'I beat my crippling panic attacks by tapping into the wisdom of our Stone Age ancestors – and you can too.' David Cameron's speech writer CLARE FOGES reveals how she beats her self-doubt and anxiety

Clare Foges used to be chief speech-writer for prime minister David Cameron but today she is absorbed in the milky bliss of motherhood.

Her fourth child, five-month-old daughter Romy, dozes and feeds intermittently while Clare, 43, cuddles her. Romy does not cry for the duration of our chat. I forget she is even there.

This is a first for me: a contented breast-feeding baby and an interview with a mum simultaneously so relaxed and engaged that she is able to talk intelligently and soothe her child at the same time.

All the more surprising, though, is the fact that a decade ago Clare, having reached the pinnacle of her Downing Street career, was besieged by self-doubt and anxiety. One panic attack was so debilitating it left her gasping for air.

It was the 2013 Tory Party conference and PM Cameron was poised to deliver his keynote closing speech in Manchester. Clare — who had written every word of the address, perfecting each nuance and inflection of meaning during the previous months — fled the hall, propelled by blind terror.

‘As the prime minister took to the stage I felt the lights start to dance, the oxygen leave the room. I couldn’t breathe. I felt awful. I could not bear the pressing in of faces all around me. The words were nearly always congratulatory but it was all too much.

Mother-of-four Clare Foges, 43, was once the speech-writer for prime minister David Cameron – but now she’s absorbed by the bliss of raising her children

‘I said, ‘Excuse me, excuse me . . .’, and stumbled along the row, pushing past security, shoving the exit doors, running past the hundreds still waiting outside the hall, out into the streets of Manchester.

‘I walked and walked for an hour or so, out of the city centre, dizzy and desperate for distance from the speech and the news machine that salivated around it. I felt strait-jacketed. I had to release the pressure in my ribs and breathe.

‘Collapsing into a doorway, I lay there on the tarmac for an hour or so before I could get up and limp my way back to the hotel.’

Self-doubt and panic had, in fact, assailed her for years. A feeling ‘like a boa-constrictor coiled round (her) chest’ first gripped her when she was 17.

Later, fresh out of university, having gained a degree in English Literature from Southampton and a Masters in poetry from Bristol, she reproached herself for not having achieved enough. ‘I was beating myself up because I hadn’t written my first novel.’

Even when she was elevated to the PM’s inner sanctum, she was trying to silence a strident internal voice that insisted she was an imposter — despite her precocious competence and the accolades routinely heaped upon her — by drinking heavily, smoking and eating junk food.

Shortly after the conference meltdown, in Autumn 2013, she was hit by another panic attack so powerful that the floor at Oxford Circus tube station in central London, ‘seemed to peel up and tilt towards me.’

She recalls: ‘Escaping to the street, ten storey buildings became leaning towers of Pisa, teetering over the heads of workers scurrying into Pret A Manger. The noise of cars and buses was sickening, the torrent of people dizzying. I fought the urge to lie on the street and stabilise myself by looking up at the clouds.’ A fortnight later she went to a psychiatrist hoping for pills to treat her anxiety disorder. Instead, she was surprised when her doctor gave her a lecture on pre-history.

‘He told me about the ‘lizard’ part of our brains — unchanged for 40,000 years — that governs life-sustaining processes like digestion, heart rate, body temperature and crucially controls our instinctive responses to danger.

‘Against a fanged beast, our best options were to fight or to flee, each requiring gallons of adrenaline. Even if the ‘danger’ is hardly life-threatening, the reptilian brain still dutifully clicks the body into survival mode — cue galloping heartbeat and shortness of breath. The doctor’s neurological history lesson was a revelation,’ she says.

It was a light bulb moment that sparked a profound change in her life and inspired her new book, The Paleo Life: Stone Age Wisdom For Modern Times, the first part of which is extracted in The Mail on Sunday tomorrow.

She wrote the book because, keen to read about how you can change your life by paring it back — living, in essence, much closer to the way our ancestors did — she found nothing. ‘So I decided to research and write it myself.’

It signalled the start of her own extensive deep dive into the lives of hunter-gatherers, aspects of which she has adapted to her own 21st century life with astonishing results.

Today she glows with good health; her porcelain skin is flawless. She has lustrous dark hair, clear eyes and a cogent train of thought that often deserts hard-pressed mums.

Adopting a paleo lifestyle has had far-reaching and beneficial effects not just on her parenting but also on her marriage, diet and general health and well-being.

Clare met her surgeon husband Sean, 43, at university, but the pair have only been married for eight years

Clare met her surgeon husband Sean, 43, at university, but the pair have only been married for eight years

And she has cherry-picked the wisdom of lives led 40 millennia ago to find out how to combat the hyper-anxiety and burn-out that plagued her high-flying career. Today, married to Sean, 43, a surgeon, Clare works as a journalist, weekly LBC radio presenter, author and occasional Mail columnist as well as hands-on mum to Thea, six, Beau, four, Reya, three and Romy.

