As most people are aware by now, mood disorders like depression and anxiety are on the rise, and are even being seen as “diseases of modernity.” Western cultures in particular see the highest rates of anxiety-related disorders compared to Eastern and other non-Western cultures. So what’s to blame for the influx of anxiety and stress?
There are likely several factors at play. Many people have pointed to the rise of smartphones and the erosion of meaningful social connection, growing levels of sleep-deprivation, and an overall increase in sedentary lifestyles. But I’m not satisfied with these answers, partly because these trends aren't unique to Western living; they’re happening everywhere. I suspect the issue goes deeper—down to the level of our basic psychological functioning.
Our heightened anxiety has its roots in the way we think. More specifically, how we think—our default style of cognition—is different from the way it is in most other places in the world. We're analytic thinkers, meaning we see the world in a linear fashion, carving out separate events and peering at them through a lens of cause and effect. We are rule-bound and systems-oriented and we are drawn in by focal events. We care less about context. You know the old saying, “can't see the forest for the trees?” That’s us: We Westerners are tree-obsessed.
In contrast, the majority of the world’s population (around 85 percent and comprising mostly of Eastern culture) are holistic thinkers. They see the world non-linearly, recognizing the contextual and overlapping features of a given event or situation. Most phenomena, to them, consist of complex interconnections that fit together in greater harmony.
A simple example highlighting the difference in cognition comes from what researchers call the “triad test.” Suppose you’re presented with a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot, and then asked which two belong together. The analytic thinker chooses the dog and rabbit because both satisfy the internally held rule of “animal category.” The holistic thinker, on the other hand, chooses the rabbit and carrot because of the interconnected and functional relationship between the two: A rabbit eats carrots.
A consequence of analytic thinking is that its adherence to rule-based reasoning breeds a type of hyper-rational mindset. We believe every problem has a solution. It’s simply a matter of analyzing, solving, striving, looking, doing, working, acting, thinking. Because our world can be logically reduced to a set of basic cause-and-effect principles, we think answers can always be found. Even answers to problems related to personal anxiety. Ironically, it’s the constant striving for answers and solutions that makes anxiety worse in the long run. Solving for anxiety through calculated, analytic-based reasoning just doesn’t work. You can’t analyze your way out of an anxious state.
To understand how these two thinking styles link to differences in anxiety, we have to look at the philosophical and historical traditions of East versus West. In many Asian cultures, holistic thinking traces its roots back to ancient Eastern philosophies, most notably Confucian and Taoist traditions. The teachings of the Chinese classics, the I Ching and Tao Te Ching, continue to shape the holistic cognitive style of East Asian populations today. It’s a remarkable feat of cultural transmission occurring across eons of generational change.
(Quick aside: A similar enculturation process holds for us in the West. Our thinking of hyper-analytic style can be traced back to the atomistic philosophies of the Ancient Greeks like Socrates and Plato.)
And there are two prominent Eastern teachings in particular that help to explain the Western anxiety trap. The first is a principle called Wu Wei. A famous Taoist concept, it’s roughly translated as non-action. It says that we shouldn’t hurry to action. We shouldn’t constantly strive towards “doing” in attempt to resolve an issue, since things will resolve themselves if left alone. Ironically, the lesson here is that often the best way to resolve our stress and anxiety is, well, to not do anything at all. (You can see how this opposes our Western bias.)
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Here’s the good news: Westerners can reach Wu Wei by turning up an intuitive style of thinking and turning down an analytical, deliberate style thinking. Recent advances in cognitive psychology are showing that this shift can be done through routine mental exercises.
The second principle embodies a collection of Taoist virtues, which are loosely translated as naive dialecticism. This is the essence of the yin yang. The defining aspect of dialectic thinking is that things in life have mutual dependence, and two sides of an apparent contradiction reveal a greater harmony and truth. In other words, two things can be mutually opposed, and at the same time, mutually connected. You can be, for example, in an anxious state and still have perfect control of your situation and your life. Thinking in this way allows a person to tolerate contradictions and to accept the uncertainties that inevitably present themselves.
In fact, dialecticism is such a powerful buffer against negative emotions that we’re seeing its teachings come through in one of the fastest growing Western-based clinical therapies: dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). The goal of any DBT treatment is to find a balance between acceptance and change strategies; to be tolerant of one’s current state and emotions while still striving towards personal growth. It’s effective in resolving the dialectic (i.e., finding the balance) and avoiding certain extreme positions that amplify destructive emotion states.
Remarkably, for many people struggling with anxiety and stress, DBT has shown to be a superior form of therapy than, say, cognitive behavior therapy and even drug interventions.
Even though these differences between East and West are deeply rooted in both cognitive functioning and historical learnings, we’re not doomed to live forever in our Western-biased anxiety trap. We can break out of it. The mind is highly plastic, capable of rewiring itself based on changing inputs from internal and external experiences. That means we can, in fact, think more like Easterners. We can engage in certain practices like the art of non-action and dialecticism and have it positively impact our mental well-being.
So what are you waiting for? You need to do, well, nothing. Nothing at all.
Nick Hobson is a research psychologist and lecturer at the University of Toronto. You can find more of his work at PsychologyCompass.
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