Chris Hughes on anxiety, panic attacks and love
Whether you know Chris Hughes from Love Island 2017, his TV shows with Kem Cetinay, or his presenting for ITV Racing, chances are you already know what an endearingly open guy Chris is.
Since entering the spotlight, he’s used his platform to reveal the power in being vulnerable, and is encouraging all men to feel no shame in showing their true emotions. As an ambassador for charities CALM and Movember, Chris is striving to help change the narrative around men’s mental health, and make a real difference.
Chris Hughes saunters out of the elevator at Happiful’s east London studio, puts down his backpack, and within five minutes is unloading his innermost feelings, even before the dictaphone is running. Some celebrities require a few questions – others an entire interview – to build an emotional connection with a journalist, but Chris is the polar opposite. In person he’s exactly who he seemed on Love Island in 2017 – tender-hearted, empathetic and sentimental – an open book who was commended by fans and health professionals alike for laying bare his deepest state of mind again and again.
Chris, 26, was often filmed in tears interacting with other contestants, and particularly when navigating the choppy seas of romance with then-girlfriend Olivia Attwood, who he split from in February 2018. He has since used his place in the public eye to raise mental health awareness, in particular talking about a difficult three years from the age of 19 where he was racked with anxiety. Panic attacks were a frequent reality.
Eventually Chris turned to a professional hypnotherapist, and the treatment worked. He was anxiety-free before, during, and after Love Island, but today admits he’s noticed a decline in his mental health. In August, during a holiday to Bali with girlfriend, Little Mix star Jesy Nelson, Chris endured a severe episode of anxiety, and has since, for the first time in his life, been struggling with low moods.
“It’s really strange that we’re doing this interview now, because it’s come at such a poignant time,” sighs Chris, taking a seat on a sofa in the studio lounge, and breathing in the views of the River Thames.
“Three days before we were coming back, I decided to get really drunk. I had a good blow out, then I felt awful the next day and started thinking: ‘Maybe there was something in my alcohol, maybe this isn’t the same kind of alcohol.’ I was panicking and worrying myself over it. For the last three or four days of my holiday, I couldn’t shake the anxiety, and now I’ve started feeling really low and down.
“It is confusing because I can’t put my finger on why,” continues Chris, scrunching up his brow.
Perhaps being propelled into stardom on Love Island was a contributing factor? Within three days of finishing third, Chris and winner Kem Cetinay landed an ITV2 spin-off show, You vs Chris and Kem, and went on to launch a fitness DVD, release a music single, and co-present from the National Television Awards red carpet. Chris has also published an autobiography, and worked with blue-chip brands galore including Topman, First Choice Holidays and McDonald’s, as well as landing a dream presenting job with ITV Racing in June this year. Most recently, Chris and Kem developed a new TV show idea, which they’re pitching to a production company.
I’ve got to stop saying to myself, ‘You’re feeling alright now, but you’re going to feel sad in a minute.’
“I’ve enjoyed all the work I’ve done since Love Island, and I really like life,” he says. “I’ve got the best family, the best girlfriend, the best social life, the best friends, I love where I live. I don’t dislike anything. This is why it’s so weird. I shouldn’t be [feeling] like this. I learned the other day that anxiety is feeling compelled to keep looking ahead to the future. With depression and feeling down, it’s the other way, about looking back, but there’s nothing I reflect on and regret, or think, ‘I should have done that.’ I just can’t work out why I’m feeling this way.”
In 2017, on World Mental Health Day, Chris was unveiled as an ambassador of CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably charity, which receives thousands of calls a month from people experiencing anxiety and depression. He’s also an ambassador for Movember, a charity dedicated to investing in prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health, and suicide prevention.
Shockingly, 12 men in Britain take their own lives every day, making suicide the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. In March this year, former Love Island star Mike Thalassitis, 26, ended his life. Sophie Gradon, who was a contestant in 2016, died by suicide in June 2018. Mike’s death heightened calls for improved aftercare for those who take part in reality TV shows.
Chris, who describes the psychological support provided by ITV as “brilliant” and says it’s “completely” unfair to blame the channel for the contestants’ deaths, never felt suicidal, but admits that lately he has been better able to understand the plight of those who feel there is no other way out.
“Since I’ve been feeling down, I’ve thought of people that have done it, and that’s a scary thought,” he says. “I think, ‘Does that mean, this is how they felt?’ I tell myself that how I am feeling now is how those people, who completed suicide, felt and that makes me feel worse inside. What I’m doing is convincing myself that I’ve got a greater issue or greater level of lowness than I actually have, and that’s what’s making me worse.”
In an attempt to get to the bottom of his feelings and better understand himself, Chris turned to a London-based clinical hypnotherapist called Pippa, who advised practising excellent self-care to feel his best possible self on the inside.
“She explained that getting out for a one-hour walk in the sunshine, even on a cloudy day, increases your levels of serotonin – that happy hormone – and that it can also be increased by eating foods high in omega oils. This morning I made sure I had salmon and eggs for breakfast, because I wanted to get those fish oils in me,” explains Chris, who is also trying to reduce the time he spends on his phone.
“My average is seven hours and 54 minutes. It’s a joke. I need to relearn how to be bored, but the main thing is to eliminate negative thoughts. I’ve got to stop saying to myself, ‘You’re feeling alright now, but you’re going to feel sad in a minute.’ Pippa tells me to think, ‘I’m OK, I’m happy, I will do this, I am this,’ instead of, ‘Will I be OK?’ You’ve got to be positive.”
Photography | Joseph Sinclair
Make-up and Hair | Amanda Clarke
Styling | Krishan Parmar