She wonders now if her anxiety has its roots early in her childhood. Her father Joe, an architect, died of leukaemia when she was eight, leaving her widowed mum Harriet to raise five children single-handedly. Harriet, now 79, and a therapist, was ‘the best egg,’ she says.

She also fostered up to three children at a time: as many as eight kids lived at the family home in Guildford, Surrey, with a sole adult at the helm.

‘Even as a child I was hard-wired to be anxiety-prone and over-analytical,’ says Clare. ‘I felt I needed to achieve things all the time. I set high standards for myself. When I was a teenager the weight of adult life bore down on me.’

The image of the boa-constrictor’s suffocating grip recurs. ‘Having a few alcopops would relax the snake for a bit but come the next morning he’d be vice-like around my ribcage again.

‘One morning, after a particularly heavy night with that old charmer, Jack Daniel’s, I had my first panic attack. Pinned to the bed, my heart pounded so much that the sheets leapt. ‘Mum, call an ambulance! I’m dying!’ ‘ she writes.

At university she developed claustrophobia. ‘In my early 20s I wouldn’t travel on the Tube and for a decade I wouldn’t fly. Sometimes I’d manage short-haul with the help of a Valium and beta blocker. But I wouldn’t go on long-haul flights. For a while I wouldn’t even go on the train because I couldn’t make it stop or get into the open air.’

Allied to this, the compulsion to achieve ramped up. ‘My critical inner voice was asking, ‘What have you done?’ I felt this huge pressure to be exceptional.’

For a few years, post-university, she had drifted between jobs: ice cream seller, theatre wardrobe assistant, silver-service waitress, nightclub bouncer.

Nightclub bouncer? ‘Yes! It was at a place called The Drink in Guildford. I did boxing briefly and I had to wear a black suit and shirt. We paired up with someone — but it wasn’t fair on the guy with me. No one was scared of me.’

She got into politics because her then boyfriend was a Sussex county councillor: ‘I went campaigning with him and met Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, who was delightful.’

By 2005 she was an ‘evangelical’ Young Conservative, gleefully joining Guildford’s Tory MP Anne Milton on her round of ‘salmon dinners and curry nights,’ when she decided she’d like to work for a Conservative MP.

MP Sir John Hayes took her on, aged 25, as an intern in 2006: ‘He became my best, best friend. He is a riot of a man,’ she says.

She desperately struggled with work-life balance; she neglected friendships, did not devote enough time to relationships with men; even forfeited family celebrations - before she found the solution by paring it back similarly to our ancient ancestors

She desperately struggled with work-life balance; she neglected friendships, did not devote enough time to relationships with men; even forfeited family celebrations – before she found the solution by paring it back similarly to our ancient ancestors

But imposter syndrome raised its head when she was working in Parliament.

‘I was surrounded by supremely confident, bright young Oxbridge things and I was paralysed. It took me a long time to feel professionally confident.

‘My throat would constrict and when I spoke in meetings all my opinions were framed with a question mark over them. I was timorous. I think women waste a lot of time feeling under-confident. But you are well good enough,’ she states.

She overcame her diffidence by observing self-assured men. David Cameron. Boris Johnson. ‘When they came into a room they occupied the space. I thought: ‘I want some of that. I am just going to emulate it.”

In 2007 she started writing speeches for Boris Johnson’s London mayoral campaign.

He had praised her as ‘appallingly good’ and the following year she was installed in City Hall for a few months before a speech-writing job with PM David Cameron came up.

There were two other (male) contenders and it was the prime minister’s chief of staff who persuaded Clare to apply for it.

Lord Cameron, pictured this week at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, employed Clare as his chief speech-writer when she was aged just 30

Lord Cameron, pictured this week at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, employed Clare as his chief speech-writer when she was aged just 30

‘He said, ‘Don’t be such a girl. You just have to go for it.’ I ended up getting the job. But even then I felt I’d hoodwinked them into it.’

To begin with she worked with two other speech writers. Then in 2011 she got the top job: chief speech-writer. She was just 30.

The boa-constrictor reared its head again: ‘I was really anxious, panicky. Sometimes I’d have to leave my desk and just walk and walk.’

Her fear of flying — the cramped, enclosed space — ramped up and when Cameron suggested she go to New York with him (he was attending the UN General Assembly before the party conference) so they could fine-tune his speech on the flight, she invented an excuse to back out.

‘I pretended a friend was in the country for just 24 hours and I couldn’t go.’

She was working fiendishly hard, but also socialising on an epic scale, too. ‘I was drinking quite a lot on a regular basis. It was a coping mechanism.

‘I always had ibuprofen on my bedside table. Three or four times a week I’d be hungover.

‘It was normal for me to arrive red-eyed in Downing Street and head for the basement cafe for a bacon bap or sausage roll for breakfast.

