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Inner Calm: Overcoming Worry and Anxiety

January 4, 2017 | by Rabbi Aryeh Sampson

A three-stage process of personal transformation based on Judaism and psychotherapy.

Our era has been called the Age of Anxiety, which isn’t surprising considering the pace of modern life, financial stresses, family pressures and global unrest.

I’d like to share a unique approach for reducing worry and anxiety, which I call the ‘ACTive Method’. It’s based on Judaism and psychotherapy, and views anxiety as a call to look within ourselves and express our authentic selves more deeply.

At the method’s core is a three-stage process of personal transformation which was taught by Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement:

Awareness – gaining insight into oneself.
Control – taking conscious control over your inner negative tendencies.
Transformation – transforming these tendencies to follow the wishes of our true self.

Stage 1: Awareness

The first step is becoming aware of our inner dialogue – what our worried thoughts are telling us, and what’s causing them.

Rabbi Salanter preceded Sigmund Freud in stressing the influence of the subconscious on our behaviour. It is common for our worries to result from subconscious concerns or fears.

Anxiety can be rooted in difficult or traumatic experiences from the past, when you felt helpless, disempowered or scared. Anxiety may also result from self-defeating behaviors and character traits, such as an excessive need for control, procrastination, or a lack of confidence.

Stage 2: Control

Once you understand the nature of your worries and their source, you can start to gain conscious control of them by using what is known in Jewish thought as the ‘garments of the soul’. These are our powers of thought, speech and action, which can be used individually or in combination with each other.

Thought: Challenge your irrational thinking

Our worries are often rooted in illusory thinking. Fear can be seen as an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” These illusionary thoughts can cause you to blow issues out of proportion and to envision the worst possible scenario taking place. For example, someone worrying about finances may imagine him or herself poor, homeless, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Memories of similar painful or traumatic events from the past can also be projected onto the current situation, and the worry takes on enormous proportions.

By challenging our irrational thinking, we can start to see our worries more objectively and calmly. Ask yourself some of these questions: Are there other plausible ways of seeing the situation? Even if it did happen, will all the negative consequences that you anticipate come true? Even if the worst consequences were to come true, how could you best cope with them?

If you find after doing this that there are real elements to your worry, you will need to think about suitable solutions. (We’ll get to this later on.)

Speech: Share your worries; don’t keep them to yourself.

Articulating your worries reduces them. To begin with, it helps you gain insight and develop a more productive perspective. King Solomon advised this, stating “If there is worry in a person’s heart, articulate it, and a good word will turn it into joy.” Also, getting something off your chest and venting negative feelings can bring huge emotional relief.

Sharing your worries with God is also very powerful. King David explained “Cast your burden on God and he will support you” (Psalms 55:23). This has been backed up by scientific research. A recent study interviewed 246 people before they underwent cardiac surgery. The results showed that those who prayed before the operation were less anxious and more optimistic regarding the outcome.

Action: Confront your fears head on.

Implementing a plan of action to deal with your area of concern – facing your fears – reduces the fear by moving you from feeling helpless to feeling more in control. Jewish thought explains that this works because taking action changes our internal thought patterns and feelings, as ‘our heart and our thoughts are pulled after our actions’.

This concept is an underlying principle of behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing behavior to uproot psychological problems. For example, a person who feels great anxiety around dogs would gradually increase his exposure to dogs until he could tolerate them.

Stage 3: Transformation

In this third stage we go beyond just controlling worry to changing the underlying character trait that causes the worry so it doesn’t recur.

Maimonides explains that when we repeat appropriate positive acts many times we gradually create new habits and change negative traits. For example, a person whose worries are caused by being overly controlling needs to repeat actions that exhibit greater flexibility; a procrastinator needs to repeat actions that are more proactive.

Albert Ellis, one of the originators of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, was extremely shy in his youth. Over time, he trained himself to overcome his fear of rejection by striking up conversations with hundreds of strangers in the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

With these changes, a person becomes able to naturally move into a state of calmness and greater joy in life, as Rabbeinu Bachya, explained: “Joy dwells naturally in the heart when worry is removed.”

This excerpt is from Rabbi Sampson’s new book, Go to Yourself. 

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