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ANGST ridden

Still practising

Chris Preece

Tuesday, 02 May 2017

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reading news_shutterstock_93382753_v2.jpgThere’s a sickness affecting us all. Transmission is easy, and requires no direct personal contact, carried as it is on electromagnetic waves. It requires only exposure, open eyes, and perhaps the click of a finger.

I don’t think they’ve named it yet, so we’ll have to come up with one. Let’s call it 'Amplified Negativity Generating Story Transfixion'. This isn’t just an abstract concern, I’m every bit a sufferer of ANGST as anyone else, indeed I fear I’m in the advanced stages. After all, I’m not just a victim, I’m actively a disease vector.

So how does ANGST work? It’s simple really. It starts with something awful. Something legitimately truly terrible. Cruelty, murder, greed, terror. It doesn’t take much. Just a tiny drop within the sprawling experience of billions of humans. A single microbe of misery.

This single simple contagion then spreads. It is embraced, wrapped in words and transmitted around the world. It is shared, and allowed to grow into something all consuming, drowning out all other voices, but its own dark mantra of despair. Often at the expense of any real thought or consideration for how that original drop of horror might have sensibly been addressed.

Here’s a case in point: a week ago a murder suicide was broadcast on Facebook. I did not, I’m pleased to say, see it. Yet I know everything there is to know. I know the names of everyone involved. I know why it was done, and how it was done. I know how the grieving relatives feel, and who they hold responsible. 

I know all of this because I was told it on the radio as I drove into work, and because it was widely reported in papers, on TV and the internet. The stories, oddly, were not about what a terrible event this was, per se. I am yet to see a single article reflecting upon what lead to this tragedy, or how to prevent it happening again. Every single article was, instead, focussed on how terrible it was that Facebook allowed such a thing to be shared on their platform. Something that most of us would have remained blissfully unaware of had every other form of media not raced to breathlessly inform us of every detail. To inadvertently give a platform to an atrocity is unforgiveable; but it seems to knowingly describe it is not – as if none of us possessed imaginations. As if those imaginations would not be better without those images within them.

This is how ANGST spreads. Everyone, it seems, just wants to tell that story, even as they find inventive ways to pretend they aren’t. Even though they know, deep down, that it’s eating at their soul. The Facebook thing is particularly relevant as it’s not the first story of its type, there have been a gradually snowballing of “awful things on Facebook” tales, as if the attention given to the first incident is an integral part of creating the next. Because, let’s face it, it is.

It’s in this way that ANGST has essentially been weaponised - every terrorist attack relies on the very same process to make sure it works its way into our consciousness.Each story, in the telling, becomes more potent, more terrifying, skewing our view of the world, creating new myths, and new extremes.

ANGST isn’t merely the preserve of murderers however. It has an incredibly powerful effect with respect to health too. Every newspaper story about a missed medical diagnosis, or a morally reprehensible doctor, becomes another ANGST microbe.

Again, these stories spread quickly, and they cause real and demonstrable harm. There are the obvious effects on health anxiety – I have a number of patients who find it almost impossible to be reassured, because they read about how something got missed somewhere. However, there are wider consequences too. Take for instance the decline in vaccination rates triggered by one single ill-advised research paper in the Lancet and the extraordinary power of ANGST. That particular strain continues to thrive, long after its origin was decisively proven to be bunkum.

We’re addicted to these stories, and they’re doing us harm. So how can we counteract this?  One solution, as Luke suggested in his recent blog on happiness, is to simply avoid negative stories altogether. But what about those of us, myself included, who seem incapable of losing this vile addiction?

We can, I suppose, look more critically at these tales when they’re presented to us. Try and find ways to greet them, not with fear, but calm interest, compassion, and a desire to find ways to prevent atrocities in the future.

If this seems a tall order, then I have one final sliver of hope. It occurs to me that there’s a reason why these stories continue to be published. Why they remain popular, and thrive.  The very reason that they are considered “news”. It’s because they are novel. They are, by their very definition, huge variations from the norm.

Most of us would never imagine committing murder. Killing in the name of religion is not considered acceptable behaviour in any mainstream faith these days. Despite stories of laziness, incompetence or cruelty, the medical profession remains one populated almost exclusively by caring people dedicated to doing good. These stories grab us, and replicate, and linger in our minds, not because they are the sign of the terrible world in which we live, but precisely because we live in a surprisingly wonderful one.

So, remember that, next time there’s a story telling you about the terrible things done by some aberrant individual. The only reason you’re hearing the story is that there are over 7 billion people on this planet who wouldn’t dream of acting in the same way. It’s when everyday kindnesses become front page news that we’ll need to start worrying…

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Chris Preece

Chris has worked as a GP Partner in North Yorkshire since 2004, and still relishes the peculiar challenge of never quite knowing what the next person through the door is going to present with. He was the chair of his local Practice Based Commissioning Group, and when this evolved into a CCG he joined the Governing Body, ultimately leaving in April 2015. He continues to work with the CCG in an advisory capacity. When not being consumed by all things medical, Chris occupies himself by writing, gaming, and indulging the whims of his children. He has previously written and performed in a number of pantomimes and occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Tragically, his patients no longer tell him he looks too young to be a doctor.
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