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9 September 2016

Why it’s important not to keep calm and carry on

The temptation to believe that everything will be OK is lulling us into a false sense of post-Brexit security.

By Eleanor Margolis

I can always tell when it’s coming. Breathing starts to feel like trying to blow up one of those long, thin balloons used for making animals. You need a pump for those. I keep on swallowing. If I weren’t wooden with fear I’d probably marvel at my body’s ability to produce so much saliva. My panic attacks could hydropower Dorset.  

I’m on the tube, and with each lurch and groan of the carriage my self-awareness intensifies. I don’t know where to look, so I watch my feet like they’re the last episode of Stranger Things.

“You are having a panic attack,” I say to myself.

But knowing it’s a panic attack only perpetuates the panic, because panic attacks are horrible. Knowing that I’m having one is no comfort. All at once, everything is hostile. I think the pattern across three tube seats opposite me just morphed into the words, “You are inadequate and doomed.”

“Everything will be OK,” I tell myself. But I need validation. I need someone else to tell me everything will be OK, because me (someone who is decidedly un-OK) telling me that everything will be OK won’t cut it. I want to speak to a stranger, which is a first for mid-panic attack me. I want to find the most my mum-shaped woman on this train and have her tell me everything will be OK. I manage without. I look at pictures of my niece and nephew on my phone. I try and remember the hardest I’ve ever laughed. That is to say, I manage to convince myself that everything will be OK.

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The idea that everything will be OK is seductive. It feels nourishing but lacks any real substance. It’s probably addictive. The very latest childrearing literature demands that parents not tell their worried children that everything will be OK. I imagine how this might play out with my three-year-old niece. Like, say, the time she got freaked out by a fly.

“A FLY,” she said, grimacing and flapping.

What if my sister hadn’t responded with, “It’s OK, it can’t hurt you,” but the technically more true, “A fly probably can’t hurt you, but it is still faeces-eating vermin that carries bacteria which can lead to vomiting, diarrhoea and ultimately – in very rare circumstances – death.” Explain nearly all the words in that sentence so as to be understood by a three-year-old, and you have yourself a shiny new phobia.

But what about telling adults everything will be OK? There’s a difference, of course, between the stomach punch of a panic attack and the less localised humming and whirring of generalised anxiety. But both, much of the time, require a bland and sweeping statement that, yes, in spite of debt and disease and decay and abjection and Donald Trump, everything will be OK.

In an unusually not OK year, the media’s declarations that everything will be OK (Brexit won’t happen; Brexit has happened, but everything is fine) are frequent and demonstrably inaccurate.

This quite heady “everything will be OK” malaise has me convinced that Trump will absolutely not win the US presidential election in November. It’s as if “keep calm and carry on” (and all of its variations) has leaked off of seven billion insufferable tote bags, onto public consciousness. Maybe, after all, we do need to be aware that tyrants win elections and flies can kill us.

The mindfulness industry, with its adult colouring books and breathing exercises that make me hyperventilate, is doing a good job of telling us, “maybe everything will be OK, maybe it won’t. But right now the world isn’t collapsing. So enjoy it.” Though this is frustrating for anyone who, like me, craves a definitive “everything will be OK.”

“Fak, fak, fak,” goes the fly trapped inside a lampshade in my room. The fly for whom everything will not be OK. Not in the slightest.