analytic thinkers tend to see the world in a linear fashion, carving out separate events and peering at them through a lens of cause and effect.

They are rule-bound and systems-oriented. They care less about context. They know the old saying, «Can’t see the forest for the trees»? That’s you: a tree-obsessed Westerner.

In contrast, the majority of the world’s population (around 85 percent and comprising mostly Eastern cultures) 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 — the typical American — 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. You believe every problem has a solution. It’s simply a matter of analyzing, solving, striving, looking, doing, working, acting, thinking. 

Because your world can be logically reduced to a set of basic cause-and-effect principles, you think answers can always be found, including problems of anxiety. Ironically, it’s the constant striving for answers and solutions that makes anxiety worse in the long run. You can’t analyze your way out of an anxious state.

A difference in philosophical traditions

To understand how these two thinking styles link to differences in anxiety, one must 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.

A similar enculturation process holds for you in the West. Your thinking of hyper-analytic style can be traced back to the atomistic philosophies of the ancient Greeks like Socrates and Plato.

Try not to try

Within non-Western traditions, there is a prominent teaching that helps to explain the Western anxiety trap. It’s 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 toward  «doing» in an 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. 

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 of thinking. Recent advances in cognitive psychology are showing that this shift can be done through routine mental exercises.

Even though these differences between East and West are deeply rooted in both cognitive functioning and historical epistemologies, you’re not doomed to live forever in your Western-biased anxiety trap. You can break out of it. The mind is highly plastic, capable of rewiring itself given 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 have it positively impact our mental well-being