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Anxiety and Elul

Tami, a motivated college student, sought help to deal with her test taking anxiety. She describes her symptoms:

“I just get so nervous starting a few days before the test. This sense of dread. I try to study but I get distracted by how worried I am. By the time I sit down to take the test, my hands are clammy, I feel chilly and sweaty, my head is swimming, and I can barely focus.”

One of the tools Tami learned in terms of managing her anxiety is that she can reinterpret her physiological symptoms in a more empowered way. She remembered that before she started having this anxiety, she had similar physical sensations about schoolwork and other endeavors that mattered to her. But at that point, she processed it as being “pumped.” It was only when she started attributing too much importance to the outcome of her grades and fear of failing, that it morphed into panic. By editing the thoughts and interpretations of what she feeling, she was able to redirect the adrenaline and her mind to the task at hand. She was no longer “freaked out” about the test, but “pumped and ready” to give it her best shot. She eventually stopped viewing her intense feelings as panic, and was able to perceive them as her body and brain getting ready to work hard.*

In Jewish philosophy, there is a dichotomy in our relationship to G-d of love and awe. The love is meant to express connection and faith. The awe is meant to invoke motivation and self-discipline. Ideally, these work together- if we’re only focused on the love, we risk stagnation or innertia. If we only focus on the awe, we risk paralysis or burning out.

This time of year, Elul through Yom Kippur, is one where there is a custom to focus on awe; we call the High Holidays the “Days of Awe.” During these forty days, we assess where we want to repair our mistakes and improve ourselves. This can be very healthy- spiritually, relationally, and psychologically.

Yet, for many, excessive fearmongering and intimidation that has been part of their education has been counterproductive. Instead of feeling “pumped and motivated” to focus on growth, they’ve felt discouraged, shamed, terrified, disconnected, angry, or turned off. The adrenaline in our systems- neurological and spiritual- is not meant to shut us down. It’s meant to rev us up. If you were taught a version of religious mindset that leaves you feeling put off, it makes sense that you would feel overwhelmed, debilitated, or disillusioned from this process.

But like Tami, we don’t need to stay with the panic. We can confront it, and make the decision to rewrite, to reinterpret the messaging- from inside ourselves and even from our education. Or, when necessary, pursue different education. To reframe the intensity of this time of year as an invitation to up our game in the best possible way. Not because it’s catastrophic if we don’t. But because we matter. And when something matters, we pay attention, we work at it. Because life is not a pass or fail college course. It’s a journey, a process, and it’s worth investing in making it as wonderful as it can be. And that entails working on our goals from a place of empowerment, self-compassion, and belief that G-d is in our corner, cheering us on with Love.

*While this is a true story, except for the pseudonym, the therapeutic intervention was oversimplified for the purpose of this short blog post, and this approach won’t work for everyone.

*To learn more about how to reshape your thoughts and mindset, try this: Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking

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