Sometimes I catch sight of a poster or a mug in a shop with its exhortation to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and I want to do the exact opposite. And the irony is that posters with this message, printed in June 1939 before war broke out in order to encourage what the Ministry of Information called ‘sober restraint’ in the British people, never saw the light of day. Over two million were printed and all but a very few were pulped, possibly because of a paper shortage or possibly because it was realised how patronising they were to people dealing with the realities of war.
Keep calm and carry on speaks to the myth of the stiff upper lip. A belief that showing emotion and getting upset is a sign of weakness and a failure of will.
Until fairly recently, I lived my life believing that I was emotionally very tough. Like most people who have reached their seventies, I have had my fair share of emotional trauma. I have been through a messy divorce. I have lost both of my parents. I have had relationships and been devastated at their loss and I have coped with all the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life. And I would have said that, for the most part, I have managed the disequilibrium by ‘keeping calm and carrying on.’ Until about four years ago. Out of the blue I suffered my first panic attack and then entered a period of extreme anxiety and agitation, which recurs from time to time and invariably catches me unawares.
I have a fairly good idea what triggered that first time, but would prefer to say no more than the cause was repressed and quite overwhelming grief. If you spend your life ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ then at some point your body may start to play tricks on you in a way that is both shocking and extremely difficult to deal with. The problem with extreme anxiety which is manifesting physically is that you can’t control it through will. You literally cannot ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘man-up (sic)’ or ‘stop being silly’.
Let me describe my first panic attack. I was in Selfridges, shopping with my daughter, something I’d normally love to do. A little while before I’d received some very upsetting news which I’d not even attempted to process. I just kept calm and carried on as if nothing had happened. So there I was in Selfridges when I began to feel an overwhelming claustrophobic terror and felt that I couldn’t breathe. I knew that I had to get out of the store as quickly as possible or that I would die. My daughter was wonderful. Kind, reassuring and patient and she quickly led me to the nearest escalator and downstairs to the exit. Once outside in the fresh air I regained some of my composure and gradually started to feel better. Naturally I sought help and saw a wonderful psychotherapist who helped me to process what had happened and also how to avoid having another such attack again.
A while later, instead of this acute variety of panic, I started to suffer from something that is in some ways much worse because it is daily, lasts for hours and is truly horrible. It starts with the feeling that I have a heavy weight pressing down on my chest. This gets so bad at times that I feel that I can’t breathe properly and in fact I find it difficult to take a full breath, so I sigh constantly. This is often accompanied by indigestion, maybe because my digestive system is compromised by my anxiety. At its worst I can feel my heart thumping in my chest and for hours I can suffer with strong and quite terrifying palpitations, especially when I wake in the middle of the night.
Obviously when I first had these symptoms I sought help, partly from my GP, partly from a hypnotherapist and partly from Lindsay, my personal trainer who is also a brilliant person to whom I can talk freely about my mental state. And the reason that I am writing about this now is that I’m experiencing those extreme feelings of anxiety again, possibly because we are at the end of two years of the weirdness of a pandemic and, most likely, in response to the relentlessly awful news about the war that Putin is waging on the people of Ukraine. And, from comments and some personal enquiries I’ve had through Super Troopers, I am not alone in my heightened state of worry and anxiety. So, what to do?
As an anxiety attack starts I notice my breathing becomes both rapid and shallow and I start to sigh in order to get enough air into my lungs. It helps enormously to stop, close my eyes and do a deep breathing exercise for several minutes. This involves pushing my abdomen out as the breath enters deeply into my lungs, counting to 5 and breathing out through my mouth for a count of 7.
2. Beta Blockers
My GP (eventually) prescribed me 10mg (low dosage) Beta Blockers called Propranolol. I am allowed to take up to 4 a day, which I did yesterday when I was having a really bad time, but today, so far the deep breathing is keeping the other symptoms at bay. Just the fact that they are available helps enormously (I suspect that there may be a significant placebo effect).
3. Relaxation via Guided Meditation
There are some excellent videos (The Honest Guys on YouTube) of varying lengths which I find very helpful. Last night I listened to a very soothing one with the sound of waves lapping on the shore for twenty minutes which worked really well to calm my mind before bed.
4. Talk to Someone
This can be within a formal setting with a psychotherapist or hypnotherapist or it can be with a sensitive and empathetic friend (or partner) who listens properly to you. The key criterion is that you feel acknowledged rather than dismissed for your fears and worries. I have consulted various therapists at certain times in my life and have always felt that it was money extremely well spent.
5. Write Things Down
Get your fears down as a specific numbered list. I often have worries and anxieties whirling around my head and when I write them down it’s clear that many are outside my control, which brings some perspective.
