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  All twisted up in Trista's game
The Bachelorette contestant suffered from social phobia
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

[Photo: Glenn Lowson,
National Post]

Jamie Blyth suffered his first panic attack when he was 19.

I was surprised to hear that Jamie Blyth, one of my favourite bachelors from The Bachelorette, was speaking at the annual meeting of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America in Toronto last week. But sure enough, he suffers from an anxiety disorder and approached the organization saying he'd like to tell his story.

During his presentation, Blyth gives no sign of panic disorder or social phobia (which is how he describes his problem). In fact, he comes across much more animated and pleasant in person than he did on television, making me wonder why Trista didn't pick him.

He says he appeared on the highly rated reality TV show to confront his fears. Since being dumped by Trista, he's appeared on Oprah, Connie Chung's since-cancelled show and Good Morning America -- a lot of exposure for a guy suffering from anxiety.

"Everything was great in my life," Blyth says, until his first panic attack at the age of 19. "Picture that you're walking down the street late at night and someone puts a gun to your head. I started to hyperventilate and felt that I would die. I staggered away."

That was the beginning of three terrible years, at the end of which he says he hit rock bottom and contemplated suicide. The only respite was playing basketball, where he was confident (he played professionally) and never suffered anxiety. Finally, he got help.

"My biggest fear was speaking to people, but I worked on getting over it," says the attractive 27-year-old. "Doing The Bachelorette was hard. I was criticized. I had a camera on me 24/7. It was right on top of me. If I'd had a panic attack, the whole world would have seen it." He says if he'd gone on television at the age of 22, "I'd be in a mental hospital." But he's much better now. These days, he says jokingly, "I never cry, except when Trista dumped me."

Blyth tells me the show involved 900 hours of video condensed to just four hours. The drastic editing was why fellow contestant Russ was panned by the audience. "They did enough to make him look bad, but he's really not that bad," Blyth says. "Someone had to be the villain."

Blyth came across as likeable because he became friends with the editors of the show, he says. A good thing to remember. He's happy about The Bachelorette experience. "The important thing is to have a vision," he says. "If you want to go somewhere, do something, don't let panic stop you. Set attainable goals and keep raising the bar. The terror will subside.

"Panic is the best thing that ever happened to me," he insists. "I thought I was alone and I'm not."

Only about 20 people, if that, came to hear Blyth speak on Friday, but I'm told this isn't surprising. Many people with anxiety don't want to admit to it or may even be afraid to venture far from home. (That said, the organizers are surprised more professionals didn't turn out.) Some 10% of the population suffer severe anxiety, which may manifest itself as avoiding contact with others (49%), avoiding answering the phone (41%), blocking out the daily news (16%) and in the most extreme cases refusing to leave the house (14%). I must admit I've done all these things on occasion.

"It's normal to get anxious in common, stressful situations like going on a job interview or a date," says Alies Muskin, the chief operating officer of the association, but the sweaty palms, racing heart and shaking hands are usually temporary. "But almost one-quarter of Americans feel a high level of worry or anxiety on a daily basis."

If these feelings disrupt your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder, the most common symptoms of which are excessive worry, sleep difficulties, panic attacks, obsessive or ritualistic behaviors, phobias and social anxiety.

  Last update: May 6, 2009
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