Ella Henderson candidly opens up about overcoming anxiety and panic attacks as she returns to music

Powerful.

13 Sep 2019

Ella Henderson was just 16 when she won over the nation with her incredible vocal ability on X-Factor. What followed was an international number one smash, Ghost, at the tender age and years of touring the world with no fixed place to call home. Ella seamlessly had the world at her feet but after one paparazzi photo of her on the beach made her question her body image anxiety and panic attacks took over.

Now, still just 23 years old, Ella is back after a five-year hiatus and is more empowered than ever before with new music – her new EP Glorious is released on November 8th - which powerfully traces her journey towards self-love. Here, Ella opens up candidly to our Josh Smith about how she turned her lowest moments into a source of empowerment…

"It’s been nearly five years since I released a record on my own and in this high-pressure industry coming back into it as a young female is really daunting and scary. I feel like over the last few years I’ve gone through so much – I have been through thick and thin and I have come out the other side.

There’s definitely no one emotion that any human being feels, and I think I have come to terms with the fact it’s not normal to feel happy all the time - that doesn't exist. I realised you do have your moments when you’re going to worry or feel fear, feel terrified, you’re so nervous, your body is feeling shaken and you’re having a physical reaction to it. Like the panic attacks I have been experienced in recent years. But that is okay, too.

I first experienced it after I went away for my 21st birthday. I took my mum and my sister with me to St. Lucia. I came back home and I had nothing in the house, so I went to the shop to buy some bread and milk. When I walked past the magazines, I just saw this massive ass on this magazine and I thought, “fucking hell who is that?” I took another glance and was like, “oh my god that’s me!” It absolutely shook me. I dropped the milk on the floor. The women in the shop know me well so she asked if I was okay and I was like, “yeah I am fine! Just can you get rid of all these magazines, please!” I had never experienced anything like that before and I immediately went home and that was it. I didn’t leave the house for quite a period of time. In the first 24 hours I was in the darkest place I’ve ever been in my life. Then as the weeks went on and on, I started to come to terms with myself again. The people that love me most, my friends and my family all came around me. They all just said, “whoever that person is, they took a bad picture of you but you’re Ella. You need to look in the mirror and accept that you are Ella to us and whoever you are is exactly who you are as a soul and as a person.

That’s when I realised, ok you can take some really dodgy shots of me. I don't look my best. I have put some weight on, who doesn't straight after Christmas? I probably had two rounds of Christmas dinner on the plate, but I was feeling really low about myself. I also realised this happens to so many more people than what is seen in the press. It happened to my little cousin, too and my auntie was telling me that at school there was something going around on social media and she wanted this picture taken down. That made it hit home that it happens on smaller and bigger scales.

Now, I actually want to say thank you to the person who took the photograph of me. Nothing can be worse than having a shot of me in my bikini looking at my worst when I didn't know there was a camera there. I was more upset about the fact that I am not the type of girl that would post a picture of me in a bikini and that someone took that privacy away from me. Whoever was zooming in on my ass when I was bending over putting on some sun cream it was invasive to say the least. It affected my mental health and my relationship with my body. But the experience actually became a new inspiration for my song writing. Instead of playing victim to anything I learnt to embrace it and feel empowered by it. I want to send a message that, yeah you know what this f**king happens but is it the end of the world? My health is okay, I’m okay, I still got my mates around me, I still got my family! I’m settled.

I became a lot healthier afterwards – it was like I took control of the reins of my life again. I have never been the person who has just sat there with the perfect body or worn a skimpy outfit. It's always been about my music and that's who I am. So, I returned to that. You need to learn to love yourself or you'll never step out of your front door and live life to the full if you don’t do that. I have really realised how powerful the mind is and how as human beings we always put things in boxes or put labels on things. So as soon as your set your mind free of that you can just live in the present and stop worrying about the past and the future. I am putting positive energy back out there and physically I feel so much more positive about myself. If someone told me I would be able to do that even a year ago I would say it was impossible and I would never get there. But it's stepping-stones.

