Todd Muller reflects on the panic attacks, anxiety he faced as National leader

Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller has shared details about the "frequency and intensity" of panic attacks he experienced after becoming National Party leader.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Muller has written a "personal reflection" on his Facebook page about the challenges he faced after taking the National Party leadership off Simon Bridges in May. 

On the evening of May 27, nearly a week after the leadership battle, Muller says he was being driven from Auckland to Tauranga when he had his first panic attack.

"Sure, it had been a rough couple of days of media criticism, but I was heading home and had finished a couple of great conversations with mentors and supporters. I was looking forward to seeing my wife and kids before a day out in my electorate," he writes.

The criticism he is likely referencing is about the lack of diversity on his newly chosen frontbench and questions from the media about a MAGA hat he owned. 

"It started with an intense prickling sensation in my head, followed by what I would describe as 'waves' of anxiety. I had never experienced these sensations before, despite having lived through some very high pressured moments at Fonterra dealing with global food safety scares."

He attempted to "stem these sensations of dread" by taking deep breaths and finding something to focus on. But he broke down in his wife Michelle's arms, 

"As Michelle did many times over the subsequent 50 days, she comforted me, soothed these feelings of wretchedness with unconditional love and positivity. I awoke the next morning tired, but excited for the day that lies ahead."

But the anxiety returned the next weekend with "even more ferocity" that included night sweats and nausea. 

He says over the next week his sleep became disrupted, waking up after three hours and not being able to fall back into a slumber whatever he tried.

"Nothing could stop the waves of anxiety and dread that would start the moment I woke up. I could tell it was impacting my performance so I was prescribed sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication if needed to get through the weekdays in parliament. At least this would get me through to maybe 5 hours sleep a night, maybe enough to function."

However, Muller says the "attacks still came", including in the day.

He says previously when he had heard other people's experiences with panic attacks, he thought they just "had to try harder or get a grip or focus on something else more positive".

"Everything I was now trying to do but failing. For me it had become a daily wrestle of my mind and it took an astounding amount of mental energy to get through each day."

Muller says his family "bore the brunt of it" and he felt as if he was "slipping down a slope" despite the efforts of his wife to help him.

"In the end the frequency and intensity of the panic attacks took me to a place where I had to step away from the fire, the anxiety and the pain."

In what was then a shock to the country, Muller stood down as National leader in mid-July, releasing a statement early in the morning saying the role had taken "a heavy toll" and it had become "untenable from a health perspective". While at the time he didn't specify what his health issues were, it was widely reported that he had suffered some type of "breakdown".

Muller, who will stand again in the Bay of Plenty electorate at this year's election, says in the post that with the help of family, friends and a specialist, he is recovering. 

"I have had no panic attacks and the pressure in my head has abated, although it will take time to fully heal," he says.

"I have been inundated with goodwill, humbled by random people congratulating me on my courage and in some cases asking for advice. The recognition is not due, for whilst at the end, I did walk away, I could. The greater courage is those who deal with it even when it is harder to walk away."

His advice is to "share the pain", as he did with his wife and a friend. 

"Speak up, it does not so matter to whom, but it does so matter that you do."

He wants to add his personal experience to the other "braver New Zealanders who have battled and still battle today with their mental health".

"I know now that is the definition of true courage. We need to listen more to people like Sir John Kirwan and Mike King, true leaders who demonstrate daily their commitment to their fellow countrymen and women."

The Bay of Plenty MP is ranked eight on the National Party list and is the party's Trade spokesperson. He was succeeded in the leadership role by Papakura's Judith Collins.

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