What happened to Tony Blair’s Heart?

The British Public were shaken recently on hearing that prime minister Tony Blair had been rushed to hospital suffering from chest pains and an irregular heart beat.

Widely regarded as the fittest PM ever, with his regular games of tennis and a much-used gym at Number 10, Blair and his wife were nevertheless given a scare by his accelerated and erratic heart beat. Were he superstitious, the thought may have crossed his mind that his present elevated position owed much to the fact that his predecessor as leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, died of a heart attack at a relatively young age.

Was this a panic attack? An accelerated heart beat and difficulty breathing are two of the physical signs of anxiety, and in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety Freud states:

“[A]nxiety is accompanied by fairly definite physical sensations which can be referred to particular organs of the body… The clearest and most frequent ones are those concerned with the respiratory organs and with the heart.”

Of course, Freud is not overly concerned with the physiology of anxiety, but he suggests that the motor discharge itself brings relief to some extent, although (on the other hand) perceiving that the body is out of control may increase the sense of panic. Freud’s comments suggest that the association between mind and body may be more complicated than we like to think.

On another occasion, the disjunction between mind and body was shown by Tony Blair at an annual party conference. After a brilliant speech to delegates, Tony found himself drenched in sweat – far more than one would have expected from the physical exertions of his performance.

Newspapers next day made much of the resulting pictures, but since sweating at work is a valued manly attribute in British culture, little was made of the event. No commentators associated it with the fact that the conference was held while oil depots were being blockaded by fuel protestors, and the government’s poll ratings had fallen for the first time behind their Tory rivals.

When one considers the enormous significance which the first Blair government put on opinion polls one can see that their symbolic significance as a sign of strength (that is to say, ‘being-in-power’ as opposed to ‘being-out-of-power’) may be considerable.

But let us leave these interesting speculations to one side and concentrate instead on the discrepancy between the mental and physical realm.

Ernest Jones, Freud’s disciple and biographer, listed three senses in which things were out of sync in the physiology and psychology of anxiety reactions:

  1. a “disproportion between the external stimulus and the response”
  2. “disharmony between bodily and mental manifestations” and
  3. “internal disharmony” within the body or mind itself.

The first of these is the most obvious. Something doesn’t add up. There is a lack of proportion between the experiential input and the excessive reactive output. For instance, someone sees a bird, or tries to cross a bridge… and is thrown into a state of blind terror. In stating the obvious – that crossing a bridge is not a death defying endeavour – analysis justifies its concept of the unconscious and its mode of enquiry through free association.

The second point is less easy to notice. There is something out of kilter between the mind and the body. They don’t seem to be reading the same script. Tony Blair gives a brilliantly controlled speech at the party conference, yet finds himself drenched in sweat or suffering palpitations. In his mind there is no fear. Only in his body does fear ooze out from every pore.

In his book Affect and Emotion in the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, Graham Music recounts an experiment in which mothers leave their toddlers suddenly in a room. Some children cry and get upset, others seem hardly to notice the departure or return of their mothers. “Yet when the heartbeats, adrenalin and cortisol levels of both groups were measured, they all had similar physiological reactions to their mother’s disappearance.” (p38)

The third disharmony identified by Jones is a kind of fragmentation of mental faculties. He calls it an ‘incoordination’ in the mind itself , and notices that when you are really frightened there is a curious mixture of over-excitation with paralysis. A phobic person, for instance, faced with the object of their fear, may be unable to effect a coordinated response to danger. The body may be stiff and unresponsive, yet agitated. The person may feel nauseous and giddy. She is frightened of something yet her attention is not directed to any particular source of danger. She may turn alternately toward and away from the feaful object, unable to make a decision – in two minds at once. She finds herself in a strange mental state that makes no sense as far as biological survival is concerned. It doesn’t add up in the ledger of natural selection.

Anxiety reactions contain elements of all the incompatibilities, disharmonies, and inconsistencies that Jones describes, and which may have temporarily knocked Tony off his perch.

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