“We’ll make sure he’s OK”: Why this soccer player walking off live television was so important.

Video by ABC

Anxiety is a distinctively private experience that sits behind closed bedroom doors and inside small bathroom cubicles.

Until, of course, it manifests itself live on national television.

That’s the funny thing about anxiety. You can’t tell it what to do.

On Tuesday morning, 26-year-old Mitch Austin appeared on ABC News Breakfast to talk about the upcoming A-League football season.

The soccer player, who – as far as we can determine – has never been interviewed on television before, was asked by Georgie Tunny, “You’re kicking off the season in a pretty difficult fashion. How do the club, the players, yourself even, deal with the fallout from last season’s grand final?”

Staring at the floor, through jolted breaths, Austin replied “pretty tough”.

His right leg bounced intermittently, and his hands sat folded in his lap.

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“Yeah, um, obviously we’ve gotta… sorry, I just need to go,” he said, before getting up and walking off set, his microphone still awkwardly attached to the lounge.

Tunny’s face dropped.

Image via ABC.

"We've... we've just lost Mitch," the presenter said, before throwing back to hosts Virginia Triole and Paul Kennedy.

"We'll look after Mitch. We'll make sure he's OK," Triole said.

Later in the program, Tunny told viewers, "I think that he just blanked and then had a bit of a panic attack, but he's OK."

This isn't the first time someone has frozen on live television. In fact, it wasn't even the first time it had happened on ABC News Breakfast. 

Last year, Dr Benjamin Habib was invited onto the program to provide comment on North Korea's rocket launch, a subject that he has written and spoken about for many years.

"Well," the academic began. Then there was a long pause.

"They're making a... they're developing a..."

Both Michael Rowland and Triole made efforts to fill the silence and to provide Dr Habib with a moment to recover. But unfortunately, he didn't.

After strewing a few words together, he fell silent, and said "I can't do this". Triole quickly wrapped up the interview.

Dr Benjamin Habib. Image via ABC.

The anxiety of the academic, who had appeared on numerous television programs in the past to discuss North Korea's nuclear aspirations, was palpable from the beginning.

To watch it, even a year on, is tremendously uncomfortable.

Yet it remains a moment I will never forget - not least because of his personal analysis of it.

Later that same week, Dr Habib wrote a piece for the ABC titled, 'What it feels like to freeze on national television'. 

"I am reflecting here on the worst public embarrassment of my career," he wrote.

As soon as he was asked to do the interview, about 24 hours before hand, he experienced "steadily growing anxiousness".

"I did not sleep a single minute before I jumped on the train to the city on Monday morning," Dr Habib recalled. "I experienced the studio as a claustrophobic environment and felt instant discomfort."

As the presenters led into the segment, he writes, "I could feel my body overload with adrenaline as my entire physique heated up, my muscles deadened and my skin began to vibrate as if being shocked with a mild electric current."

And then he had a panic attack.

POST CONTINUES BELOW: We are living in the Age of Anxiety. 

Panic attacks are at once the fault of many things, and nothing at all. They can descend upon a person out of thin air - people who aren't particularly anxious, or are not all that familiar with nerves.

Even though for Austin and Dr Habib, this was undoubtedly a traumatic moment that they would have rather not shared with the country, both were enormously significant.

Athlete or academic, anxiety does not discriminate.

I think about my most public panic attack all the time. I was doing a presenting course at NIDA, in a room of 10 or so people, and I had to stand up and spend two minutes or so introducing myself.

I felt no nerves. I'd been interviewed on radio and spoken in front of hundreds at various University events. Jumping out of a plane was scary. Public speaking wasn't.

And then I froze.

I'd begun with a sentence, and suddenly it was like a switch in my brain had been flicked without my permission. My mind was blank. Silent. I attempted to recover, all I had to say was who I was for goodness sake - I knew the answer, but I could not construct a sentence.

Eventually the teacher saved me, and I fled to the bathroom. I was mortified.

I realised three things after that experience.

First, I developed a deep empathy for people who are terrified of public speaking. Second, I told myself - "Well, it's only up from here!" and found something oddly liberating about failing at a task I thought I was okay at.

But the third was the most powerful.

I realised that as awful as it feels in the moment to freeze and to be stuck in a moment of sheer terror, the world does not fall to pieces.

I was... fine.

The worst that could happen did happen, and no one died. I lived to tell the tale.

And so did Dr Habib. And Mitch Austin.

We're human. We're fallible. And anxiety can strike when we least expect it.

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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