Anxiety and The Path of Least Resistance
In 2018, I did MDMA at Burning Man with a cult. The experience was great, as MDMA usually is for me. I glowed with love, made eye contact with people, rubbed arms. At around 2am, I laid in the main tent after everyone had gone to bed, and as I came down I became gripped with horrible anxiety.
The anxiety crept into my head like poison. I began thinking intrusive thoughts about how everyone must hate me, about how terrible I was. My body was gripped in fear. I tried to go to bed, but couldn’t sleep because of my brain screaming that the world was awful and I was awful and everyone was definitely combing through every mistake I’d ever made. I stayed up all night running through these thoughts, and in the morning crept out, exhausted and tense all over.
Turns out I was horrifically dehydrated and hadn’t noticed it; I gulped down water, and things settled a bit. Eventually I belched; a huge, vibrating belch, and the anxiety vanished within ten seconds. I sat there, utterly exhausted in the rising heat and desert daylight, feeling perfectly chill and like the world was fine.
I forgot about this incident, until the night of a wedding a few months later, in December. I was trying to go to sleep, drunk, and then casually remembered I was planning on doing MDMA at a party the next day. And instantly, like a cavern opened, I dropped into anxiety again; everything seemed bad, like a train was about to hit me from I-didn’t-know-where. It took me a few hours to get to sleep, and when I woke up in the morning the anxiety was still there.
And it didn’t leave for a year. I grappled with this anxiety in various ways, from various directions, for a really long time.
It was hard because I didn’t understand it. It felt sort of formless, though there were thoughts. I’d find an anxious thought and then meditate on it; okay, so I’m afraid of people thinking bad things about me. What happens if they do? I knew how to deal with fears, I’d done this a thousand times; you identify what you’re afraid of happening, then you inhabit a world where it’s happened to you and then you grieve and come to terms with living this reality for an infinity, so that it’s integrated fully into your mind, so you don’t flinch away. So if people thought bad things about me, I’d notice I was really afraid of being alone and unloved, and then I was like okay – let me be alone and unloved, let me be the isolated, unseen outcast, doomed to writhe in the pain of solitude forever. And then I grieved it fully, didn’t resist it, accepted the unendingness of it.
But here, for the first time in my life, this process didn’t help. I accepted it, but something still felt bad, somewhere. And so I kept twisting over my own shoulder, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
I eventually did LSD with the goal of figuring this out, and it was the single ‘bad trip’ I’ve ever had (out of around 100, at this point). I was consumed with anxiety I couldn’t locate. It was confusing, more than anything. No matter what mental motion I performed, what technique or manner of looking, anxiety hid behind that. I tried doing shrooms over the new year, and found the anxiety as this rock settled in my chest, immoveable and dense, with the rest of my body flowing gently around it.
I learned a lot over these months; I examined many parts of myself much closer, I learned some mental motions that helped a bit. But it was like I was built out of “reality is bad”, and I was trying to fix myself with corrupted tools.
The worst thing was that any strong emotion seemed to trigger the anxiety – grief or joy or anything. It was like my access to deep, expressive feeling was stunted; as soon as my body began to light up, the anxiety would swoop in and slap it away from me. I didn’t understand why.
One day, in the grips of the usual anxiety, I was drinking sparkling water, and I released a truly massive belch. Immediately, the anxiety disappeared.
This shook my fucking world. Why did I feel fine? Why was the world suddenly good? Because I belched? What kind of sick, immature kind of joke was this?
But it replicated. The next time I got anxious, I drank fizzy water and belched and the anxiety was gone. I didn’t know what was going on; was it a vasovagal nerve pressure thing? I didn’t know how the nerve worked, but some pressure somewhere in my system must have been causing the anxiety.
More importantly, this meant the anxiety wasn’t a mental thing, it was physical. This felt ridiculous; the anxiety clearly felt mental. I was having clear, concrete thoughts that I could react to and try to reason with. It felt as mental as any other emotion. I’d believed the anxiety was some ‘mistake’ I’d been making, something I hadn’t realized, some subconscious belief I was holding, and I thought once I ironed it out the feeling would go away. I didn’t think drinking fizzy water would be the solution. Surely I had some emotional hangup, not.. gas!
But uh yeah, it was gas.
