Wellington City councillor Rebecca Matthews opens up about panic attacks and stress

Wellington City councillor Rebecca Matthews has experienced a dozen panic attacks since she was elected, something she has never dealt with before.

The first one happened during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“I didn’t even know what was happening, I just started feeling a lot of pain in my chest. It was about 10 minutes of pain and I had to lie down, then it just went away”, Matthews told the Herald.

“I thought I was either having an angina attack or maybe had gallstones. I only thought there would be physical things wrong with me.”

After another two attacks, Matthews went to see a GP who assessed her and asked whether she had a lot of stress in her life.

At that time the Covid-19 pandemic was raging, Matthews’ father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Wellington City Council was being called dysfunctional and divided.

Matthews said the council environment was the main trigger for her attacks.

“I don’t want to complain, it’s a privilege to represent my community, but it is a very stressful job and I think I was very unprepared for how nasty it can be at times.

“I think my body was unable to process what was happening to me and sent me this message though pain.”

She said tension at council could be difficult to navigate because a win for one councillor could be a loss for another.

“Your colleagues are your competition … we all ran against each other.

“I’m quite sensitive so when people say quite hurtful things, it does hurt me.”

For example, Matthews had a panic attack in the shower before a high stakes vote on whether to sell and lease council land at Shelly Bay to make way for a controversial housing development.

Matthews isn’t the only politician to recently open up about panic attacks on the job.

National MP and former party leader Todd Muller has also spoken candidly about his anxiety and attacks.

Both Muller and Matthews hope that by sharing their experiences, other New Zealanders will too.

The Mental Health Foundation describes panic attacks as feelings of severe anxiety that start and finish quite suddenly. A person can feel like they are about to die, collapse, or lose control of their mind.

Panic disorder is when someone has frequent attacks, like once a month or more, and this affects 2 to 3 per cent of the population every year.

Matthews told her colleagues about the attacks so they could understand what was happening if one ever came on in a council setting.

The biggest one she has experienced in public was at a Three Waters forum attended by all councillors and mayors in the Wellington region.

Matthews abruptly left the meeting with fellow city councillor Fleur Fitzsimons not far behind.

“I looked into her eyes and I found it terrifying because I couldn’t see the Rebecca that I know”, Fitzsimons recalled.

“It was really scary because she didn’t seem present in the moment.”

Fitzsimons quickly researched on Google what to do.

“The advice was to be reassuring, stay near the person, and encourage them to keep breathing in a conscious way and remind them to do that.”

Fitzsimons said she didn’t think panic attacks were very well understood at council or by the community.

“It felt really out of character for Rebecca because she’s such a confident strong person, but now I know that’s no indication of someone’s likelihood to suffer from panic attacks.

“It can happen to anyone.”

Matthews said she feared having the attacks in public: “I don’t want to be weird.”

Things which help her recover from them also include cutting out sensory distractions, closing her eyes, and lying down.

Medication has reduced the frequency of the attacks to a point where Matthews feels like she is relatively on top of them.

She said everyone handled stress differently.

“In a way the stress has turned on myself, whereas some people turn it on others.

“This is a really common thing and people in public life are going to experience exactly the same problems that everyone else does, in some ways we have it easier, but by being open about it we can normalise and destigmatise.”

Where to get help

• Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633 ¦ Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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