Monday 23 January 2017

'Young men in their 30s have such problems with social anxiety that they can't ask women out'- Irish therapist Dr Harry Barry

Dr Harry Barry (63) is a GP, cognitive behavioural therapist and author. He has a special interest in the area of mental health. He lives in Drogheda, Co Louth, with his wife, Brenda. They have three children - Lara, Daniel and Joseph

Ciara Dwyer

Published 04/07/2016 | 02:30

Dr Harry Barry who lives in Drogheda. Photo: Dave Conachy.
Dr Harry Barry who lives in Drogheda. Photo: Dave Conachy.

Like so many people, I hate the mornings. I'm really bad at that time of the day. Normally, I'd be out of bed by 7.30am. I might go to Mass, because I find that it grounds me. I live with my wife, Brenda. For breakfast, I have brown bread, cereal, fruit and a pot of tea. I try to avoid coffee as much as I can because it hypes the brain. One of the big triggers of anxiety is the continuous flow of coffee during the day. It keeps our whole stress system fired up.

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I start work at 9am. I retired from full-time practice as a GP two years ago because I was getting slightly overwhelmed by people looking to see me in the mental-health area. But also, I was trying to write books. My latest one is called Flagging Anxiety and Panic, which is about reshaping the anxious mind and brain. I'm also a cognitive behavioural therapist, which means that I'm able to assess somebody medically, and from a psycho-therapeutic point of view. Somebody comes to me and I can assess them, and, if at all possible, I will not be using medication. Instead, I will use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and suggest lifestyle changes. People don't understand how our brain and our body are totally interconnected. If we treat our bodies badly, our minds will suffer.

Every week, I do two full days of mental-health consultancy work. I see people aged from the late teens right up to those in their 70s. But at the moment, I'm seeing a lot under the age of 45 with all forms of anxiety and panic attacks. They are really big issues, but the good thing is that I can help, and they can clear these problems in six sessions. When some people think of therapy, they think of the Woody Allen thing of going to a therapist forever. I have no time for that. I believe in giving people coping skills, to try to move them on.

Social anxiety is huge. This is where a person gets incredibly anxious with social interaction. For example, if the person is going down to the pub to meet a group of people, some of whom they've never met before, they may be so anxious that they spend an hour beforehand rehearsing what they are going to say and planning how they are going to look. Young men in their 30s come to me, and they can't get into relationships because they can't get comfortable enough in social situations to ever be able to ask out a girl. Their lives are hell, and they feel very isolated.

A lot of people come to me because they have panic attacks. I qualified as a doctor in 1976, and panic attacks have been there as long as I can remember. But I definitely think there has been an increase in the last five years, particularly in young people. Panic attacks are very distressing. Somebody might be at home sitting in front of the TV without thinking about anything and the next thing, their heart is racing and their stomach is in knots. They shake and sweat and feel awful. Then the more they try to stop these symptoms, the worse they seem to get. They worry that they are going to have a heart attack and die. They catastrophise, and their mind spirals out of control. Lots of people try to do breathing exercises in the middle of a panic attack, but that only makes them become more panicky. Some people have panic attacks for up to 10 years before they come to see me. Young people often self-harm because of them. I believe that technology is making young people anxious and agitated.

The biggest reason that people are frightened by panic attacks is that they think there is no trigger. But actually, the first physical symptom you feel is the trigger. There is an organ in your emotional brain called the amygdala, which is like a gunslinger. It senses that you are bothered and it keeps firing. Once you understand this rationally, you understand why you are getting all the physical symptoms. I teach a flooding technique, which means that the patient has to accept the symptoms. Some panic attacks can go on for hours, but if you let the adrenaline rush happen, it will pass more quickly. At first, this is unpleasant, but finally the memory in the amygdala changes. You weaken it, so patients start to lose their fear of panic attacks and then they stop happening completely. It's about retraining the brain. I get them to do a panic exercise where I try to get them to bring on a panic attack and when they can't, they realise that I'm putting them back in charge of their bodies. It's very rewarding.

Each session with a patient takes an hour. I always try to have an hour-long lunch break because it is exhausting work. I can only see so many people, so that's why I wrote the book. Also, I made a YouTube video about panic attacks, and a quarter-of-a-million people have watched it.

A lot of my patients have general anxiety. Unlike acute panic attacks, this is low-grade but constant. It also causes tiredness. It is very common, especially in women. I think this is because they take on too much. You can't get rid of general anxiety, but you can seriously reduce its power. People are too hard on themselves. They make impossible demands on themselves, and then rate themselves as failures when they are not able to meet the demands. My mantra is to be kind to yourself, accept yourself as you are and stop comparing yourself to everybody else.

At the end of a clinic, I'll eat something simple, like a chicken salad. I make sure that I create time for myself, my relationship and my family. I like to do some exercise, and then in the evenings, I might write. I enjoy a relaxing bath at night, and then a book for 15 minutes - I love crime thrillers. Then I'm in bed at 11.30pm. I need my sleep. My job is to help a person get over their situation, but then I have to park it. When I do other things for myself, then I'm better at my job.

'Flagging Anxiety and Panic' by Dr Harry Barry is published by Liberties Press, priced €14.95

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