Creativity had always helped Nicola to thrive, until panic attacks ground her world to a halt. But now she’s combining her experiences to live her best life, and support others on their journeys, too
I loved my career as a fashion stylist – being creative, meeting new people, and travelling the world – until one day I experienced the horror of a panic attack, and my whole life changed...
Growing up, I enjoyed primary school as I had the freedom to be creative, but when things became more academic in secondary school, that all changed. At the time I was unaware of my dyslexia, and thought that I was just stupid. When I left school in 1990, I came away with no qualifications.
I worked in retail and customer services for a few years, until I was made redundant. I didn’t know what to do next, until I saw a job advertised for a part-time window dresser. Even the interview was fun, as I got to go around the store and gather items for a window display. I was offered a full-time position in their flagship store in Marble Arch and was over the moon – I still look back at that job with fond memories.
Through my colleagues in the press office and PR, I first heard about fashion styling. I was excited that you could have a career in dressing people rather than mannequins, so I contacted some fashion stylists and offered to be their assistant on weekends.
From collecting and returning clothes to PR companies, I then began assisting on some photoshoots. On these shoots the photographers always had assistants, like myself, who wanted to build a portfolio of work – in those days a qualification wasn’t required but a portfolio was. I started to do ‘test shoots’ where assistant stylists, make-up artists, photographers and budding models got together to create images for their portfolios.
There, in 1998, my career began; I thought I was set up for a dazzling life in fashion for the rest of my career. Until one day that all changed.
I was shopping with my fiancé, which resulted in a minor disagreement about what to buy. Not only was my reaction to him totally disproportionate to the event, but suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe, the world was closing in on me, I was dizzy and couldn’t see properly – I was even foaming at the mouth. I managed to get back to the car and collapsed on the floor, completely terrified and confused. I knew I had to make an appointment with my doctor, who advised me to talk to someone at Mindline – a helpline in south east London.
Like my initial unawareness of styling, counselling was a complete unknown to me. I didn’t know anyone who’d had counselling, and couldn’t understand how simply talking to someone was going to stop these horrendous attacks. Unlike now on the NHS, where you might wait months, this was 2002 and I was lucky that I only had to wait a couple of weeks for an appointment – although they were some of the hardest weeks of my life. The panic attacks continued, I became quite depressed, and had to cancel work as I didn’t want to leave the house. I was unable to live my day-to-day life through fear.
I still see my work as being creative – counselling is like fashion and one style of therapy may not suit all
I attended counselling once a week, which, despite my apprehension, actually started to help. I was able to discuss my fears and thoughts openly, without being judged. I started speaking about my childhood and past. How my dad neglected me, my nan, who had been my main carer at the time due to my mum having to work all hours, died suddenly when I was eight years old. My early teenage years involved physical and emotional bullying, and during my late teens I was in a violent relationship.
I now know that these experiences are classed in psychological terms as small ‘t’ traumas, and an accumulation of these, especially in childhood, can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can manifest in later life through panic attacks.
Small ‘t’ traumas are highly distressing events that affect us on a personal level, causing disruption in emotional functioning, which we may not even be aware of until later in life. These distressing events are not inherently life threatening, but can cause an overwhelming amount of stess that exceeds our ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.
I started to build my confidence back up through journalling and therapy, but I was still unable to go on jobs abroad, or be in large crowds. I had to give up my career as a stylist because I couldn’t attend the shoots, and took a local admin job instead.
My counsellor suggested I go on a self-awareness counselling course, and that is where my journey to become a counsellor began. I was intrigued as to how my suppressed emotions had manifested and erupted at a time when I felt most settled in my life.
I’ve always been interested in how the mind works, but never pursued it due to my struggles at school – it wasn’t until I actually attended college that my dyslexia was diagnosed, with help from a very supportive tutor. During the course I developed severe psoriasis all over my lower body and in my hair. The psoriasis, like the panic attacks, was a symptom of my suppressed emotions.
To gain experience as a therapist, I returned to Mind as a volunteer. I went on to become a crisis counsellor with them, and then set up my own private practice in 2010.
My personal experience has shaped my way of working as a therapist, and I still like to see my work as being creative – counselling is like fashion and one style of therapy may not suit all.
Unknown to me at the time, my performance in my career was affected by the little ‘t’ traumas I experienced in childhood, and held on to in my body. I learnt that our mental health affects our performance in every aspect of our lives – including our career.
In working this way, I came to notice that in addition to a client’s improvement in mental wellbeing, their performance and productivity at work increased. This has led me to offer performance therapy to sports people, and workshops within organisations on how to perform better in all aspects of life.
No matter what path my life takes in the future, I know that I need to continue to tap into my creativity
Although counselling is a collaborative and creative process, I realised that when I stopped working as a stylist, that creative part of me had gone stagnant. I started to look at the psychology of the creative process, and how this affects our wellbeing, and found studies showing that artistic self-expression might contribute to maintenance or reconstruction of a positive identity.
I have come to realise that for my own wellbeing I have needed, and still need, to be creative – whether it’s through changing my hair colour, my clothes, making greeting cards, taking photos, gardening or home interior projects. The latter creative activities also help my stress levels, as I am being mindful in the process.
It’s been a journey to get to this point, and I will always be aware of how my past, the dyslexia, panic attacks, and counselling have formed my life to be what it is today. No matter what path my life takes in the future, I know that I need to continue to tap into my creativity, and self-expression, for my mental health and wellbeing.
Read more about Nicola Vanlint on counselling-directory.org.uk
Rav Sekhon | BA MA MBACP (Accred), says:
Nicola’s inspiring journey highlights how our life experience is truly with us forever, and if we do not have opportunity to explore such difficulties that we have experienced, they can impact our lives negatively in the future – and in her case manifest as severe panic attacks. Nicola courageously explored what was happening for her, to understand and also grow, via the process of counselling. Thankfully, Nicola was able to navigate her way through her trauma to a place where she now draws upon her experience as a source of strength, determination and positive energy.