Trigger warning: Panic and health anxiety
There’s a theme that runs through all my writing – the media’s impact on our anxiety. And my God, it’s very REAL. I’m not blaming the media. Not entirely. It’s just that, for us obsessives, the combination of health anxiety and health headlines is a bit of a toxic cocktail.
So here’s my Sunday morning blah blah blah on the subject to show you what I mean, and what it is that drives much of my writing…
My first book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, is a bit of a non-fiction rant about how stigma and stereotypes can impact self-stigma and shame around mental health, particularly from what we see in popular culture. And of course in The Twenty Seven Club, the protagonist, Emma, is obsessed by the emerging media narrative about rock stars dying aged 27.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that given how we’re in a pandemic, I’ve been particularly obsessed by the headlines which have, in turn, particularly impacted my health and my behaviour lately.
Back in the mid 90s, in fact when The Twenty Seven Club is set but I’m talking IRL now, I had my first ever panic attack. It was pretty intense and frightening. I had no idea what was happening, but I thought I was going to die of a blood clot. After all, the headlines told us that DVT (deep vein thrombosis) is a real possibility for anyone taking the Femodene contraceptive pill – and particularly anyone who smoked while taking said meds. Of course, aged 15, I was probably feeling pretty guilty about having sex and smoking, so the associated teenage guilt didn’t help matters. But I was one of the people at risk – or so I thought…
One day, I saw a teeny little mark on my arm (NOT a symptom of DVT I might add) and within a split second I was, in my fucked up head, dying of a DVT.
I was drenched in pure dread and doom, fear brought me to my knees (on a busy shopping street in Hull on a Saturday – cringe!) and I went faint, couldn’t see properly and retched. A lot. Yep – in reality, panic attacks are rarely simply the acceptable sight of someone breathing into a bag – they’re actually pretty uninhibited and ugly.
With support from my mum, I came to realise that I didn’t have a DVT, but I was having a panic attack (who knew – it was the 90s – they didn’t exist then, did they?)
However, over the next few years an ache in my leg was the start of a DVT. A warm feeling on my skin was a DVT. A headache was a DVT. And then it kind of grew into a fear of my heart stopping and cancer and meningitis and…pretty much anything I heard about in public awareness campaigns basically. I found myself in A&E on a Friday night waiting for hours to be told I was OK when I could have been at home watching Friends, eating pizza and drinking wine.
And so here I am today, still not protected from Covid, because I keep cancelling my vaccines. Something I’ve bawled and panicked about because I’m so bloody angry with myself for it.
The thing is, I know that it’s far safer to have the Covid vaccine than not to have it. And, although this might sound strange (although those with health anxiety will probably get it) I’m not actually scared of dying from a blood clot. I’m scared that my brain will make me believe I’m dying from a blood clot. I’m scared of the panic, not the vaccine, but triggers are triggers and the idea of blood clots, for me, are wedged deep inside my brain from all those years ago labelled as my number one fear factor.
Let’s talk spiders (not the club)
If you don’t have health anxiety another way to understand it is by looking at it through our fear of spiders (not the nightclub on the industrial estate in Hull that I’m always wanging on about). You know that Horris or Morris or Boris the spider, (or whatever your dad called them when they crawled into your living room in the 80s and he reminded you not to be scared because they ate the flies and in fact – spiders were our friends), you know that they can’t hurt you. But your brain still forces your body to make strange vocalisations reminiscent of a fearful wild animal confronted by its predator, while your feet force you to dance like a pilled up Morris dancer. You ARE scared even if there’s no need to be. And no matter how many times you’re told that spiders in England can’t harm you and that there’s literally a one in a gazillion chance you’re going to find some exotic dude with fangs in your bananas (regardless of that story in The Sun), to you, it still feels like ALL spiders are the enemy. So we dance and wail because no matter what logic tells us, we’re hard-wired to fear them.
That’s what health anxiety is like. I know I’ve got more chance getting run over when I go out than I have getting a blood clot from a vaccine. Just as I know Horris or Morris or whoever isn’t going to harm me (sadly, the same can’t be said about strange creatures called Boris). But I’m hard-wired to believe otherwise. And so, I book an appointment, I want the vaccine, but something triggers me to dance a silly dance and cancel it.
Health anxiety is NOT rational. I imagine some people may have read The Twenty Seven Club and thought – but could Emma really be that silly to actually believe a number could kill her?
They say fact is stranger than fiction, and if I were to write a novel based on my past fear of stigmata, you’d probably think that was a bit far fetched! But anxiety is real and it is based on whatever our brains decide to become triggered from. Whether that’s watching a movie about stigmata, hearing that rock stars die aged 27, spiders hanging out in your living room or the rumour that there’s a very, very rare chance you might get a blood clot from a vaccine.
Let’s face it, if anxiety were grounded in reality, it simply wouldn’t exist.
If you’ve not yet read The Twenty Seven Club, you can order a copy below:
Anxiety photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash