Steve Coogan health: Star’s past drug addiction caused ‘terrifying’ panic attacks

Steve Coogan talks about Alan Partridge getting 'cancelled'

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It was while the 56-year-old actor was working on The Day Today, a British comedy show that was created by Armando Iannucci, that Coogan first developed his now mega popular character Alan Partridge. As the socially inept and politically incorrect media personality, Coogan starred in several TV series and a film titled Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa back in 2013. But during an interview back in 2020, Coogan admitted that some of his work as Partridge could have been funnier if it wasn’t for his crippling drug addiction.

Reflecting on how his health condition affected the second series of his BBC hit sitcom, Coogan said: “I did a lot of cocaine. It made you feel elated and confident, but for several days after you were full of self-loathing.

“It definitely began to affect my work. The second series of I’m Alan Partridge would have been better if I hadn’t been doing coke.

“Some of the live shows I did I was still intoxicated from the night before,” continued the comedian. “I didn’t care. I had a feeling of indestructibility. But the bottom line is the drugs don’t work.”

The star’s battle with cocaine began in 1992, when he was regularly given the drug for free. Taking the drug caused numerous severe health complications for the star, who back in 2015 recalled one occasion where he suffered from a “terrifying cocaine-induced panic attack.”

He wrote: “I’d been up all night doing drugs, and when I sat down to have breakfast I started to feel dizzy. My blood sugar level had dropped dramatically and I was on the verge of blacking out.

“I could feel pins and needles in my left arm, and my heart was thundering. I thought I was having a heart attack. Patrick [Marber] put me in a car and drove through red lights to get me to hospital. I cried all the way.

“I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘I’m going to die. This is it. My headstone will say: Stephen Coogan, born in Middleton in 1965, died in Edinburgh in 1992, aged 26 years.’ What a waste!”

After being examined by a doctor and told to stay in hospital overnight for observation, Coogan ignored medical advice and discharged himself the same day. However, the panic attacks kept occurring, and started to badly affect the star’s mental health.

He added: “The next day I had another panic attack. And another. They wouldn’t go away. I started to think I was going mad.

“I’d be having dinner in a restaurant, surrounded by people I did and didn’t know – or anywhere I felt I couldn’t easily escape – and I couldn’t breathe. I very quickly became depressed.”

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) explains that a substance abuse disorder (SUD) is classed as a mental health condition. Symptoms of SUD can range from moderate to severe with addiction the most severe form.

Researchers have also found that about half of individuals who experience SUD will also experience another mental health disorder at the same time. This can include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar
  • Schizophrenia.

The NIH goes further to explain three reasons why SUD and other mental health disorders may occur together:

  • Common risk factors can contribute to both SUD and other mental disorders. Both SUD and other mental disorders can run in families, suggesting that certain genes may be a risk factor. Environmental factors, such as stress or trauma, can cause genetic changes that are passed down through generations. This may contribute to the development of a mental disorder or SUD.
  • Mental disorders can contribute to substance use and SUDs. Studies found that people with a mental disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. However, although some drugs may temporarily help with some symptoms of mental disorders, they may make the symptoms worse over time.
  • Substance use and SUD can contribute to the development of other mental disorders. Substance use may trigger changes in brain structure and function that make a person more likely to develop a mental disorder.

Mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness explains that cocaine in particular can initially make individuals feel talkative and confident. But after the drug wears off, individuals quickly become tired and depressed. In the long-term, frequent cocaine use can cause paranoia, depression and anxiety, as well as physical symptoms and health conditions like fits, heart attacks and strokes.

As in Coogan’s case, panic attacks are also a side effect of prolonged cocaine abuse. The NHS explains that panic attacks are a main symptom of panic disorder, when individuals have feelings of anxiety, stress and panic regularly, often for no apparent reason.

During a panic attack, both mental and physical symptoms can occur very suddenly, becoming frightening and distressing for the individual. Some symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • A racing heartbeat
  • Feeling faint
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling
  • Hot flushes
  • Shaky limbs
  • A choking sensation
  • Dizziness.

These attacks can last anywhere from five to 20 minutes, with some having been reported of lasting up to an hour. Although frightening, panic attacks are usually not dangerous and will not cause the individual any physical harm.

In order to tackle his own panic attacks and anxiety, Coogan sought the advice of a therapist, who taught him breathing exercises and coping mechanisms so he could “trick” the mind as soon as he felt an attack coming on.

Therapy is one of the main treatments for panic disorder, as individuals are taught ways of changing their behaviour to keep them calm during an attack. One successful therapy is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), where individuals have sessions once a week or once every two weeks.

“He told me to breathe slowly and to think of a place where I was happy as a child. I would think of childhood holidays in Ireland, of the farmhouse where I used to sit and gaze out of the window at the rain. To my amazement, it worked,” Coogan recalled about his own experience with therapy.

For drug addiction support, call the Frank drugs helpline on 0300 123 6600. They can talk to individuals about all of their options.

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