When faced with anxiety, most people follow their emotions into a dark forest. Others take the road less traveled.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. -Robert Frost “The Road Less Traveled”
In reflecting on his path through life, Robert Frost used a metaphor to represent actions that most people take, and actions that few people take. At its essence, his poem celebrates human dignity, which is our fundamental right to choose a path in life.
When we begin to experience anxiety and the racing thoughts that follow, we feel like we’ve lost the opportunity to choose our own path. Options shrink. We feel small. We feel victimized and weak. As we feel anxiety and fear, we also notice the loss of control. We begin to lose our dignity and therefore our humanity. Something dark takes over.
To regain a sense of control, we try in vain to resist those pesky, anxious thoughts. Unfortunately, with resistance comes the risk of burying ourselves even deeper into anxious thinking. Anyone who has experienced anxiety knows its fundamental law: whatever we resist will persist.
Amateur psychologists call racing thoughts “overthinking.” Professional psychologists call it rumination, which is one of the more disturbing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.
So what can we do when anxiety and racing thoughts hijack an otherwise good moment?
The Road More Traveled
If you’re like most people, the onset of anxiety feels like getting lost in a dark forest. One of my clients recently described their anxiety like “driving through life with mud all over my windshield.” With anxiety, you get scared. You get frustrated. You get distracted. You harshly judge others and yourself. You worry. You panic. Your stomach ties into knots. Overthinking rules your day.
I recently heard someone describe anxious overthinking like this:
“So I have a thought, like ‘damn, you gotta get a job’ — and before I can even think, I get another thought that says, ‘don’t be so worried about it, that’s your real problem,’ then BOOM — another one comin’ in hot like, ‘why you so judgy, man, getting a job is important.’ And it just. Keeps. Going. It’s a thought on a thought on a thought into forever. They come out of nowhere with big guns, and they’re heavy, man. I can feel it, and that scares me more than anything I’ve done — and I’ve done a lot of fucked up, scary shit.”
That’s overthinking (a.k.a. rumination). It’s when you worry about worrying, and then get worried about worrying about your worry. Yeah, it’s like that.
Anyone with anxiety can tell you their own stories about the hailstones of worry that never seem to stop pounding. Even people who don’t believe they “have” anxiety can experience rumination or overthinking.
For every 5 people worldwide, one will have experienced an extended episode of anxiety or depression in their lifetime. One of every 15 people will have anxiety so debilitating that it requires substantial therapy and medication. As a brief empathy exercise, take a minute to recall the last time you overthought something.
The Road Less Traveled
As anxious overthinking quickly sweeps your lifeless body toward the road more traveled, remember that you have a choice — Frost’s two roads diverged is a tale of dignity because its most essential ingredient is choice.
While starving to death in the Auschwitz concentration camp, Viktor Frankl discovered this truth and with the realization came an internal freedom that he could not find in his external world — a world filled with torturous and hateful captors. Deeply in despair and frequently close to death, he found meaning in his right to choose his thinking, like an overflowing well of free will within.
Coming back to our question, then, what can we do when our thoughts hijack an otherwise good moment? What can we do when our world fills with despair? If you can remember that you simply have the right to choose, then choose to do absolutely nothing. Forget the how. Forget technique.
I repeat: do absolutely nothing.
But does doing nothing mean the same thing as giving up? If we fail to resist, will we inevitably be swept onto the anxiety superhighway?
Nope. At some point, your own thoughts will rescue you because that’s the nature of thought. The aggressive, attacking thoughts and the calm, peaceful thoughts are all the same, in that they’re all thoughts.
When you look deeply into cognitive neuroscience, you realize that thought and emotion are an interdependent pair — one gives the other life. Anxiety is a feeling that occurs as we think, just like calmness is a feeling that occurs as we think. Thought and feeling in psychology suffer from a chicken-and-egg problem: we just don’t know which one comes first, but as we apply what we know about psychology, we realize that it doesn’t really matter. We feel what we think, and we think what we feel.