This changed the way I related to my anxiety; I would lie there, feeling like the world was ending, and my orientation changed from this being a symptom of mental disarrangement and more like physical sickness. I noticed that I felt the world was ending much as I might have noticed a stomachache, and in a way this was infinitely more tolerable.
And it was funny, I realized, that I’d been treating the mental and physical worlds as two separate things; not just in what they were but in what they meant. As in, I had some sense of self wrapped up in my mental world that I didn’t in the physical; if this was a mental disarrangement, then it reflected on me to feel it; I could fix it purely through mentally rearranging myself, and to feel anxious was a sign I had failed to solve some puzzle. I had no such sense of self in my body; if my body was disarranged, it didn’t reflect on me, and being sick wasn’t a failure. And there was an intense peace in this; somehow, I began to endure the anxiety with a weird form of acceptance, despite still experiencing the anxiety itself in hyper clarity.
This also made me wonder how many other things, in myself or in others, were physical problems instead of mental ones. I’ve been using the terms sky problems/solutions and earth problems/solutions for this division; sky problems being things mentally created and mentally solvable, such as resolving childhood trauma, dealing with getting annoyed when your friend closes the door too loudly, or being more productive. Earth problems are ‘practically’ created; your car breaking down, genetically-passed-down schizophrenia, or being gluten intolerant.
And so when my friends talked about their childhood trauma, I wondered if their sky problems actually needed earth solutions, and I started suggesting them to drink sparkling water or get more sleep or check their diet and exercise.
This ran into a bit of pushback. Was I not suggesting ignoring their sky problems? They saw a genuine problem with the sky. Really, they suspected a lot of earth problems themselves were actually sky problems; maybe your back pain is actually unresolved childhood trauma! They reported having effectively fixed problems with their body by fixing problems with their mind. I believed this – but maybe it should be equally possible to fix mind problems with your body?
One issue is when people don’t optimize for solving their problem, they instead look to have an identity of someone who’s solved a problem. If the issues of your childhood trauma are solved by getting eight hours of solid sleep, your problem might be solved, but you don’t feel like someone who’s solved a problem, and so you might not seriously consider trying “getting eight hours of sleep”. The only solutions on the table are solutions that might reaffirm your identity as someone who’s fixed something.
This also comes from losing sight of what ‘solving a problem’ is, or losing sight of what you want. Maybe you have abandonment trauma and feel insecure or angry when your romantic partner has other close friendships. This is hard because you want to be able to have a relationship where your desires aren’t restricting the other person, perhaps because you want to make others feel good, because you love them. And as you try to fix this issue, you’re drawn into a lot of narratives around what it looks like to solve the problem – maybe you need to work out your hangups from when your first girlfriend cheated on you, or become fully integrated, or develop an introspective skillset that emotionally stabilizes you.
And probably a lot of these will in fact help! But the path is not the goal; being integrated isn’t what you want, you wanted to make others feel good because you love them (or whatever else your core value might be). There’s a thousand promised paths to the goal that beckon as a true path because they claim to be a good path; or rather, a path that will prove that you are good.
And maybe one day you figure out that whenever you dress in neon pink and do acroyoga your insecurity and anger melts away, your relationship with your partner improves, and you make them feel good because you love them. But we might say this doesn’t count as a true path, because it’s too easy; where’s the labor? Where’s the change in your character? Where’s the hours of introspection and feelings of insight? Surely there will be some repercussions here – surely you will find this stops working, or doesn’t address other important problems, or isn’t a true fix – whatever ‘true’ means.
To be quite clear, there is merit to this – people often think they’ve fixed themselves when they haven’t, or want an easy route where there is none, or don’t understand that the path to their goal requires a wide ranging series of modifications to their mind. My point is not that the path is never hard, my point is that sometimes the path is not one we expect, and that we avoid considering those paths because we prefer thinking of ourselves as someone who is ‘good’ (hard working, strong, determined, etc.).
As in; if you could take a pill right now that is perfectly designed to chemically rearrange your brain to instantly fix the problems in yourself you want fixed – removes a trigger you have, or increases your productivity, or cures your abandonment issues – would you do it?
As for my anxiety, it eventually faded away over the course of a year and hasn’t come back since, without any insight, labor, or personal growth on my part.