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I Am Anxious... Hannah Mary McKinnon
The international bestselling author discusses having an absolutely terrifying panic attack, punctuality, and the importance of focusing on breathing.
Internationally bestselling author Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. Her suspense novels include The Neighbors, and bestsellers Her Secret Son, Sister Dear, You Will Remember Me, Never Coming Home, and The Revenge List. She also writes romantic comedies as Holly Cassidy, and The Christmas Wager publishes in September 2023. Hannah Mary lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons.
My 7th book (6th thriller) called The Revenge List is a story about an anger management group therapy exercise gone terribly wrong.
When Frankie Morgan lands herself in anger management therapy after an altercation at work, she's tasked with writing a "forgiveness list" — the names of all the people she feels have wronged her, and whom she could work to forgive.
Frankie doesn't really want to forgive any of them, and thinks nothing of it when she loses said list...until, one by one, the people on her list have increasingly violent "accidents." Now Frankie's in trouble, because she included her own name on her list because her past self is the one person she'll never forgive…
This project was incredibly interesting as it deals with anger, how we handle it, and society's expectations of how we're supposed to act (or not) when we're angry.
How long have you been an anxious person?
A lot longer than I thought! I recently had therapy about disordered eating and discovered what I always dismissed as "worrying" is in fact far closer to anxiety. It was quite the revelation and something I'm keen to continue working on.
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
There are two. The first is when I was in ballet class. I was a tall kid with a bunch of puppy fat, feeling like a hippo surrounded by tiny svelte gazelles. The teacher tapped my stomach with her walking stick and told me I was "getting fat." I was 10. It made me so anxious and embarrassed, I went to the convenience store after class and bought three packets of Monster Munch chips, which I promptly devoured in secret. Talk about eating your feelings!
A couple of decades later, my mum told me my voice had "gone funny" when we were on the phone. My workload was intense and utterly ridiculous, and I thought I was doing a decent job of hiding how stressed I felt. Nope. I got busted!
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Yes. It was around 2010, a few months after we moved to Canada, and I felt completely overwhelmed by the situation. At first there was a tingling in my hands, feet, and face but it quickly got worse. My fingers stiffened and turned into claws, my feet did the same, my face went numb, and finally my vision blurred.
Somehow, I called 911, and phoned my husband, who rushed home. I'd never experienced a panic attack before, and because I couldn't even talk properly at this point, I thought I was having a heart attack, which of course made my symptoms worse. I was 39, I had three small kids, I didn't want to die! It was a horrible, horrible feeling.
After the paramedics arrived, one of them said it was the worst panic attack she'd seen (yikes!), and it took three hours for my hands and feet to loosen up. It was utterly terrifying but once I understood what the initial symptoms of a panic attack are, I've managed to keep them at bay with breathing exercises. So far, so good!
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
Being late for just about anything — a work deadline, an appointment, making a flight, dinner with friends — is a huge trigger for me. It sounds trivial but it makes me break out in a cold sweat. I'm not sure where this comes from, but I've never been a laissez-faire kind of person when it comes to being on time, so I always make sure I have plenty to spare.
I also worry about things happening to my family and loved ones. My best friend was murdered in 1994, and my mum had a tragic accident in which she sustained quadriplegic injuries in 2017. Both incidents have left me with major anxiety. Meanwhile, I'll happily zipline or go canyoning or whatever. I'm not worried about myself.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
I get a fluttering in my chest and my pulse accelerates...oh, and my voice goes funny! If it's work-related stress, I have a tendency to want to comfort eat to find calmness. But then I get anxiety when I stand on the scales!
What do you do when you feel anxious? How do you take care of yourself in those situations? Do you have any anxiety management tips or tricks?
I try to remind myself what is in my control and what isn't, and I try to let go of the stuff I don't have control over. I'll sit quietly for a moment, listen to music, or get outside. Nature always helps, even if it's a few minutes in the garden with my feet in the grass (or snow — I do live in Canada after all, ha!).
When I'm stressed about all the things I need to do, I make a To-Do list. Checking off the tasks I've completed is very helpful as I'm a visual person and I like to see what I've accomplished. Breaking things down (like writing a 90,000 word / 300 page novel) into chunks makes things more manageable.
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
I absolutely love going out for walks with an audiobook and I always do a walking FitBit meditation first. I also love to bake, read, and workout on a regular basis.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
When it comes to managing anxiety, to sit down quietly, even for a minute or two, and focus on my breath. It always works, even if I have to make a couple of attempts initially. Other than that, I remember reading somewhere that if you're in a stressful situation, ask yourself what you can learn from it. It sounded so pedantic to me at first, but I swear it works because it shifts my focus from negative to positive.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Thank you, Hannah! The panic attack you experienced sounds absolutely terrifying, but I’m glad you learned so much from it that you can use in managing your anxiety now.
If you are looking for a good thriller, any of Hannah’s six thrillers will absolutely scratch that itch. Really fun, twisty reads. I’m very much looking forward to her debut as Holly Cassidy this September with The Christmas Wager!
Thanks again, Hannah!
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Be well and keep talking.
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DISCLAIMER: I am, by no means, a medical profession. If you need help, please seek qualified medical attention. This newsletter, while informative and fun, is no substitute for the real thing.