I’ll share a common example from my life to illustrate the interdependence of thought and feeling or emotion:
Today, on my first weekend day — a time that I prefer to dedicate to my well-being—I didn’t notice when my thoughts began to spiral out of control and by the time I did notice, it was almost too late. The thoughts were gentle at first, “you really ought to do something useful today.”
Then, as if my thoughts started pounding Red Bull, they grew more aggressive: “you’re really wasting your day again, Scott. This is why you’re not successful.” Man, that was low. Not even, “that’s why you don’t think you’re successful,” just raw self-hate: “that’s why you’re not successful.”
Then came the defense, “nah, you’re fine — ignore that negative thinking and relax.” Furiously, more thoughts charged into my consciousness, “you don’t have time to waste but you’re doing it anyway. You’re a mess, like a helpless toddler spread out all over the place — trying to do laundry, catch up on your charts, plan your blog post, sign up for Twitter (again), and you gotta clean that grill today, you can’t just leave it out and, oh shit, I left the meatballs in the oven. I could have gotten my tires done today, too, if I didn’t waste the morning. Should I apply for that job at Harvard? No, you’ll never get it and that life is behind you anyway. Wait, did I take the dog out yet? I’m so tired…”
Then, as if on cue, it came without any effort or resistance. Wisdom.
“You’re not going to think yourself out of this, and you might be far from perfect, so just keep folding these linens. Try to do that well, at least. Get the ends right. There, that’s a good one. Now another.”
What helped me escape?
I knew that my feelings were a result of my thinking, and if I started resisting the thoughts more intensely, then they would spiral out of control.
Also, I knew that if I listened to the thoughts as if they were true, I’d start to feel anger.
Thoughts seem to come and go on their own, without any intervention and without any effort
So, I ignored them. Like an unwelcome guest, I paid no attention. I lost interest. I moved on, or — even better — I moved in.
As I’ve been learning and teaching an approach known as Health Realization, also known as the Three Principles, or Psychology of Mind — I’ve been noticing more and more how thoughts seem to come and go on their own, without any intervention and without any effort.
Imagine that. Psychological well-being without any intervention. No treatment. No effort. Just the realization that at some point in the near future, my inner light — my wisdom — would most certainly begin to shine through these furious, stormy clouds.
Mindfulness wasn’t something I even tried to do to escape the nasty thoughts that crept up on me without warning. It was simply the outcome. I applied no technique, used no app, and called no therapist — yet I moved into a state of calm, peace, and mindfulness that I never even came close to experiencing as a dedicated student of Zen Buddhism, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Person-Centered Therapy.
This is Health Realization, personified. Although it’s my example, each week I hear dozens of similar examples where colleagues and clients recount random visits with wisdom when they least expected it.
Making “All The Difference” in Your Life
In Frost’s poem, the road that fewer take — the road less traveled — seems much more difficult and complex, but also much more fulfilling than taking the road more traveled.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” If we understand what Holmes meant — that nothing worth doing is easy — then we can be certain that this challenging but ever-so-righteous road less traveled will draw us closer to that simple, universal truth that lives within each of us.
We know this simple truth because we hear it every day. It is the quiet and compassionate voice inside of you that always insists on your well-being, despite your best efforts to silence it. Once we tune in, we cannot avoid its wisdom — and if we continue to open our hearts and learn, we find ourselves peaceful even in times of trouble.
Wisdom is found in the gentle voice that asks you, humbly, to do the right thing, even if it’s more difficult than you had hoped it to be. You can recognize that you’re on the right path when you sense a quiet compassion that speaks with insight and wisdom — that builds up rather than breaks down.
Within us, the truth is our simple and innate wisdom. It is effortless. It flows through our mind as easily as the blood through our veins.
What helped me toward the truth of innate health, toward the difficult road less traveled, despite feeling as if I was being swept quickly toward the road more traveled?
I don’t really know, but I trust that I will know — and you will too.