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My Mental Health: How Line of Duty helped me cope with crippling anxiety

Lauren Smith
Photo credit: BBC

From Digital Spy

Each year as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Digital Spy writers share their experiences of how entertainment can be part of the conversation around mental illness.

When you Google 'ways to cope with anxiety' or 'how to stop a panic attack', watching a high-octane, multi-layered drama about police corruption is, unsurprisingly, not what comes up.

But ask me a year ago about I how coped with anxious thoughts, panic attacks and a general sense of unease brought about by years of battling infertility, and my No.1 answer would be: watching Steve Arnott, in his waistcoat, nicking bent coppers. Before you dismiss me as a "wee gobshite" like Hastings most certainly would, let me explain.

Photo credit: BBC

I was fortunate not to experience any mental health issues growing up. Though I'm naturally an anxious person and a bit of a worrier, I never knew much about panic attacks or anxiety beyond what friends had told me of their own experiences.

That all changed when I discovered my partner and I would be unable to conceive naturally due to treatment he underwent for cancer at 18. A diagnosis of infertility is, to put it mildly, pretty stressful, and when we were quite young, confusing too. We ploughed on with our recommended cycle of IVF, injecting my body with hormones, trembling with fear before my eggs were taken out, and spent an agonising few weeks waiting to see if we had enough embryos to implant before it all ended in an early miscarriage.

The treatment was tough but what came next was almost worse. Whether it was the emotional experience or the huge amount of hormones I had to take, I emerged from it all slightly broken and with physical symptoms of anxiety I had never had before.

My heart rate would suddenly speed up for no reason or beat irregularly in the middle of the day. My palms would sweat, my vision would go blurry, and I would have to retreat to the office loos to calm myself down on days where for no reason at all, I felt overwhelmed. I went to the doctor demanding an ECG as my heart continued to flutter. He told me that my heart was super healthy and I would live to 100 but it was probably the stress of the IVF that had brought on the symptoms.

I told myself I was fine but things escalated in the form of two massive panic attacks. The first was on holiday with my family. I thought I was going to die – stabbing chest pains, shaking uncontrollably, the lot. Anyone who has had panic attacks will know they are terrifying and illogical – they can come on at any time and even if you've had one before, you can't rationalise yourself out of one happening again.

I then lived in fear of having another one constantly – if I had a caffeinated drink, if I ate too much sugar, if I went on a vigorous run and felt a bit wired, all these things started to bring on a sense of panic and I would have to try to calm myself down.

This is where Ted Hastings and AC-12 come in. I'd already started watching the series the month before we started IVF. It had been a pretty great distraction then but I'd only watched series four when it aired on the BBC (the one where Thandie Newton gets a gammy hand). During my worst period of fear and anxiety, before the next round of fertility treatment, I found the previous three series on Netflix and my husband and I binged them.

I lost myself in the intricate plotlines, I laughed at Ted Hastings' catchphrases (my husband and I shout, "Now we're sucking diesel" at each other when cooking dinner), and screeched when 'Dot' Cottan was finally caught.

Photo credit: BBC

Despite being on the edge of my sofa while watching the show, this felt like a different emotional experience to the anxious thoughts and spiralling out of control I felt around fertility treatment: it was an exciting adrenaline rush rather than a hellish feeling of panic and dread.

Some psychologists believe that our obsession with thrillers and crime dramas is down to the thrill of experiencing someone else's problems without having to go through them ourselves. In short, we get an emotional release but our inner emotions are projected on to something external to our actual lives, making them easier to manage.

There's definitely a strange pleasure in experiencing emotions unconnected to our infertility – and they're emotions I can easily control. If I feel on edge watching an AC-12 interview, I know the scene is made up for my entertainment, and that once the show is over, I'm back to being calm again.

But I'd say the biggest psychological benefit has been keeping my brain completely occupied on a subject that is totally detached from the very emotional issues in my personal life. I am someone who constantly overthinks. Having something to 'lose' my mind in has really helped – if you drop your focus in Line of Duty for a second you're never picking up the plot again.

That's a specific type of attention-shifting, but there's a more general distraction involved too: whenever I feel bad or low about our fertility situation, I can fall back into my obsession with the show as something else to think about.

Instead of spending hours on infertility forums, I would join in with a discussion about who the hell 'H' was on the Line of Duty Facebook group. Instead of getting miserable looking at the stream of other people's baby pictures on social media, I started obsessively following the cast of the show and googling wild fan theories.

Photo credit: BBC

I even re-watched the series when I was feeling anxious and couldn't sleep on a work trip. It sounds sad but AC-12's struggle with the seemingly endless network of bent coppers was a lifeline I desperately needed.

I have form in making strange choices in TV when going through something traumatic – I watched the entire first season of 13 Reasons Why after the first IVF round had ended, sobbing and stuffing cupcakes into my face. Everyone I told recoiled in horror – why wouldn't I watch something easy and light-hearted when going through something tough? But all I wanted was an all-consuming show that took me out of my own emotions and allowed me to feel emotional about something – anything – else.

Despite my obsession, I wouldn't recommend that everyone struggling with fertility treatment or panic attacks settle down to Line of Duty – what has worked for me might actually cause more stress and discomfort in other people.

I'm currently watching season five on a fertility-treatment hiatus because my husband and I decided we needed a break from the constant stress of IVF. It's refreshing to be able to just watch the show and enjoy it as something more than a distraction. I know, however, that if we do ever decide to go back down that road again, AC-12 will be there to get me through it.

Just don't make Hastings bent – that's one thing I do NOT need in my life.

We would encourage anyone who identifies with the topics raised in this article to reach out. Organisations who can offer support include Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org) or Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk). Readers in the US are encouraged to visit mentalhealth.gov or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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