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One steppingstone was when I watched your interview with Perrie (Edwards) about her anxiety. I actually watched it twice because it really hit a chord with me. I know the girls quite closely but for me being someone about to come back into the industry and seeing another female of a similar age going through the exact same sh*t, like being scared to leave the house, having to like ring your mum, was so powerful. I was crying watching it and I thought, ‘oh my god she is speaking to me!’ It was an incredible thing because it just shows you how amazing it is to really open about these things. The hardest part is opening up and talking. For a while I was suppressing it which was making me feel a lot worse especially mentally. I think that's what formed my first ever panic attack, was suppressing worry and fear. I couldn’t understand my own thought process and why I was feeling that way. It was scary - my face went fuzzy and I felt like I was going to die.

WATCH: The GLAMOUR Unfiltered video with Perrie Edwards discussing her struggles with anxiety that inspired Ella Henderson

It’s more surprising to me that it didn’t happened when I was performing Ghost and travelling here, there and everywhere. I didn't know what city I was waking up to on some days. Instead it came at a time when I was in ‘transition’ when I was writing and getting ready for my new music. There are so many reasons for that, especially for a young woman with hormones and also just the anticipation of coming back.

Now I am able to recognise that I create worry and fear and I know when an attack is happening. I begin to immediately get a hot and cold sensation which is quite similar to the feeling I get before I go on stage. Except it's not as nice because I know I am about to go sing to a load of people who are going to enjoy a set of music, whereas this is like, ’oh my god if this spirals out of control it's a big long thought process!’ The panic then keeps on building and it ends up being an anxiety attack.

But now, I’ve got to a place where I live quite a balanced and healthy living regime, a routine has really helped with me. Having a routine outside of your job or career always helps. I went back to a personal trainer I have known since I was 16 years old – who I knew I could really trust. I started boxing with him and that released a lot of adrenaline out of me and meditation helped to. For me it's been a long journey to try and actually grasp how you can actually become quite mindful and actually close your mind. 90 percent of us are constantly having compulsive thoughts and we don't realise it and that's definitely me. We are always our worst enemy at the end of the day – especially as creatives - we always want perfection and just sometimes having 10 minutes to myself helps. The first thing I do in the morning is get my yoga mat out and do 10-minute breathing exercises to bring myself back to a central point, a place where I feel comfortable again, I’m grounded and feel in control of myself.

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If it happens during the day, I just close my eyes and think of a safe place. I sometimes think of my bedroom, I’ve just put fresh bedding on, I am about to go lay on it and there's a lit candle. Somebody told me when I have a panic attack that you got to concentrate on your breathing, and I thought in the moment that is so easy to say – how will I process that when I am hyperventilating. But the more you do it, the more you realise it’s going to help. Now it takes 15 rounds of breathing until I come back to a normal. There’s no point doing it 10 times and thinking it’s not working but I just trust myself and tell myself I am stronger than that and I am in control.

After being on this massive journey I feel more empowered than ever before. I have built a solid world around me including my house and a solid set of friends, so much so that if everything collapsed tomorrow, I would still feel safe and secure as they are the things that mean the most of me. After Ghost my career just catapulted and the next three or four years of my life I wasn’t in a fixed place. I really mean this I couldn’t say anything bad about X-Factor, I felt fearless when I was 16 years old and it was like a bootcamp for what I would go onto experience. What really took away my normality was having a number one record and how that felt. When you are travelling the world, you miss so much – the birthdays, the weddings - I think even my mum struggled after 16 years being there for every single birthday all of a sudden, I was in Australia and she couldn't even get to me. Then I did my UK tour and when I came off the back of that just before going to album two I had this moment where I thought, “wow I want to form real relationships, I want to hang out with my friends who have not seen in years, I want to go buy a sofa, I just want to do normal things and get my sh*t together.” You can go to all these amazing places and return home and it doesn’t feel like home. Building that unit has really been the most important thing for my mental health.

I think my Glorious EP shows that I have come into my own. I feel a lot stronger as a human being and just more like a woman. The embodiment of this album is self-love and by that I don’t mean looking in the mirror and loving myself I mean what actually makes me happy and puts a smile on my face. I have realised that I am absolutely fine just being me, the normal northern lass from Grimsby that doesn’t have the perfect body. I want this record to help as many people as possible even if it’s just one or two fans to realise you can get through anything."

Ella's single, Glorious is out now. The EP of the same name is released on November 8th