Are You Missing a Leg? Getting to the Root of Negative Emotions

Sara Blau, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2018

Contemporary Issue

Do you ever find yourself on edge, triggered by every small thing and become angry, anxious, or lose your patience? Do you ever feel like your negative emotions are getting out of control, and that you’re looking for a way to deal with them in a healthy manner? What tools do you have at your disposal to successfully manage the full range of human emotions?

Chassidus Applied

Chassidus sheds light on every aspect of our lives, including the complex world of emotions. The underlying truth that Chassidus teaches is that our emotions do not come in a vacuum. There is a core interrelation between a Jew’s body, soul, and mind, so that when a Jew is experiencing a challenge in one he ought to evaluate all three. Just like a three-legged stool cannot stand if one leg is broken, a Jew cannot feel fully at peace if one of the three “legs” on his stool are “broken.”

It is not a coincidence. The fact that the body and soul of a Jew are totally connected, forming one entity, is a reflection of the fact that in the world, physicality and spirituality are totally connected. Just like emotionally, joy is not only related to the excretion of hormones, but is also related to increasing in spirituality (see below), in the macrocosm of the universe as a whole, physical and spiritual phenomenon are intrinsically related. This is all a testament to G-d’s absolute unity- that all is spirituality, and all is G-dliness. Achdus Hashem, G-d’s Unity, is a fundamental concept in Chassidus and explained at length in Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmunah.(1)

The first leg- A Jew’s Body

In order to get an even playing field, one must be physically healthy. If one is not sleeping or eating appropriately, it will wreak havoc on one’s emotions. Lack of sleep or healthy eating can make a person frustrated, snappy, and unable to manage his or her emotions properly.

This is well documented medically,(2) but even more importantly in Torah and Chassidus. As the Maggid of Mezritch wrote to his son, Reb Avraham the “Malach”, who was very detached from this physical world, “A small hole in the body causes a large hole in the soul.” When a Jew deprives himself of his basic physical needs, it is bound to affect his soul, which includes the world of his emotions.

This is in line with the custom of Chassidim to drink and even eat a pastry before davening in the morning, for “One should eat in order to be able to pray, rather than pray in order to be able to eat.”(3) Prayer is very emotionally taxing, and one must have the necessary energy to be able to direct one’s emotions. There is also a well- known saying of the Alter Rebbe,(4) “We have absolutely no conception of how precious a Jew’s body is to G-d.” That is because by neglecting our body, we are essentially neglecting our service of G-d.

The Rebbe once responded to someone who asked how to live a life of “Menuchas Hanefesh ViHaguf”- “peace of mind and body”:(5) “In order to have peace of mind and body, one must live an organized life, as is written in Shulchan Aruch, which includes an organized life in day to day tasks such as eating, drinking, learning. Etc…”

If we want to have a fighting chance at serving G-d and working on ourselves, we have to ensure that we are giving the body what it needs. The Rambam goes so far as to say that maintaining “a healthy and whole body is part of Divine service.”(6) This includes, but is not limited to, eating, sleeping, exercising, as well as taking any medications or vitamins which are necessary to stabilize us and give us an ability to manage our emotions.

Are you missing a leg? If you find yourself on edge emotionally, ask yourself: how can you take care of yourself physically? Can you strengthen your “three-legged stool”, by incorporating better habits in physical health?

The Second leg- a Jew’s Soul

In a similar vein, in order to get an even playing field, one must ensure that he is healthy spiritually. For example, when a Jew is not living his life in harmony with what his soul’s desires, namely according to Torah and Mitzvos, then that can cause a feeling of unease or anxiety which would not be sufficiently helped by treating it only in conventional manners. (Such as therapy or medication.)

The Rebbe writes to an individual suffering from such anxiety, “We all recognize that anxiety has to do with the psyche. But in the case of a Jew, the so-called psyche is really the neshama, the soul. Some Jews have particularly sensitive souls, in which case the above-mentioned disharmony and discord creates an even greater degree of anxiety, and even subtle and “minor” infractions suffice to bring it on…”(7)

In order to tackle feelings such as anxiety, depression, and anger, a Jew needs to strengthen himself spiritually, both by fulfilling Torah and Mitvos properly as well as by strengthening one’s faith. In countless letters of the Rebbe(8), the Rebbe encouraged people to learn the chapter on Bitachon, faith, from the book, Chovos HaLevavos. When one internalizes true monotheism, that there is not only one G-d, but that everything is G-dliness, it automatically impacts his ability to feel joy, peace, and acceptance that everything that happens is from G-d, and therefor for the good. When we are in tune with G-d’s absolute unity, we are automatically happier, calmer, and more equipped to face life’s day to day challenges without “losing it.”

