Conspiracies, Breaking Bad and anxiety disorders

Hey how are you keeping?

Let’s get right to it—here’s the contents for today’s email. (Feel free to skip to anyone you’re interested in):

🦠 I’m minimising coronavirus news
📢 Upcoming essay on conspiracies
🧪 Breaking Bad and dealing with hardship…
😧 A way of thinking about anxiety disorders

🦠 I’m minimising coronavirus news

You can hardly look anywhere these days without running into viral news (dreadful pun intended!)—it’s COVID-19 everywhere you go! So I decided to limit how much of my attention is going to it—more so because I already have to deal with it at work everyday!

Basically, about once a week, I try to bring myself up to speed on what’s new with the virus.

And that’s it.

The rest of the week I don’t bother with learning anything about it. I am on a bunch of groups where that’s all that gets discussed a lot (including the WhatsApp group for my medical school class—we doctors love to talk about this stuff!) The implications for me? I’m way less active on WhatsApp! Once I see that’s the topic of discussion, I swipe to “Mark as Read,” and move along. In the meantime I’ve been engaging in the far more satisfying activity of watching TV shows (more on which in a minute) and a lot more writing. Speaking of which…

📢 Upcoming essay on conspiracies

We’ve always had conspiracies but never have we had so many so fast. All the ingredients are in place after all: a situation of great interest to everyone, that poses potential danger to anyone, with inadequate available info and reports of possible suspicious behaviour from several quarters. It’s practically begging to be theorised about, and theorised we have!

So I’ve been working on an essay about conspiracies which I’d hoped to publish today, but it’s not ready yet—hopefully next week! But I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to share it with you! I’ll be looking at why even the best of us are so prone to both buying and sharing conspiracy theories, why that’s valuable, and how to manage the tension between being less prone while remaining open. Keep your eyes peeled.

🧪 Breaking Bad and dealing with hardship…

(I know. I’m a decade late. Don’t judge.)

It’s one of the most highly rated shows ever, and I’ve been wanting to get into it for a while, so I have over the past few weeks. And it’s not been disappointing. It’s been particularly great because I’m deeply interested in how easily we overlook or downplay the dark side of human nature, and especially in our own lives. (Like how we’re quick to see others as bad people, but when we do bad things, it was with good reason or provocation—aka fundamental attribution error.) Anyway, Breaking Bad is five seasons of that.

And one of my best quotes comes in season 2, where protagonist Walter White is reflecting on the remission of his cancer (not really a spoiler—he gets the diagnosis in episode 1 but of course, you couldn’t have 5 seasons without his having gone into remission, right?). At any rate, he says:

Well, it’s kind of funny. When I got my diagnosis, cancer, I said to myself, you know: “Why me?” And then, the other day, when I got the good news, I said the same thing.

That really struck me. We question when bad things happen to us, but good things, not so much. As if we somehow assume good things should happen. But why should they? There’s literally no system of thought, from science to religion to philosophy, to back up such an expectation. (I dare you to name one.) The idea that we deserve things really makes no sense outside of human-to-human interactions, and it’s debatable even there.

As one philosopher put it:

“In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other…”—Ecclesiastes 7:14 ESV)

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially in these times, and reminding myself that with every “Why me?” I can also rightly ask, “Why not me?”—for good as well as bad, in gratitude as well as in lament.

😧 A way of thinking about anxiety disorders

Anxiety is increasing a lot in these times, and we’ve been seeing lots of patients who are presenting with anxiety about having already contracted COVID-19. I was chatting with one recently who didn’t recognise their experience as actually being panic attacks, so I thought I’d share how I explained the problem.

Think of anxiety as sort of your body’s alarm system. When it works right, it should alert you to danger, and help you prepare to deal with it. Anxiety disorders are those alarms going off, but for, like, birds and small animals, not actual intruders—or for no reason at all.

Basically your body’s ability to distinguish between information you actually need and filter out information that’s not useful is gone, and so you’re finding yourself taking every bit of data as hugely important (which is why it’s so stressful, because life is constantly throwing mad data at you).

Once you see this a few things become clear.

  1. You see why trying to solve the problem by obtaining more information doesn’t work—if you can’t filter the signal from the noise, then more information only makes it all worse. It’s like dealing with oversensitive alarms by testing them more often.

  1. You also see why the therapy for it is so difficult: since the problem is your filters not working properly, the therapy is about learning to retrain them. Which begins with learning to distrust them.

Basically, overcoming anxiety disorders begins with learning to ignore the alarms, and to start again to figure out when they deserve your attention. So yeah, it’s hard. But there’s no other way. The challenge is people often want the alarms to just kind of, I dunno, reset, but that doesn’t just happen.

Step one to dealing with anxiety disorders begins with distrusting your own ability to interpret signals.

And that is very, very hard for us humans. But it’s possible.


Doc Ayomide