An erroneous expectation I often hear from anxious persons is that to maintain happiness and safety, a large degree of control is necessary and that the best way to achieve it and keep dangers at bay is to hold risk scenarios tightly within one’s awareness and thoughts. It may not be thought explicitly but letting go is equated with allowing the darkness and danger to flood in, to wash over one’s self like a tidal wave that will leave behind what is often an ill-defined but dread-inducing chaos. Thus, a tight and vigilant grip is required to remain whole.
Worry is seen as a defense against danger because keeping it – whatever ‘it’ is now – in mind is believed to have the magic power of neutralizing it. Worry ruminations are like a mental strand of garlic and a golden crucifix that keeps Dracula away during the long hours of the night. And soon, all of life feels like one long night. How can one sleep when such dangers lurk?
Of course, if this vigilance of the mind worked, then it may be a high price to pay, but one worth paying. But, alas, this struggle of control over the unfolding events of the world is unachievable. Worry thoughts do not keep dangers away but instead invite them to settle in and permeate one’s awareness, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The resulting tension in the body does not make a person more adept at wielding their sword against the gathering enemies just outside one’s fortress. Rather, it exhausts the body and slows its reflexes. And the vigilant awareness does not provide the senses greater ability to sense real danger and instead makes one tired and distracted.
For someone with the belief that holding tight and keeping control is what survival requires, the resulting failure of their efforts only reinforces the need to hold tight, even tighter, to strive for even greater vigilance and control. But the failure of this approach comes not only because one small person cannot be ever vigilant and controlling of the risks present in the world. More importantly, the failure is based on a category error: danger not only lurks outside; even more so it lurks inside – inside our minds, our bodies, from the aging process, and from inevitable sicknesses that lead the vigilant and controlling towards death as assuredly as it does the carefree, unthinking, and unwary. Alas, there is no escape. Injury, sickness, and eventual death will come.
And this realization that we will all ultimately succumb, irrespective of how hard we try to be ever vigilant and controlling, can become unbearable to some people. It can cause an intense doubling down, deep anger at the universe for being the way it is, a universe that does not guarantee security but only guarantees eventual death, and a deep rage at oneself for one’s inability to control, no matter that so much in the world is uncontrollable. This failure can lead to self-loathing and, even, to thoughts of suicide. The disquiet, perturbation, and tension can be experienced as both unbearable and inescapable. It is unsurprising to me that anxiety disorders are associated with suicide risks about as high as those found in depression.
Isn’t there a better way of encountering life’s many dangers? Especially if a person is in a state of extreme disquiet, another way to resolve it and to accept the inefficacy of vigilance and control should be sought. After all, what does a person with this degree of struggle have to lose?
The solution? It’s embarrassing that the answer is oh so simple, there all along, requiring no far journeys to find the mysterious answer.
The answer is simply to let go. Stop controlling what can’t be controlled. Stop being vigilant because even if the vigilance can be maintained, it still isn’t highly protective. The anxious person needs to do the opposite of what they’ve been trying all along: letting go instead of doubling down, which only guarantees ongoing anxiety and stress. It’s simple, but not easy. Sometimes worry has been a constant companion for as long as a person can remember. One patient once said to me, “It’s like you’re asking me to leave my front door wide open. Not worrying makes me feel vulnerable.” I understand. But another way must be tried. Worry feeds worry and crowds out almost everything else. Even if slowly, tentatively, taking little risks and making small changes, another way must be found.
So, I say to you and me and everyone:
Accept. Accept that you may get hurt, that you almost certainly will get seriously sick, and that you certainly will die – one day. And not only that, but everyone you love will suffer that same fate eventually.
Breathe deeply. Let go of the tension in the muscles of your body. Let go of worry thoughts. Let go of the magic expectations of safety and security.
Instead, embrace the world with all its pain and its joy. Embrace the ones you love because your worry may have placed a distance between you and them, and perhaps drained any playfulness and fun from your interactions. And embrace yourself. You are a complicated and f*’ed up creature, no doubt – as we all are – that is filled with internal ambivalence, conflict, and dark thoughts and feelings. And, because of all that, and despite all that, you are beautiful and whole and in possession of everything you need. Now. And not at some future date, and not with the addition of some variable amount of money, skill, support, or whatever else you imagine stands between you and wholeness. All is here now and within you.
Wow. So easy. So instant.
Laugh. Cry. Feel the fear, make it your companion. And feel the love and awe. Move. Do what needs to be done. Nothing stands in your way. There is no journey to take — no answers to seek. You are here, home already.
“One human life is deeper than the ocean. Strange fishes and sea-monsters and mighty plants live in the rock-bed of our spirits. The whole of human history is an undiscovered continent deep in our souls. There are dolphins, plants that dream, magic birds inside us. The sky is inside us. The earth is in us.”
Ben Okri, The Famished Road
“IN THE BEGINNING there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.
In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that they hadn’t understood, and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land of origins.”
Ben Okri, The Famished Road
“Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or lose its orientations. Even in silence we are living our stories.”
Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven
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