The Loose Women star has been dogged by anxiety for decades
“As soon as I found a seat on the platform I buried my head in my hands and focused on my breathing,” says Andrea, 48, speaking of the terrifying experience two years ago.
“I was just willing myself not to be sick.” The feeling of nausea slowly passed but her distressing symptoms weren’t the result of a virus or a bug, instead she was having a full-on panic attack.
Andrea, who is a panellist on the popular ITV talk show Loose Women, has suffered from bouts of anxiety all her adult life but it was something she’d always kept to herself.
However this time she couldn’t contain her fears.
“I texted my boss to say I’d been taken unwell on the way to work and wouldn’t be in,” she says, admitting that she was at the time too embarrassed to reveal what was really wrong.
“Professional middle-aged women don’t tend to shout about anxiety,” she adds firmly. “It suggests you can’t cope.”
Telling yourself to get a grip just makes you feel worse.
According to mental health charity Mind, about three million people in the UK now suffer from some form of anxiety – with women twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with the condition.
Symptoms include intense nausea, dizziness, insomnia, breathlessness, a racing heart and an overwhelming feeling of fear and worry which can cause sufferers to become increasingly isolated as they strive to avoid all triggers.
“If left untreated anxiety can have a huge impact on day-to-day life, lowering your immune system and affecting your ability to hold down a job, form and maintain relationships or take pleasure in life,” says Rachel Boyd of Mind.
“Anxiety is nothing like stress,” explains Andrea. “The physical symptoms can be overwhelming, as can the intense dread about everything going wrong.
“Telling yourself to get a grip just makes you feel worse.”
Andrea experienced her first panic attack at 24 when a stranger pushed her halfway down an escalator and then verbally attacked her.
THE incident provoked intense fear and she went on to have many more panic attacks over the years.
There is no definitive cause of anxiety although experts believe genes, trauma, upbringing and stressful life events can all play a part.
Andrea reckons she was born anxious. “Ever since I was a young girl I have tried to be perfect,” she says. “I wanted to do well and to make people proud of me.”
In her 20s and 30s, she was able to repress her anxious feelings.
“I’d sit silently through my panic attacks almost as if I was drowning on land, in full view, but nobody knew it was happening except me.”
But in 2012, shortly after the collapse of her second marriage, she experienced an uncontrollable attack just half an hour before she was due to appear on Loose Women.
“I couldn’t stop shaking or crying,” she says. “The team were wonderful and just lay me down and kept me calm. Luckily Ruth Langsford was able to step in for me.
nyone would feel anxious in the midst of such turmoil and Andrea convinced herself it was a one-off. Now she knows that isn’t the case.
“The funny thing is that anxiety can crop up when you least expect it,” she says. “It’s not something you can consciously control.”
Her panic attack on the Tube occurred shortly before her 2016 wedding to her third husband, businessman Nick Feeney.
Although Andrea was incredibly happy, the fact that she had recently undergone a hysterectomy and she was juggling a busy TV career alongside the wedding preparations put her under extreme pressure.
“It was all too much. I had terrible insomnia and had only managed two hours sleep the night before,” says Andrea, speaking from the Surrey home she shares with Nick, 45, and her children Finlay, 16, and Amy, 11.
In the past she might have forged on. Instead she got a taxi home and spent the day in bed.
“For the first time I gave myself permission to be anxious and not feel guilty,” she says. “By the end of the day I was so much better.”
Andrea McLean with her menopause book
When she had a hysterectomy two years ago she shared the news with viewers, to explain her absence.
Quite unwittingly she became the poster girl for the menopause and has recently published a book on the subject. “I don’t know which is more stigmatised – the menopause or anxiety,” she says lightheartedly.
“But not being able to talk about these things makes them so much harder to bear.”
Andrea readily admits that the menopause has sent her fears into freefall.
“Anxiety can now paralyse me,” she says, describing the impact changing hormone levels have had on her.
“When it does I can’t think straight or focus. I’m convinced I’m stupid, ugly and unlovable. I can’t sleep at night or function in the day. It weighs so heavily sometimes I can’t breathe.”
Andrea believes a combination of falling oestrogen levels, having to deal with the physical impact of the menopause and a general decline in confidence can all contribute to increased anxiety in midlife women.
Andrea McLean with her husband Nick Feeney
Mind’s Rachel Boyd says women in their 40s and 50s have the highest levels of anxiety as they are juggling so many roles and responsibilities.
“The menopause comes at a time of life when there are already many pressures. When your hormones are changing it’s natural to experience a range of emotions.”
Andrea has learnt to tackle her anxiety head-on. “I have accepted that it is part of me and that I need to manage it. If I start fretting about the state of my house and trying to control everything, I know I’m vulnerable. That’s a definite red flag for me.”
Although she had not felt the need for antidepressants or therapy, HRT has helped to reduce her anxiety.
She also makes a real effort to eat well and to exercise regularly and swears by the restorative powers of mindfulness and yoga.
“I’ve learnt to be kinder to myself,” she says. “I know now that there’s no such thing as perfect. The world will keep turning if I stop rushing around for a while.”