BY BEN THOMAS | Original illustration for Ember by Jordan Bogash
A friend of mine recently told me of a major breakthrough he experienced at a weekend meditation retreat. Deep in a meditative session one evening, he recognized that much of his personal identity was bound together by feelings of worry—not just that he felt anxious a lot, but that he actually feared he wouldn’t recognize himself as a person without anxiety.
Since my friend’s purpose in attending the retreat was to deal with his anxiety head-on, he decided to try letting go of that underlying fear, just for a moment. What he found on the other side, he said, was a vast sense of potential—not the chaos he’d been afraid of, but the boundless freedom of a blank canvas or a childhood Saturday morning.
Although my friend’s anxiety didn’t vanish forever in that single moment (wouldn’t that have been nice!), his realization did profoundly alter his relationship with worry. He came back with a newfound freedom from the fear of losing himself in a worry-free state—a freedom that’s empowered him to loosen his grip on worry, secure in the knowledge that he can safely let go of it.
Most of us wish we could learn to let go of our worrisome “what ifs.” How is it that worry becomes so deeply integrated into our personal identities in the first place? Psychology offers some hopeful answers for those of us who, like my friend, are looking for a way out.
Chronic worry is more common than many of us realize. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 percent of adults experience some form of anxiety in an average year—and that number skyrocketed to 42 percent during quarantine. One of the most common symptoms reported throughout lockdown has been “not being able to stop or control worrying”—in other words, not just feeling worried, but feeling unable to differentiate oneself from the worry.
A key reason for this is that worry traps us in limiting ways of thinking, which in turn create even more worry. For example, anxiety tends to produce “black-and-white” thinking, in which we focus only on the most extreme possible outcomes—and radically overestimate the likelihood of a worst-case scenario. Sometimes an anxiety spiral can flare into a full-blown “amygdala hijack,” in which the brain’s fight-or-flight system kicks the rational mind out of the driver’s seat.
One of the most common symptoms reported throughout lockdown has been “not being able to stop or control worrying”—in other words, not just feeling worried, but feeling unable to differentiate oneself from the worry.
But even in those moments, we can still reassert a sense of calm. One way of doing this is to perform some quick mental math, like adding or multiplying the digits in your phone number. This diverts mental resources away from the amygdala, weakening physical fight-or-flight responses, and sometimes stopping an anxiety attack in its tracks. It’s equally crucial (as my friend realized) to name the specific anxiety trap in which we’re caught—which helps us recognize and label anxiety as an emotion separate from our self-identity.
Even so, that distinction can be all too easy to lose sight of—especially when we tell ourselves anxiety-centric stories about our own lives.
As the historian Will Durant wrote (in a quote famously misattributed to Aristotle), “We are what we repeatedly do.” Make a lot of art, for example, and you’ll start to think of yourself as an artist. Unfortunately, these self-reinforcing patterns can also work against us. A daily habit of worry can lead to the feeling of being trapped in the identity of a “worrier,” whether we consciously chose that identity or not.
That’s because we’re all telling ourselves stories about ourselves, all the time. Our subconscious minds work like writers of an ongoing TV series—constantly expanding and reworking our backstories (“My dad’s cooking taught me to love great food”), assigning us character traits (“I’m a very visual thinker”), and explaining our actions in relation to past events and future goals (“I’m volunteering for her project because she’s been nice to me lately, and I want to get to know her better”).
But while the events in these narratives may be perfectly real, it’s important to remember that the stories themselves are constructs of our imaginations. In many ways, our memories are highly unreliable narrators. Like the narrators of novels like Don Quixote, and films like Big Fish, we tend to think we’re telling ourselves the whole truth, when we’re mainly focusing on the plot points that support the narratives we want to believe—while forgetting or downplaying facts that contradict the stories we’re telling.
Those stories can be helpful—or harmful, like when they trap us in self-identities we don’t want. That’s why psychologists recommend writing out multiple explanations of an anxiety-inducing situation, assigning ourselves (and others) more positive motivations. In fact, as an ongoing practice, this story re-telling ritual can radically transform the ways we frame our feelings of anxiety, and our relationships with others.
Imperfectness is part of being human—as is the desire for perfection. That desire can be a positive force, inspiring us to keep learning and growing; yet it can also trap us inside our comfort zones, unwilling to venture out and make mistakes. Paradoxical as this might sound, it sometimes feels safer to stay inside an anxious self-identity than to face the uncertainty of psychological change.
But there’s hope: research shows that cannabis (as well as psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin) can increase positive feelings around a psychological breakthrough. In one recent study, participants who used cannabis reported experiencing an “oceanic boundlessness” where they felt safe to loosen their grip on limiting self-identities—and in some cases, to let go of treatment-resistant habits like cigarette and alcohol dependence.
Research shows that cannabis (as well as psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin) can increase positive feelings around a psychological breakthrough.
Even on an everyday level, psychologists say practicing unfamiliar skills can help us get more comfortable with our imperfections. By actively engaging with our conscious incompetence as we learn to juggle, or surf, or speak another language, we reawaken “the willingness to look foolish, and the permission to ask obvious questions—the unencumbered beginner’s mind.” That mindset can serve as a powerful tool for discovering an identity beyond anxiety.
Throughout this journey, it helps to remember there’s nothing wrong with feeling anxious, in and of itself. Anxiety is the body’s natural “alarm system,” evolved to help us anticipate and avoid threats. When that alarm system starts to take control of your whole identity, though, it’s worth keeping in mind that—while you’re always allowed to feel what you feel—you’re also allowed to tell yourself new stories in which you, and not your anxiety, feature as the main character.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.