The Path Toward Overcoming Anxiety
Anxiety & Fear / Essays 2018
Imagine for a moment that you need to go to sleep early because you have to be on time to work the next day. This is crucial because your boss values punctuality over all else. After a speedy preparation, you hop into bed, close your eyes, and try to fall asleep. However, you find that you are unable to do so. Visions of your boss looking disappointed while telling you off, plague your mind. You realize that if you get fired, you will have to search for another job in order to sustain yourself. You keep seeing flashes of failed interviews and embarrassment before your eyes. Now your mind is running, you feel very anxious, and you start breathing heavily. How will you ever fall asleep, and come on time to work now? Your anxiety gets stronger. When this kind of anxiety begins to overwhelm and overtake you, it may seem hopeless. However, you can use the advice of Alter Rebbe (the founder of revealed Chassidus) and Chassidus (Jewish Philosophy) in order to overcome it.
There’s one aspect missing from this anxiety-filled thought process: Hashem, written as ‘ ה, meaning G-d. We learn from the Alter Rebbe’s book on Jewish Philosophy, the Tanya, that not only does ‘ה create and control everything, but that everything He does is good. Rabbi Akiva, a great Jewish leader who only started learning at age forty, taught that everything ‘ה does is for the best. Once, while he was traveling, he came upon a town where the inhabitants rejected him, and he proclaimed that all ‘ה does is for the good. Even as everything continued to go wrong, Rabbi Akiva stuck with this motto. Ultimately, everything did turn out good because that very night a group of bandits raided the village. Rabbi Akiva’s life was spared because of what had previously seemed to be a misfortune. It became obvious that the adversity he had encountered was indeed all for the best.
If a person allows the idea of ‘ה being ultimately good to seep into his or her mind when anxiety is overwhelming, it can be the first step to calming down and overcoming the anxiety. Once ‘ה is introduced into the picture, the things which are overwhelming will begin to seem less important. Perhaps not everything will work out, but when one truly recognizes that ‘ה is controlling everything and that because ‘ה is controlling everything it will all be good, they will no longer feel anxiety about things which are not in their control. This is the concept of Trach Gut Vett Zein Gut(1), which means that the mere thinking that something will be good, is what will bring about good. This ties in with the concept of ‘ה‘s complete goodness; when a person “thinks good” and believes that Hashem will shield them and cause everything to be good, the thought process will bring about a peaceful mental state, “and it will be good.”
In a time of crisis and extreme anxiety, this thought process may seem unattainable. When one is under the strain of anxiety, nothing else feels relevant and it can feel impossible to break away from it. It is true that good and peaceful thoughts about the totality of ‘ה‘s control will calm a person down, but how do you get this mindset to penetrate to the psyche, especially when under such extreme emotional chaos? This can be accomplished by combining Tracht Gut Vett Zein Gut and with another key concept in Chassidus: Moach Shalit Al Halev(2).
Moach Shalit Al Halev means that the mind has the power to control the heart; this is something true for every person, at every moment. In fact, that’s how anxiety grows to be so bad in the first place, one thinks about all the negative things that can happen and focuses on them. Those thoughts seep into the heart and create emotions of anxiety within the person. Chassidus also has a concept of Ze Leumas Ze(3), which literally means “This opposite this.” Which means that every aspect of this world has something that is opposite and inverse to itself. There is a G-dly soul within each person that desires to constantly connect to G-d and on the opposing side there is an animal soul which desires physicality. Therefore, because everything in this world has an equal opposite, if your mind was able to cause such strong negative emotions, it will also have the ability to create positive emotions to the same extreme. Yet, to overcome anxiety a person doesn’t need to have extremely positive emotions. A sliver of positivity, brought about through thoughts of ‘ה’s ultimate control, is enough to bring out the Trach Gutt Vett Zein Gutt mindset.
During a time when a person is struggling with anxiety, they can use these aforementioned concepts to work toward overcoming it. To begin a person needs to conjure within themselves the power to use their mind to control their heart. This only needs to be done for a single moment in which a person can introduce the Tracht Gut Vett Zein Gut thought process to their mind. The person then has the capability to contemplate the greatness of ‘ה and to come to the conclusion that ‘ה is in control of everything and that everything ‘ה does is good. The knowledge of ‘ה’s ultimate control will be able to calm the person down. You can fall asleep, come on time to work, or maybe come late. Either way there is a feeling of reassurance through the knowledge that everything is in God’s hands.
In times when a person’s anxiety is less extreme, it can be easier to overcome and these thought processes do not need to be as forced. A person can calm down using more time-consuming and long-lasting approaches. Hisbonanus is one such practice that can take longer, but is also more effective. It is a meditation which is focused on ‘ה, and it is a more thorough version of the aforementioned Tracht Gut Vett Zein Gutt practice. A person can look out the window on to the street and focus on a specific object such as a bench, a rock, a leaf, or anything that is relatively still in that moment. Then they would contemplate its existence. For example, if you were to choose a leaf, you would look at the leaf and think about how that specific leaf ended up in that specific place. This tiny, seemingly futile object, has so many intricate parts to it. It has a multitude of colors and shapes, each of which came about through a concrete occurrence within the leaf itself. This would cause you to then comprehend how such a detailed occurrence is not random; even the smallest leaf on the ground only exists because God is creating it. You become aware that even the smallest things are not coincidental, and every aspect of your own life is significant.
The Baal Shem Tov would often speak of ‘ה’s total control in all aspects of the universe. A student of his questioned this and decided to track a leaf blowing in the wind. The student chased it down, and when the leaf came to a stop, he found that it was protecting a worm from the strong rays of the sun. This is a story that portrays how ‘ה realistically is involved in every single part of His creation. Begin with this idea that ‘ה is involved in every aspect of your life and it will allow your anxieties to slow down. Continue with the practice of Hisbononus, and you will also be able to prevent your anxious thoughts from overwhelming you. There is an immense comfort in truly knowing that ‘ה is controlling your life, and that everything happening is happening for a reason.
1 Tzemach Tzedek – https://achasidisheparnasa.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/the-bitachon-sicha-3/
2 תניא, ליקוטי אמרים, פרק י’ב
3 תניא, ליקוטי אמרים, פרק ו