” says Danielle. She returned to school the following year and decided to study hotel management after school. “I was able for it at that point because I had the tools to deal with my anxiety and I knew to get in touch with a counsellor if it came up again.” Then in 2020, her anxiety hit again. This time it was exacerbated by the pandemic and the fact that she didn’t like her job. “I was attending counselling from time to time, but it was expensive and felt I needed something more,” she says. Online, she came across Grow Mental Health, a government-funded support scheme that provides group therapy sessions, both online and in person, for people with mental health problems, including anxiety. “I started doing weekly sessions and I’ve been with Grow ever since. It has 100pc changed my life,” says Danielle. The groups vary from five to 10 at a time and include people of all ages and backgrounds. “You get to know them and everyone is non-judgemental, supportive and helpful because they all have similar problems. “It’s different than talking to a counsellor as it really helps to see how far other people have come. Once you’re willing to do the work, there is support out there and there is hope if you’re suffering from severe anxiety,” she adds. These days, Danielle is doing so well that she plans to come off her medication. “It’s not something people should do on their own or without medical advice, but I feel so much better that I think I no longer need it,” she says. She was so inspired by Grow that she took a part-time job with the organisation last April. “I really love being able to help others as I know exactly how they feel,” she says. “I’m now planning to go back to college and study counselling.” In addition, she gets great comfort from her dog Charlie, a five-year-old Cavachon. “I know what helps my anxiety and one of the things is bringing the dog up to the dog park. I call him my rescue dog because he senses when I’m anxious and I really believe he’s been a big part of my healing.
The above article appeared in the Sunday World Magazine in September 2023. It was written by journalist Erin McCafferty. All photos credited to Sunday World Magazine.