‘I could be counted on to come for drinks after work and I’d be among the last to leave. You’d want me at your dinner party if it was going on until 1am.

‘Half my birthday cards had some alcohol-related joke on them.

‘At one Downing Street Christmas party at a bar in Soho I lost my shoe and snogged someone inappropriate (no, I won’t tell you who) and I was dancing with a mop. I was chucked out.’

There was no work-life balance; she neglected friendships, did not devote enough time to relationships with men; even forfeited family celebrations.

‘My siblings were at Mum’s house for my birthday lunch and I had to take an urgent call about some development in Afghanistan. I went up to my bedroom and sat there tapping on my laptop. It happened a lot. I was constantly saying: ‘I can’t come to your party/wedding. I hope you understand.’

‘I would sit at my desk, the last to leave my office, often until 1am with only Larry the imperious Downing Street cat for company.’

She was also constantly simmering in a stew of news: ‘I love the news and the business of newspapers. I lived for it. But there is something different from enjoying a newspaper once a day and poring over news bulletins endlessly looking for new angles and marinating your mind in it.’

During her five years at Number 10, ‘I had a warped perspective on what mattered because you obsessively read every different news site and opinion piece. You’re only half living in the real world.’

She recalls the run-up to that climactic conference speech in 2013, how she was holed up in her hotel room in Manchester for 72 hours, ‘surrounded by room-service trays of half-eaten burgers’ making frantic last-minute revisions to the PM’s speech, which she had been working on for months.

‘While thousands schmoozed and partied at the conference outside, I stayed at my laptop in my bunker — my only company the 24-hour TV news.

‘As the countdown to the Big Speech began, TV reporters would speculate endlessly about what the prime minister was to say. ‘He really needs to pull something out of the bag . . . His party are expecting big things.’

‘Although I was not delivering the speech myself, it still felt as though my head was on the block. With each news report the belt of anxiety around my chest would ratchet a notch tighter.’

Little wonder she took flight and ended up slumped in a doorway. Her anxiety, the weight of expectations, the sense that social media had become a ‘rampant beast’ and that the 21st century was ‘jangling my nerves,’ all contributed to her decision to quit her job.

She left in 2015 just after the Tory election victory when David Cameron secured his second term of office as PM. She was awarded an OBE, aged 34, for her services to Downing Street.

On leaving the post that had given her a ring-side seat on history, she says: ‘I went quietly, just put everything from my desk into my wheelie suitcase and left. I’d helped to write the PM’s victory speech but I didn’t want to be so consumed by news and politics any more.

‘I wanted a clean horizon, to organise my life in a different way. There were diminishing returns to my ego as well. It was wonderful at first. I’d be at a barbecue and I’d be introduced as ‘David Cameron’s chief speechwriter.’ But the satisfaction from that gets a little bit thinner every time.

‘I couldn’t do it for ever. I didn’t feel it was nourishing other parts of myself. I wanted a family, too and I was not giving my all to relationships because I was working very hard. My heart’s desire had been to get professional recognition.

‘People would jockey to have the office nearest to the PM, to sit in on his important 8am meeting.

‘But you can’t spend your whole life chasing flattery.’

Fast forward to today and she has married to Sean for eight years — they first met at university but did not get together until the pace of her life became less frenetic — and she is embracing a simpler, pared-down existence.

Of course, she points out, she has not opted out of the 21st century entirely: she is grateful for ‘modern medicine, false eyelashes, ice-cubes; chickens with the giblets taken out’.

Now a journalist, Clare makes sure to eat healthily, limit alcohol intake, put away her smartphone and has shunned all social media

Now a journalist, Clare makes sure to eat healthily, limit alcohol intake, put away her smartphone and has shunned all social media

But she eats wholesomely, barely drinks, locks away her smartphone for most of the day and has abandoned social media (‘so corrosive to self-esteem.’)

She walks whenever she can — today she strides off to the station in trainers with Romy in her buggy — and embraces the uplifting outdoors to ‘light-bathe’ with such zeal we even consider sitting outside in the drizzle to chat.

She is relaxed about co-sleeping with her kids — our ancestors did not insist babies slept separately in cots — cuddles them when they cry and breast feeds Romy on demand as hunter-gatherers would have done.

And while she adores her husband, she is pragmatic about love. ‘You rub along as best you can. The most important thing you can do is not talk everything through endlessly, otherwise it is like trying to unravel the Gordian Knot.’

Our forebears, she points out, would not have had the leisure to ‘grow’ together but expended their energies on merely existing.

‘I don’t want to sound like a smug git. I don’t sit in a little bubble of love and oxytocin all the time.

‘Parenting is hard and messy. Our house is crazily untidy and trashed. Sean says: ‘This place looks like a crack den.’

‘But I don’t feel anxious any more — and I’m no longer panicking about what people think of me,’ she smiles.

The Paleo Life by Clare Foges will be published by Piatkus on June 6, at £16.99. © Clare Foges 2024. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to 08/06/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.