Even areas of a Jew’s life such as eating Kosher food can affect a Jew’s mood, as the Rebbe writes,(9) “With reference to the matter of Kashrus… I trust you will be able to find the proper words to explain that the proper food has a direct effect not only on physical health, but also on such matters as mood, nerves thinking etc … This should be obvious also to common sense, inasmuch as the food one consumes becomes assimilated by the body and is directly linked to its physical and mental capacities, as has also been confirmed by medical science…“

Similarly, the Rebbe often advised people struggling with emotional difficulties to have their Mezuzahs checked,(10) or to memorize Chapter 41(11) in Tanya.

If we want to be emotionally healthy, then we have to ensure that we are giving our soul what it needs. This includes, but is not limited to, increasing in Torah and Mitzvos, praying, and learning and internalizing G-d’s unity.

Are you missing a leg? If you find yourself on edge emotionally, ask yourself: how can you take care of yourself spiritually? Can you strengthen your “three-legged stool”, by incorporating better habits in spiritual health?

The Third leg- a Jew’s Mind

Assuming one has made efforts to be physically and spiritually healthy, how can one be emotionally healthy? Should one repress, suppress, or express negative emotions? Does Chassidus have another way?

In response to a woman regarding how to deal with emotions(12), the Rebbe explains that one must not suppress emotions, or shut them off, but redirect them. In other words, “the mind must rule the heart” – this means that the heart ought to feel and function, as guided and directed by the mind.

If one is experiencing negative emotions, it may help to discuss it with a wise friend or mentor. This does not mean to blast it to thousands of people on a large Facebook group, or vent endlessly. As it says in the Hayom Yom,(13) “If worry is in the heart of man, he should minimize it (yaschena).” – The Sages interpreted yaschena to also mean “he should discuss it” or “he should distract himself from it.” By unburdening himself, he can let it go and move past it, as opposed to thinking endlessly about the worry at hand.

But beyond expressing the emotions in a healthy manner, one must actively work to create new ones. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult to trouble- shoot. The approach of Chassidus is to continuously and consistently work on the mind, so that the emotions it produces are healthier and more mature. This gets to the root of negative emotions by not merely addressing them, but by creating new ones in their place.

In Chapter Six of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains that one’s emotions will be in proportion to one’s intellect. That is why a child will have a melt down when his ice- cream falls on the floor, or when his Mommy does not let him have a play- date, because according to his intellect, that is truly devastating. There are some adults that tantrum too when they do not get their way, because their intellect is not yet sufficiently developed.

If we want to be healthy emotionally, then we need to invest in our mind. We need to invest in comprehending intellectually all that we learn, so that when something happens that does not go our way, we don’t unravel emotionally. In other words, in order to be healthy emotionally, we need to be intellectually healthy, which means our mind needs to be in sync with the truth. True emotional health can be defined as when our emotions are aligned with our G-dly soul. When we are feeling emotions of our G-dly soul, such as love and awe of G-d, or even feelings of gratitude to G-d, these feelings automatically replace negative emotions such as depression or anger. When we stop thinking the thoughts that lead to negative emotions, we stop feeling them.

Just like we wouldn’t expect a gumball to roll out of a machine without putting in a quarter, we cannot expect to experience truly healthy emotions without training our mind and giving it what it needs to generate healthy, G-dly emotions, as explained at length in Chassidus. This includes, but is not limited to, meditating on G-d’s greatness,(14) reading and learning Chassidus, and using our cognitive abilities to create happy, wholesome emotions.

Are you missing a leg? If you find yourself on edge emotionally, ask yourself: how can you take care of yourself mentally? Can you strengthen your “three-legged stool”, by incorporating better habits in your mind and thoughts, and feel more joy, gratitude, and inner peace in your life?

In Conclusion

If you are struggling with negative emotions, (like the rest of humanity!), take an honest look at each of your three legs:
1) How can you nourish your body- with more sleep or healthy food?
2) How can you nourish your soul- with an increase in Torah observance?
3) How can you nourish your mind- providing healthy thought patterns that will generate healthy emotions?

May we soon merit the coming of Moshiach, when G-d’s unity will be apparent to all, and we will all experience maximum health in Body, Spirit, and Mind.

1. Healthy in Body, Mind, and Spirit Volume I, page 114
2. Just type into google “What lack of sleep does to your mind” -” Studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood.”
3. Healthy in Body, Mind, and Spirit Vol I, page 22
4. Hayom Yom, Chof Tes Elul
5. Dvar Melech, page 32
6. Beginning of ch. 4 of Hilchos Deos
7. From a letter of the Rebbe, dated 26 Teves, 5725
8. Ibid
9. From a letter of The Rebbe, dated 24 Tammuz, 5739
10. From a letter of the Rebbe, dated 26 Teves, 5725
11. Igros Kodesh, Vol. XVII, p. 331
12. Al kulana Otzar Michtavim … Linashim Ubanos, page 146
13.  Hayom Yom 24 Sivan
14. Tanya, Chapters 41-49