6. Change Your Language
‘I am anxious’ becomes ‘I notice that I am anxious’. The first statement is a whole body experience and in the second you are an external observer that a part of you is anxious. This shift in emphasis may help you to create some distance so that you feel less overwhelmed.
7. Identify the Triggers
I have been reading and absorbing a huge amount of information about what is happening in Ukraine. Some sources are better than others and I am finding that certain podcasts are far less triggering of acute anxiety than random and unreliable content on Twitter or Facebook.
Some may think that I am over-reacting to external events which have little direct impact on me. After all, I am sleeping in my own bed every night knowing the roof will still be over my head in the morning. However, we are a generation which has lived within touching distance of the last world war on mainland Europe. Echoes of that conflict are everywhere in the actions of an apparently mad despot who seems intent on inflicting maximum damage on one or more neighbouring countries.
Yesterday I watched a 15 second video of a small warmly wrapped child the age of one of my grandchildren trudging along a snowy road crying pitifully as his family walked behind him dragging a few possessions in a suitcase. Keep Calm and Carry On is no more appropriate now than it was in 1939. At the moment we are all relatively powerless. All we can do is to give money to the appropriate agencies, pressurise our government (via our local MP) to open our borders to all those in need of refuge, and take care of our own mental health. And then hope and pray that this alarming, horrifying and senseless conflict finds a speedy and safe resolution.
Note to film club members. Our film on 18th March is about the 2014 resistance in Ukraine and ultimate overthrow of their Kremlin puppet president. Winter of Fire is an extremely well made documentary and it really helped me to understand the current conflict with Russia and how strongly the Ukrainians desire to be an independent country with links to Europe rather than to be controlled by Putin's Russia. However the film is quite a hard watch at times, so I will understand if it's not for you. Tx
Hello This is a belated response to this (last week's) blog which, while it is uncanny the number of times Tricia produces a Blog to which I can absolutely relate to content, this one was for me particularly relevant. I used to suffer panic attacks but thought I had beaten them into submission. However the circumstances of the last 2.5 years both as part of the wider community issues (covid and all its implications especially for 70+) and some scary personal issues, I have been experiencing very similar reactions - you should see the number of bullet points on my 4.00am worry list! I hugely applaud Tricia's 'bravery' in sharing her experiences. It was for me: a relief in realising I was not the only one/not going nuts [despite my age :-) ]; coincidentally very timely; and very generous in the sharing of strategies for coping strategies. Thank you Stay safe
Thank you Tricia for your honesty and explanations, and we have several friends who have suffered with panic and anxiety attacks, which is hardly surprising with everything that has happened over the last two years, and is currently happening. Like everyone else, the effect of the devastation and destruction to, and on, people’s lives in Ukraine is beyond words, and the feeling of almost guilt for going about our daily lives and of having a roof over our heads is understandable but doesn’t help the Ukrainians. Like other Supertroopers, I too am limiting the time I watch the news programmes as it is so overwhelming and emotional that I can fully understand how it can bring on these attacks and must admit that I have been very close to having one myself. Like you Tricia, I find the deep breathing I learnt at Yoga helps such a lot to calm me down, as you have to concentrate. Talking things out with others is a great help too. I wish you well Tricia and do hope you find the attacks ease soon, and no you haven’t overreacted at all, after all it’s only because we care that we feel so strongly. With love,Janx
Gosh Tricia. I just find myself more in awe of you than ever. Sharing those experiences of anxiety and the ways you tackle it is just so incredibly helpful and reassuring. Thank you. What happened to you in Selfridges struck quite a chord with me. I remember my first crippling panic attack. Truly awful and terrifying. I still have them though I’ve tackled the causes so much over the years that they are definitely not like they used to be. I found a lovely therapist who said for me to try not to see my distressed state as a ‘breakdown’ but a ‘breakthrough’. A chance to review my life and bring about changes and a different approach. Back then I also used to listen to a wonderful relaxation tape that helped me enormously. I too take Propanolol. (As did my dear mum. Anxiety and depression run in the family. Her ‘little pink pills’ she called them!) I think you’re amazing in your honesty, openness and your determination not to let anxiety take over your life. I mean. Look what you’ve achieved!! We’re so lucky to have you at the helm. Take care. With love. Gill x
A very brave and pertinent blog Tricia, thank you for being so honest. It does help people to know that even a highly successful person like you can have these problems. I get my news from reading and listening and see very few pictures. I find that images affect me most as they are hard to get out of my mind & I don't want to be consumed by events outside my control. The sum of the events happening in the world at the moment is terrifying if you think about it too much. I do feel that we are at a critical point in history and what the outcome will be no-one yet knows.