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Faith Helps Celebrity Willard Scott Overcome Panic Attacks, Personal Loss

Willard Scott, Today Show
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Longtime broadcaster Willard Scott knows what a panic attack is all about. Willard vividly recalled his first one.

“In the beginning, it was a bridge…the old bridge in Charleston, South Carolina. I was about 25 years old and, all of a sudden, I was on the bridge. When I got on it, I thought I was having a heart attack. Then, it took its worst form when it affected me on the air.  I started to get panic attacks at certain times. I never knew when it was going to hit me. That was the worse part.”

Tired of the attacks, Willard sought help and found it.

“I went to psychiatrists and psychologists. They told me it was an irrational phobia.  There was no reason for it. I think a lot of people think it’s caused by a chemical imbalance. And, that’s the good news because there are treatments that really do work.   If one of your listeners is afflicted with the disorder, I suggest he see a doctor. These days, compared with 20 years ago, there are so many medicines that can relieve the symptoms. You don’t have to take the medications for life. The main thing is you buy yourself some time to work things out. You can get over the rough spots. Just don’t get hung up on it and don’t feel like you’re the only person in the world with it. You’re not and there’s an awful lot of help out there.”

But, not all the advice has paid off for Willard. A doctor once told him to put a bag over his head and breathe deeply when he gets an attack – even if he’s on the air.
“That’d be great on the Today show, wouldn’t it?  If I sat there with a bag over my head!”

While that bit of advice didn’t pan out, Willard kept searching for a specialist who would assist him in keeping the anxiety under control. He finally found one.

“You’re never really over it. It’s always there. I think like any handicap you learn to live with it. You find ways to avoid putting yourself in situations that can cause you real problems. Barbara Streisand has it; the late Buddy Hackett had it. I think Barbara stopped concerts for a while because of the attacks.  It’s always with you and I do believe I’ve learned to handle it about as well as I can. Interestingly enough, I find it’s anticipatory.  That’ the word they use for me. If I’m going to do a speech and think about it, I get in a plane, go to a town, get dressed, go down to the cocktail party, take pictures – all along I know I’ve got to do that speech.  When the time comes, I’m nervous.  But, if I’m in a crowd of 50 thousand people and someone says, ‘Willard’s here and wants to say hello,’ I can get up there and I’ll talk for an hour without a problem.”

From his perspective, Willard says people who practice positive self-talk can reduce the intensity of anxiety attacks. What also helps is one’s faith. That was especially important when the celebrity entertainer’s wife passed away.

“I’ve always been a pretty good believer. We were married 44 years and deeply loved each other. We were a team all the way down the line. So, it was a terrible, terrible loss. I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything for the first 6 months. But, thank God for work. Work, I believe, is the greatest healer in the world. But, I didn’t have any desire to socialize at all. I spent a lot of time in prayer hoping that I’d contact her and in some way she’ll contact me. Indeed I did have a couple of visitations. She did appear to me at one point. I’m not telling you it’s some mystical thing that happened. I don’t know what it was. All I know it was very real and didn’t last but about 10 seconds. But, she was there and told me not to worry about things. No two ways about it, your faith is really important along with good health.”

Helen Keller once wrote, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.  Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”  Willard Scott, a practicing optimist, knows that for a fact.

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