Why Does Germany's Angela Merkel Keep Shaking?

Tim Locke

July 11, 2019

When a world leader shows significant medical symptoms at official events in front of TV cameras it becomes both a matter of public concern and speculation about a possible cause.

However, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has played down concerns over her public episodes of visible shaking during official events.

Camel-like Sleep Storage

In the latest incident yesterday, Mrs Merkel was seen with her body trembling during a military ceremony to honour Finland's Prime Minister in Berlin.

This follows the first recent episode on the 18th June in front of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and last week during an appointment in Berlin with the German President.

Similar symptoms were witnessed in Mexico City in 2017.

After the first event, the 64 year old appeared to offer dehydration as a possible cause.

That has not dulled speculation that her relentless schedule could be a factor. She has previously talked about her day and night workload by saying she could store up sleep for later use like a camel uses water.

Mrs Merkel is due to leave office in 2021 and is currently serving her fourth term as Chancellor, having been first elected in 2005.

Previously reported medical issues have included knee surgery and a skiing accident.

'You Should Not Worry'

The German media is divided over the public interest component of the symptoms. Some outlets want details released, while others take the view that her health is a private matter, and should stay that way unless it affects her ability to carry out her duties.

After yesterday's ceremony she told a news conference: "I am doing fine and you should not worry."

She addressed speculation that there could be a psychological aspect to her symptoms, perhaps the fear of further symptoms triggering a fresh bout: "I have already said that I am going through a phase of processing the recent military honours with President Zelenskiy.

"This appears not to be quite finished yet, but I am making progress and will have to live with it for a while."

Headline Making

Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung wants more clarification. People are concerned, it said, her health is not absolutely private - not with the third episode in a few weeks.

Die 'Bild'-Zeitung described a picture of a strong woman, struggling with her weakness, but who keeps silent about the causes – stoically. She had wanted to decide herself when she will leave politics. The longer she waits the more uncertain it is that she will be successful with that, it said.

T-online said she'd had a tough programme in recent weeks. It might be that there is nothing serious with her trembling - the public should leave it like that and wish her a relaxing summer holiday. But if it turns out that it is more, she will lose a lot of credibility and probably couldn't continue her job. Her credibility might even be more important for her job than her health, it wrote.

Berliner Zeitung said it had no reason to question her statement that it is nothing serious. She is human and may feel sometimes weak or may be ill. She talks about it - and this is more than other politicians do. In other countries, people may be astonished that the German public is calm about these pictures. But this, it said, speaks for the German culture in politics and the credibility of Angela Merkel - and it should remain this way.

Trending hashtags on Twitter in Germany are #Gesundheitszustand #Privatsache #Zitteranfall - health condition, private matter, and shivering attack.

The German press agency DPA were among those tweeting video of the tremors.



Speculation Over Causes

In the absence of any official statement about Mrs Merkel's condition, many experts have been called upon to speculate over which of the many possible causes of tremors might be playing a role.

Peter Roberts, emeritus professor of pharmacology, School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience, University of Bristol, told the Science Media Centre: "There is little information available beyond what has been stated by Angela Merkel, so it’s impossible to know what might be the cause. An initial effect caused by dehydration followed by anxiety that it may occur again, might even be the cause. The stress response is a basic survival mechanism (fight or flight) and kicks in as soon as a threat is perceived, including fear that something may happen, eg, uncontrollable shaking."

He continued: "In the absence of any underlying pathology, this is a likely cause – ie, it could be based on the science of the wholly normal stress response. The problem with the response is that our bodies behave in this way in response to both real and feared threats; indeed the fear that your body is going to start behaving in a seemingly abnormal way may precipitate that very response.

"Merkel’s own comment that she feels very well would be consistent with a stress response that passes when the situation associated with its initiation passes. It is perhaps significant that these episodes have occurred under very similar circumstances."

K Ray Chaudhuri, professor of movement disorders and neurology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, added: "There are many causes of ‘shaking’ or tremor, and body shaking can be indeed precipitated by severe stress, anxiety or low blood sugar. Temperature changes (severe cold or heat) may also precipitate short lasting ‘shaking’ episodes. In some individuals there are rare causes such as orthostatic tremor (tremor that occurs when someone is upright) – but that is usually seen in the legs only. 30% of people with Parkinson’s do not have a tremor, and those who do show a very different pattern of tremor known as resting tremor."


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