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Does My Anxiety Mean I Lack Emunah?

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Tzivi is a deeply devout 24 year old mother and wife. She prays twice daily, while raising her toddler and baby, and working 30 hours a week, while her husband pursues Rabbinical studies in Yeshiva. She has suffered from an anxiety disorder since middle school, but you would never know it to speak to her; she presents as calm, soft-spoken, and content. In therapy, she describes what it’s like in her head; the constant questioning, the unwelcome, far-fetched, pesky fears that crop up inconveniently and intrusively. She expresses a particular guilt about her anxiety:

“The worst part is that everyone probably thinks I’m this holy Jew, but I know it’s not true-  if I really had emunah, I wouldn’t have all this worry. Even when I start saying Tehillim, it’s like, I think I can pretend to control fate with it. And of course, because I’m such a faker, I’m actually probably deserving of the bad things that I fear will happen! So then I validate my own fears, and the cycles starts again…”

Admittedly, it can be tricky to navigate that fine line between clinical professionalism and theological ponderings. I’m not a Rabbi nor a prophet. But after years of speaking with women like Tzivi, researching (conflicting) primary sources, and working on my own thoughts and beliefs, I’ve formulated my own subjective, personal, religious, and professional perspective on this problem:

I believe that having anxiety is not necessarily an indication of low emunah, but that emunah can be used as a valuable tool when addressing anxiety.

A person can have strong emunah and high anxiety, weak emunah and little anxiety, as well as strong emunah with low anxiety, or weak emunah along with high anxiety. I believe they are very weakly correlated characteristics.  I observe this empirically- holy men and women of deep, abiding faith and spiritual connection, who are nonetheless plagued by worries and fears. And the reverse: individuals who don’t specifically hold or practice any particular belief, and don’t seem to be terribly stressed. Perhaps this is because emunah is spiritual and intellectual, while anxiety is largely emotional, and even visceral. Tzivi can believe intellectually, philosophically in G-d and His goodness, trust that He has a plan, but also be aware that there is still pain, suffering, and uncertainty, and fear the unpleasantness of it coming her way.

An analogy might be a mom who says:

“Does the fact that I sometimes lose patience with my children indicate a lack of love for them?”

I believe the healthy answer is something like:

“No, very loving moms lose patience with their kids all the time. You may have constant love for them in your soul, but emotionally, you sometimes get aggravated. But you can use your deep love for them as a catalyst and an instrument for improving parental patience. When you find yourself about to snap at them, try to access your love and regroup. It won’t be foolproof or overnight, but it can help.”

Most people would acknowledge the possibility of simultaneously loving one’s children and also getting annoyed at them. It might be a similar interplay with emunah and anxiety: I believe in and trust G-d, but I don’t like to suffer, and, in fact, He never promised no suffering. So I worry, but I also remind myself that accessing my faith, spiritually, can help me, emotionally, to access my serenity. It’s not a one time, one step process; it’s an ongoing dynamic within the psyche, a practice, a journey of continuous becoming.  

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