3 Ways to Combat Anxiety

A reader sent a question recently. He asked if Judaism sees anxiety as a sin.

He pointed to a verse in the Christian Bible where it says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Do not be anxious about anything… Is this possible? Are we doing something wrong when we feel anxious?

I noted that we Jews are known for anxiety, so I may not be the right person to answer. But I also pointed out that in Judaism, our actions matter more than our thoughts. We may feel a certain way—anxious, angry, upset—but we sin only when those feelings express themselves in harmful action. 

That was all I wrote. But I also began to ask myself why some consider anxiety a sin. Is it the same as lying or murder? No.

But anxiety can take the joy and meaning out of life. It can take us away from others.

Sometimes anxiety requires medical treatment. But other times we need to notice what is happening, seek guidance, and act. How can we tell when anxiety becomes destructive?

1.When we are paralyzed:

Most success in life requires a little anxiety. For example, I always know that I’m taking a sermon seriously if I feel a little knot in my stomach before delivering it.

But as Francis O’Gorman points out in his book Worrying, the good kind of anxiety can “easily slide into the dark kind.” If that knot in my stomach becomes a debilitating cramp—or if it prevents me from every stepping up to the pulpit in the first place—anxiety has become destructive.

2. When we don’t feel useful:

A recent study of retired older Americans found that those who did not feel useful to others were three times more likely to die prematurely than those who felt they were useful.

We want to feel needed. When we are not, we feel anxious because we do not know what we are living for.

We are social animals, and if nobody needs us, why are we here?

This worry is a common form of anxiety. It also feeds on itself. The less needed we feel, the more we close ourselves off from others, and the more isolated we become.

3. When we are consumed with ourselves: Biblical scholars have noticed a peculiar feature of the book of Ecclesiastes. The word “I” dominates the first part of the book. It appears more frequently than in any other part of the Bible.

What is the context? Speaking of his misery, King Solomon says, “I” made, “I” bought, “I” built and so on. Everything centers King Solomon and what he did for himself.

But it did not make him happier. It only made him anxious. It only made him miserable. 

Solomon ultimately overcomes his misery by turning outside of himself and focusing on living in the present. “This is the day God has made,” he famously said. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” In other words, we do not know what tomorrow brings. But today is a gift we can cherish. 

Like King Solomon, we can see today as a gift. We can ask ourselves what is the next right thing we can do. Here are a few other ways to combat anxiety. 

1.Perform an act of kindness:

When I wrote the book The Happiness Prayer, I came across a fascinating piece of research. One action boosted our happiness immediately and long into the future.

What is that action? Doing an act of kindness for another person.

Kindness brings us outside of ourselves. We feel better as we help someone else feel better. Kindness makes us useful. Kindness connects us with others. While it may sound like a cliche, doing an act of kindness is the best thing we can do for ourselves. 

2. Focus on a project: Apple Founder Steve Jobs was not known for his acts of kindness. But he did explain another way of overcoming anxiety: living for something bigger than ourselves.

He said, “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, that’s what matters to me.”

It does so for all of us. That something does not have to be a starting a major company.

It can be serving our country. It can be volunteering at a church or school or shelter. It can be writing a book. When we are working on something we care about, we forgot what we were anxious about.

3. Be vulnerable: I have learned a great deal from productivity guru David Allen. He advises stressed-out professionals to write down every project and action on our mind.

The point is to externalize them: to get them out of our head and onto paper. He calls it a mind sweep, and it works. We feel more control over our lives just by writing down what is on our mind.

The same principle applies to anxiety. When we let go of what is making us anxiious—when we write down how we are feeling, or at least say it out loud to somebody—we feel more control over it. We get out of our heads.

But we also open ourselves up. We reveal to others what is making us anxious. That can feel hard, specially in the age of social media when we often pretend our lives are perfect.

Opening up requires vulnerability. But it also releases from a self-imposed burden.

Do you ever feel anxious? Do you believe anxiety is a sin? How do you combat it? Leave a comment below.

Rabbi Evan

I show the way Jewish wisdom make our lives richer and happier. In particular, I help Jews appreciate their heritage and Christians uncover the Jewish roots of their faith. Get my FREE Jewish holidays cheat sheet by clicking here.

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