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Career, money, family ... why women here are turning to prescription drugs to cope with stress of modern life

Jane Hardy finds out how those at the end of their tether finally got back in control.

When Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, was interviewed recently about her new novel, Can we still be friends?, she made a casual reference to the pack of Xanax tranquillisers sitting in her Prada handbag.

She admitted she’d had panic attacks and said the pills were her “lucky charm”. It looks as if we’ve entered an age of anxiety, with high-profile women needing pills, remedies and de-stressing techniques just to keep going.

Sales of the Bach Rescue Remedy, a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals, are currently going through the roof. And estimates of how many of us are on tranquillisers varies but whichever statistic you go with, one in five or one in four women, it’s a lot.

Dr Michael Paterson, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Belfast, says that anxiety is a growing problem.

“I see it in a lot of my high- achieving female clients, some of whom suffer from panic attacks, which are a symptom of feeling unable to cope.

“People can thrive under stress but life experiences are stored in your brain and with negative experience, you may end up with the damaging message ‘I’m inadequate and not good enough’.”

According to Dr Paterson, high (“unrelenting”) standards contribute to this dangerous perfectionism. And women are more susceptible.

“Around 50% of my clients suffer from anxiety. We retrain them to learn there’s nothing to be afraid of via techniques such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), de-sensitising and reprocessing.

“Xanax has its place short term but relaxation techniques such as meditation and diaphragm breathing are more beneficial long term strategies,” he added.

We talked to one woman who refused tranquillisers after two burn-outs and found an alternative route, one woman who rebalanced her career via life coaching (and ended up a life coach) and discover why Pamela Ballantine needed hypnotherapy.

‘I was on a big salary but I knew I needed to stop’

Ann Rodgers (38) owns the business and life coaching company Infinite People Solutions, based in Belfast, where she also lives. She is single and says:

Igot my degree in business studies and marketing, then entered the world of IT. It was the era of the Celtic Tiger and I was a wee cub.

Working for one of the big Dublin IT companies, which was going through a massive period of growth, was pretty stressful. I was a marketing executive in a company trading worldwide. We worked 60 hour weeks and were in the biggest global marketplace.

Of course, it was fun too. I worked hard and partied hard in a slightly crazy and exciting environment.

I often organised black tie events but the trouble was you had to be at your desk the next morning.

I was sucked into the roller coaster and my eating and sleeping patterns suffered, as did my general health.

I went to the doctor and he prescribed drugs short term, but that wasn’t the answer.

I’d been in this macho system where you never left your desk before 6pm or later. I didn’t have enough time for family and friends and it all caught up with me. The tiredness got out of hand and I had some health issues, mainly connected to my digestive system.

So after five years in Dublin, I changed direction. I realised you couldn’t work at that pitch all the time and that I needed to unwind from the culture where spending Thursday to Sunday in the bar was commonplace.

It was a vicious circle as some

body was always after your job. It would have been natural to talk to the boss but they were part of the problem.

So I got myself a business coach, somebody doing what I do now. I was on a big salary but I knew I needed to stop.

I bought a round the world ticket and stepped onto a plane, visiting Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.

I’d put off travelling and it was amazing; I was able to rethink my philosophy. That man I saw making a boat in a small village |was also fulfilling his dream.

My business coach set me a life plan which I’ve followed.

I was in a male dominated world and women don’t know how to say ‘No’. We tend to nurture and we say ‘I’ll do that and that and that.’

But it becomes a habit, and many women are now single because their relationships have been messed up by their careers.

Since 2004 I’ve been a life and business coach and get a fair mix of clients — entrepreneurs, teachers, senior management.

I meditate every day, using a self-taught method and deep breathing.

We need it because the brain is an overused muscle and the amount of technology we have doesn’t help. Our smart phones never stop.

Lots of people don’t believe they can create the life they want, yet we have 100% control. I say to my clients ‘You don’t know what you’re capable of.

Come on, let’s go’. There’s a culture I’ve noticed here in Northern Ireland of keeping your head down and everything will be OK, but it’s not OK, you need to keep your head up.”

‘I was so panicked I’d to visit a hypnotherapist’

Pamela Ballantine (53) is a broadcaster and columnist who lives in Belfast and is single. She says:

When I was touring the Vagina Monologues show at the beginning of the year I became so panicked I had to go to a hypnotherapist after developing performance anxiety. After my agent’s secretary checked I was ok with the content, and I’m never one to shy away from a challenge, we got going. The piece is by an American lady Eve Ensler, who talked to a number of women, asking ‘If your private parts could talk, what would they say, what would they wear?’

Lynda Bryans, Olivia Nash and I all chose different roles and I played the very crisp Englishwoman.

I discovered the show had originally been presented as rehearsed readings, where the actors had a script. But the producer insisted we learn the words and this was a real problem for me, as the script was so long.

At home I kept looking at the script sitting on the coffee table as if it would get into my head by osmosis. But I just couldn’t learn it.A woman I know trained as a hypnotherapist, so I went to see her. H ypnotherapy isn’t all that ‘you’re feeling sleepy’ business. In fact, the only way I knew I’d been under was the fact time had passed so quickly.

