A Calm View of Anxiety

Anxiety abounds today, including among children.  Is there any reason to doubt why it’s rampant?  Covid.  The war in the Ukraine.  Terrorist attacks in Israel.  45 families marking tragic first-year Yahrzeits on Lag B’Omer this week.  Attacks in the local public transportation systems.  A bomb scare at our own local JCC.  Unfortunately, the list is limitless

These outside forces clearly play a role in anxiety.   There will always be events over which we have little if any control that can precipitate anxiety, causing us to ponder unknown futures.  But that’s not my focus here.  Rather, I am writing/speaking about the “normal” anxiety in our daily lives.  There’s passing a test:  the first grader is focused on the spelling test while the 17-year old is preparing for the driver’s license test.  It’s about going to school, overnight camp or flying for the first time or traveling to Israel for the seminary year or yeshiva learning.

If you think about it, these are scenarios about learning and growing and doing new things that can only help us grow.  This is wonderful.  So why then is our society so riddled with anxiety?

The level of anxiety is even more ironic because there exists a multi-billion dollar omni-present industry of tools to fight anxiety, including mental health professionals, holistic interventions, vitamins, minerals and herbs, self-help books and apps.  Alas, anxiety is more all-pervading than ever before.

Forgive me please because it’s almost heretical, but I am suggesting embracing “normal” anxiety as a vehicle for growth and change.  In other words, let’s make anxiety into something positive.

My perspective, as in most things, is shaped by my upbringing.  Growing up in South Africa, we were taught poetry and public speaking in elementary school, as young as 6 years old.  Why poetry?  Poetry can teach young readers about speech patterns which can then give them cues to words on a page.  Rhyming can help children to identify sounds in words and to identify word families.  Further, like any other form of reading, it can build vocabulary in kids because it introduces them to new words.  When children read sentences and phrases that have a tempo, they are introduced to new words in new frameworks.  Building a solid foundation in reading skills – both English and Hebrew – is important if one aspires to build a strong edifice of lifelong learning and education.

In South Africa, furthermore, we had to recite poetry aloud and in front of our peers!  Talk about terrifying.  We had to concentrate.  We had to prepare.  We had to speak clearly.  In front of our peers.  And for the most part, this was successful for us.  Why?  Because we concentrated.  Because we prepared.  Because we spoke clearly.  We harnessed our anxiety and directed that energy to grow as readers and into public speakers.

Reading aloud is one of the seven most important skills for promoting literacy because reading aloud supports oral development.  It helps children to improve their literacy skills.  When children read aloud, they think more deeply about the sound of the words they are saying.  This automatically helps to advance their reading skills.

By learning poetry, we expanded and strengthened our reading skills.  We learned nuances in familiar words as well as new words.  Because our brains were stimulated to think this way, we searched out new words to rhyme with our existing words.

A commercial here for parents to read aloud to children and children to read aloud to parents.  In both Hebrew and English.

But I want to round back to the point and emphasize that we did not deny the anxiety.  We identified it, yoked it and then directed it in order to grow.  Anxiety informed our actions rather than our being handicapped by it.

My wife reminisces that she and her 18 new classmates arrived on their first day of graduate school to a room with a table upon which there were 5 sets of colored cards, and on each card was written a unique word or phrase.  Each group was formed when the like color-carded people found one another and self-introductions commenced.  Each group was charged with developing and performing a 5-7 minute skit for their classmates.  There were several purposes to this exercise.  They began meeting their classmates.  They collaborated in small groups.  They directed their anxiety into something useful and creative, “elevating” their anxiety from a stumbling block into something creative akin to painting a masterpiece.  The imaginations of these 19 graduate students were unleashed – all because the anxiety made them sit on the edges of their chairs, ready to direct it into useful pathways.

Recent research has shown that when we are anxious, there are higher levels of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone.  Dopamine is present when an experience is pleasurable or even the thought of it is enjoyable.  Interestingly, dopamine is also present in emergency situations when we need to keep going even when there is longer gasoline in the proverbial tank.

It’s chronic anxiety that is wearying.  And it is chronic anxiety that can mask normal, useful anxiety.  When we can properly identify useful anxiety, we can separate it from its crippling cousin.  If chronic anxiety is present, it is important to discuss this with your physician and/or a qualified mental health professional who can help.  This is where the multi-billion anxiety industry can be potentially useful to people.

Again, I believe that if parents and children can work together to develop the emotional vocabulary to identify properly the pieces, their relationships will be strengthened plus our children will have greater ability to navigate this world and its nuances.  They will have opportunities to gain the tools to handle the inevitable “other” anxiety that is bound to happen during the course of their lifetimes.

Simply put, anxiety is not a stigma.  Nor is it something to be anxious about.  (Deliberately stated).  Harnessed correctly, anxiety can result in a more resilient society.

As always, daven.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.