There is no question that we live in a high-pressured world, and not only do we deal with the stress that society puts on our heads, but we have our own inner pressure-cooker as well—from our personal expectations, responsibilities, work, families, relationships, and our goals for happiness and success.
So, how do we deal practically with the anxiety in our lives, the difficulties that come our way, the very things that make us feel like we are stuck in a rut and unable to overcome basic life challenges?
A certain amount of anxiety in our lives is normalFirst, we need to know that a certain amount of anxiety in our lives is normal. It is part of life. We are shown this in the beginning passage of the Torah: “In the beginning . . . the earth was without form and void . . . and darkness was on the face of the deep . . . And G‑d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. G‑d saw that the light was good, so G‑d separated the light from the darkness . . . And it was evening, and it was morning, one day.” (Genesis 1:1–5)
From this seminal passage we see that:
It is known that the darkest part of the night is just before the dawn. Often it is easy to think that life would be so nice, so easy, if it were simply smooth—a life filled with only light and no darkness. But just as on an EKG, the sign of life is a heartbeat that goes up and down . . . so too our lives have bumps in the road, and the ups and downs are all a part of living. The question is not if there will be bumps, but rather how will we deal with those bumps when we hit them.
There are numerous times in the Torah which speak of anxiety, but there is one important passage that teaches us some very practical ways of dealing with the anxiety in our lives. Clearly, this is not going to be a solution for someone suffering from depression or mental illness who is in need of professional help and perhaps medication. But rather, it is for the typical bumps we encounter in our lives.
The sign of life is a heartbeat that goes up and downThe statement is in Proverbs, which was written by King Solomon. It reads: “Anxiety in the heart of a person causes dejection, but a good word will turn it into joy.” The Hebrew for this is: Da’agah belev ish yashchenah, vedavar tov yesamchenah (Proverbs 12:25).
Here we see how complex the Hebrew language is, and how understanding its various levels of meanings lead to multiple teachings of the subject at hand. We find that the word for “dejection,” yashchenah, has three different meanings, depending on how the word is read. It can mean: 1. to suppress. 2. to ignore. 3. to articulate.
First is the idea of dealing with anxiety through suppression. Here the statement is read as a question and an answer: Da’agah belev ish? Yashchenah, meaning, “If there is anxiety in the heart of a person, suppress it.”
What does it mean to suppress it, and why is this the first level?
Suppression is something that is necessary in terms of both ourselves, our ego, and of the situation. Very often we become so obsessed with a situation that we forget that there are other important and more troubling issues out there as well. We all know that we can get so worked up with the difficulties in our lives, but when we hear of a national tragedy, it puts everything back into perspective. We try to step back and minimize our problem, to realize and recognize that it is not as huge and overwhelming as we are making it out to be. Recognizing that we are not the only one with a problem in this world, and lessening its intensity, is the concept of suppression.
Suppressing anxiety results in the liberating feeling that all is not lost. The problem may still be there, but it has been cut down to size and no longer threatens to crush us. Only once we have been freed from this burden can we proceed to the next stage of healing.
The second way of understanding this statement is from the Talmud. Again, it is a question and answer. Da’aga belev ish? Yaschenah. “If there is anxiety in the heart of a person, ignore it.” (Grammatically, we read the letter shin in the word as a sin, and have the meaning, “to ignore.”)
We should never allow a situation to become who we areThis is not just ignoring a situation, but also separating from it, disassociating from it. Why is this necessary? Because it is easy to define oneself by one’s problems. We should never allow a situation to become who we are. When we are separated from the problems, and ignore the darkness, we are then able to focus on the light.
There is the concept that you can only have one thing in your mind at once. So if your head is filled with something negative, you need to totally remove it, and then immediately replace it with the positive.
This lesson is learned from the story of Joseph. We are told that he was in an empty pit, and there was no water in it. But why does it say that it had no water if already we know it was empty? The explanation is that the pit may have been empty of water, but it was full of snakes and scorpions. Water represents truth, it represents Torah (ein mayim ela Torah—the only water is that of Torah), and the pit is a symbol of our minds. We can focus our attention on Torah—with positive things; but if not, it will automatically be filled with snakes and scorpions—negative psychological aspects. With the snake, the poison is in the head, meaning it bites you at the beginning of any process. But the scorpion has its sting at its end. This means that some people can never get anything started, and other people can start things but never finish them . . .
The lesson here is that just as you can never have an empty pit, so too, the mind is never empty. According to the laws of physics, nature abhors a vacuum, and emptiness is going to attract something. If you don’t fill it with something positive, it will automatically become inundated with negative thoughts. Therefore we remove ourselves from the negative by ignoring it, separating ourselves from it, and embracing the positive.
The third meaning of the phrase is understood as follows: “If there is anxiety in the heart of a person, articulate it, speak about it, and a good word will bring joy. Da’agah belev ish, yesichenah.
Fortunately, we live in a society that not only accepts therapy as something that is not to be embarrassed about, but it has actually become acceptable and even respectable to speak with a therapist.
We need to have people in our lives who we respect and to whom we turn for adviceNow, Torah has always advocated the idea of having someone to speak with. In Chassidut, this is very much stressed with the idea that each and every person needs to find him or herself a mashpia, basically a counselor, someone with whom you can speak and who can help give you guidance. In Ethics of Our Fathers we read, “Aseh lecha rav,” make for yourself a teacher, “uk’neh lecha chaver,” and get yourself a friend. Meaning, we need to have people in our lives whom we respect, look up to, and turn to for advice.
In some cases we may need to pay someone for this advice, but it actually doesn’t matter how we get it, as long as it is from someone whose priority is our wellbeing and who realizes that they are merely a helper in this healing, not the true healer themselves. Often, therapists may mistakenly play god, and when they do, they cannot offer true healing, because the most crucial aspect in any healing process is being able to suppress one’s ego.
When we speak about something, we bring it out into the open and allow for others to help us. Also, speaking about a difficult situation with an understanding person generally gives us a great sense of hope.
There is a custom in Israel that following a suicide attack, on the first day of mourning—when generally only immediate family would come and visit—other victims of terror come as well. The reason is because there is nothing stronger than someone who can walk in and say, “I know how you feel.” And speaking about it with someone who understands and cares means that you are no longer alone, you are not the only one facing this situation, but that you have support, you have help.
The greatest hurdle in dealing with a situation is admitting it, for once you can acknowledge it, you have won half the battle. Once we have reached the point where we are ready to speak, we can safely say that we are ready to begin the process of healing.
So we see that dealing with the anxiety in our life is a three-step process that begins with suppressing the anxiety as well as our ego, and trying to lessen the intensity of it. Next, we must remove ourselves temporarily from the problem and redefine ourselves as separate from what is aiming to bring us down. And finally, with a renewed strength and perspective, we must speak about it with those who can support us and help us.