Jews with Anxiety: I’ve Got Some Tips for You

I’d had extreme anxiety for so long that the idea of not having anxiety scared the shit out of me.

My anxiety manifested on a wide and unpredictable spectrum. There were small things that most anyone can probably relate to, such as taking a comment way too personally and getting defensive for no good reason. On the other end, I might hole up in bed for days trying to avoid consciousness because being awake meant having to confront the storm of dismal thoughts and impulses coursing through my head.

I made very unnecessary scenes on what were supposed to be relaxed, quiet evenings at home. I created drama at holidays. I ruined anniversary celebrations. My anxiety made it impossible for either platonic or romantic relationships to work long-term, mostly because I was the queen of self-sabotage(and of being excruciatingly socially awkward, holding impossibly high expectations for myself, and of wallowing in despair when I made the mistakes I would inevitably make).

That was the best part: the wallowing. It was familiar, comforting even, and I was able to think about how the whole world was against poor little undeserving me. One time, my partner said to me, as I was lying immobile on a mattress alone while we were visiting their family, ‘‘I don’t want to live like this for the next 50 years.’’ That was a clear message that I had to work on the anxiety that was separating me from the world, or it just wasn’t going to work between us. That wasn’t the first time someone had said something like that, either.

But I had zero idea of what life was like without anxiety. I didn’t know who I was without the panic, the fear, the irrational thoughts. The anxiety was like a familiar friend; it was actually comforting to be able to fall back on. Sure, I’d been in several different types of therapy and taken different types of medication. I read all the self-help articles on controlling anxiety from Women’s Health Magazine. None of that—and this is the experience of a lot of people I’ve talked to with anxiety issues—made much of a sustainable dent in removing the stank of anxiety from my life.

What finally worked was fashioning a hodgepodge of daily rituals for myself. The ritual, I reasoned, would give me a few minutes every day to center myself. I pulled all the rituals from Jewish tradition; being Jewish, it was kind of an obvious place to start. And—let’s be honest—Jewish tradition has lots of ritual-like things to choose from.

While there are many who would argue otherwise, including my rabbi (Hi Jim!), I encounter these rituals as a secularist. I am not a so-called Torah Jew, frum, or whatever other term you want to use to name a Jew of faith. Whether there is a higher power and what characterizes it are mysteries that I don’t care about solving.

That being said, one of the first actions I took was saying the Modeh Ani prayer when I wake up, which is about giving and getting second chances (for a fun version of this song, go here). The idea is that we are human and probably failed yesterday at being exemplary beings, but, by letting us wake up alive instead of dead, God gives us another chance today to get it right (sounds a little morbid, I know). In my non-religious world, this translates into reminding myself that today, I have another chance to work on getting it right. I give others second, third, fourth chances, so why should I assume that I don’t or shouldn’t have the same opportunities to try again? (p.s. This isn’t about letting myself off the hook. I still have to try again and mean it, but be kind enough to myself to realize that undoing decades of bad habits is going to be a process rather than an immediate success.)

I also learned the blessing for the tallit (prayer shawl) and started using the tallit I got a long time ago. For me, the tallit doesn’t signal that I am in a religious space. I haven’t ever actually put it on in synagogue, which I attend only a handful of times a year anyway. Rather, the tallit signals to my brain that I’m in a space where I should be especially mindful. In particular, it redirects my thoughts to something aside from myself, mostly because the ritual of putting on the tallit is tedious AF. I effectively put myself in a position where I could grumble to myself the whole time, or practice just being there as I examine each tzitzit (those little fringes on the ends) for flaws. The latter has become more automatic with practice, and has definitely made it easier when I have to do other tedious things like standing in long lines at Kroger or waiting for my partner’s 5-year-old son to decide to put on his underpants.

This practice of emptying my mind has had a huge impact on limiting the effects of unsavory thoughts on my mood: If I’m out biking or running—the two times I’m most likely to ruminate on negative thoughts—I am now able to tell myself not now! and carry on without dwelling on whatever awful thing my brain wants to torture me with for hours.

Reading the weekly Torah portion has probably been the most fun ritual, believe it or not. My motivation for reading Torah, which I’ve actually been doing for a couple years now, is more my appetite for languages than in being Jewish: I use Martin Luther’s original 16th century translation of the Bible so I can indulge myself in his weird, old outdated German (I currently live in Germany, FYI), and supplement that with the original Hebrew so that maybe, just maybe, one day I can skip translations entirely.

Reading the Torah doesn’t mean I’m praying to anything in particular; I am pretty firm in my agnosticism. All of these rituals, although pulled from Jewish traditions, are meant to act as a consistent tool to anchor my day rather than keep me in the Covenant.

All of the above strategies are part of what I’d say is one of the most important aspects of Jewish culture: studying. A rabbi from my time living in Louisville, Kentucky once remarked to me, “What segregates you in Judaism isn’t how much you believe. What segregates you is how much you know.” That stuck with me, and studying has certainly been my saving grace many a time, even before my panic attacks decided to say buh-bye. Actually, I like to say that my anxiety attacks went away overnight once I started studying Norwegian—which happened around the same time I began the other rituals mentioned earlier. It was literally overnight, and so I figured Norwegian must have been the solution to the whole thing. How novel! It sounds just quirky enough to be true.

But when I’m more realistic, I have to admit that I don’t know for sure if it’s one single thing, like starting learning Norwegian, or the combination of all these rituals that has been most impactful. It probably also doesn’t matter. The most important part has been rebuilding positive habits over old, unproductive ones.

Drilling Norwegian vocabulary, reading the Torah, or being immersed in research for my academic work all have one thing in common: they are forms of study. Hell, going through the pain of memorizing the prayers in Hebrew is study time. How can a panic attack creep in when you have the crackly energy of Hebrew on repeat in your head? When I study, I am dead to the world, and anxiety and depression are dead to me.

Jewish stuff isn’t the only item in my mental health toolbox, but it’s been a significant contributor. It would be super convenient to say that I’ve discovered once and for all a universal anti-anxiety kryptonite and that I am free from what Winston Churchill referred to as the Black Dog. I still have some dark moments, but they’re moments instead of days. The end result has been anxiety and depression being slowly crowded out from my general waking thoughts.

And hell if I’m going back.

Image via Flickr/Alessandra

Sara Shafer

Sara Shafer, currently working on a second doctorate in Germany, enjoys participating in triathlons and posting pics of her cat on Facebook in her free time.

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