I thought I’d been out for about five minutes, when it was actually 38 minutes.

Whether it was coincidence or not, I don’t know but I just felt better. I’m a believer in the power of positive thinking, and after that session, I found I could learn all the scenes.

And the show was such a success, we’re thinking of reviving it later this year.”

‘There’s more to life than work and money’

Lois Henry (45) runs Essentia Vitalis, a business providing ‘body stress release’. She lives with her partner Tim in Desertmartin. She says:

Some people may find it strange that Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, has to carry Xanax in her handbag. They will wonder why she let her problems get so extreme. Yet I can relate to her to some extent as a result of having two burnouts in the early 2000s, brought about by the inability to say ‘No’ to a torrent of work. At the time I was a health and safety consultant in the private sector, doing a lot of on-site work with other organisations. I was working 12-hour days and was always under pressure. I had headaches and sleepless nights as well as a bit of anxiety. Now I liken the experience to walking into a plate glass window; I didn’t see it coming but it stopped me in my tracks. One day something changed and I couldn’t go on. I knew I had to get out of there. So I went on sick leave for about six weeks. My GP told me to build myself up. When I returned to work, which I enjoyed, everything went on as before and it happened again, only this time, the effects were more mental than physical. I just hadn’t regained my physical capability. Once again, it was rest and this time, I was offered tranquillisers.

I preferred more natural remedies. My handbag contains the Bach Rescue Remedy, a classic herbal remedy containing natural ingredients like essence of cherry plum, clematis, rock rose and star of Bethlehem. Although I was on £25,000 per year, I knew my life had to change.

On holiday in Scotland with my partner, we stopped off at an organic cafe and I saw an article on a South African hands-on technique called ‘body stress release’. It’s a means of helping release the physical tension that is stored in the body. It isn’t massage but the body is nudged in the right direction. I went to a practitioner in Edinburgh and after three sessions, I couldn’t believe the difference. I was very tired and slept a lot and the tension came out. It wasn’t a complete cure but set me on the right path. The idea of training as a practitioner popped into my head and in 2005 I went to South Africa to study this technique. It was expensive but it was about fulfilling a dream. Since then, I’ve introduced about 700 people to this technique and remain the only practitioner in Northern Ireland. Although I work long days, I’m more aware of the work-life balance now — and of my physical and mental needs.

I feel the editor of Vogue is getting messages from her body but she’s ignoring them. Nowadays, expectations are high and we all have more stressful lifestyles, particularly because of the recession. A lot of therapists come into the business after going through problems themselves. We’ve realised there’s more to life than work and money. If I hadn’t had two burnouts, I wouldn’t be here now.”

‘I won’t be in a hurry to take Xanax again’

By Una Brankin

I had a brief love affair with Xanax long before it popped up in the toxicology reports of Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith and Whitney Houston.

If I’d known it’s one of the addictive woozy pills regularly popped by fragile superstars, I’d have thought twice when I was casually handed a prescription for 60 of them by an eminent doctor in leafy Dublin 4.

I’d gone to see him about recurring nausea and mentioned in passing that I was very nervous about having to make a speech at an upcoming book launch.

I’ve always been terrible at public speaking and knew that Dutch courage didn’t work for me: I’d sunk three glasses of Guinness before a reading of my postgrad thesis on the Arab-Israeli conflict at Queen’s and blurted ‘One discussion under solution for the Lebanese conflict’, instead of the other way round, then proceeded to stammer my way through the rest.

So despite the expense of the prescription in the south, I was delighted when the doctor suggested this seemingly harmless little wonder drug, which he often prescribed for patients terrified to fly.

I went off and tried it the next night to practise my speech. After about 20 minutes I began to feel nicely relaxed but still clear-headed, and rattled off the speech without a hitch.

Delighted, I went to bed and slept like a log, after weeks of restless nights. Even better, there was no grogginess the next morning. I practised with it again the next night and began taking it regularly to sleep, sometimes just to relax.

On the night of the launch my nerves disappeared the minute I took the Xanax, my secret insurance policy against making a show of myself.

I sailed through the speech, even managing to make a joke, and my mother-in-law declared it a triumph.

I knew she was afraid of flying so I slipped her a few of the magic pills for her holidays and within the next six months I’d dosed my aunt with them when she had a terrible shock, and medicated my husband in an attempt to knock the occasional snoring out of him (didn’t work).

Eventually, of course, just the one didn’t work so well and I had to double the dose.

Then on the morning of my cousin’s funeral, I took one too many and foggily gave my husband the wrong directions to the funeral, getting hopelessly lost and ending up late.

It wasn’t cool and I quit there and then. I didn’t realise at the time that I’d been prescribed the lowest strength of Xanax, at 5mg, making my dalliance piffling compared to the industrial strengths Jacko and co were necking. Still, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to take it again.”

‘I took one too many. It wasn’t cool and I quit’

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