Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
I have struggled with anxiety all my life. I spent a few years in therapy and BH have it under control to the point where is doesn't severely impact my life like it used to. My question is it ever appropriate for me to be anxious or should I always be working on trying to remain calm. I hear people say that some anxiety is good but I wonder if that applies to someone like me. Even regarding the Yemei Hadin I wonder if the yirah that I could feel is the proper avodah for me or, given my predisposition, not a good idea to focus on. Perhaps precisely the opposite…I should work on remaining calm and not getting worked up. Maybe it would be oversimplifying it but I kind of wish I had a blanket "psak" that anxiety is never good for me. I imagine people who have struggled with depression may have a similar question. Thanks.
In order to respond to your question, we first need to define anxiety. If you view anxiety as synonymous with worry or concern, it is certainly normal to have these feelings in certain circumstances. You wouldn’t expect to go on an important job interview feeling completely at ease with no sense of apprehension. Not only is it normal to worry, but it can serve a helpful purpose. Someone who has no sense of concern about his children can miss clues that point to their issues and needs. If someone existed who never worried about anything, he might be generally happy, but this would impact on the people in his life and his relationships with them—which would ultimately lead to unhappiness. “Normal anxiety” can help motivate us to achieve our goals.
The way in which I differentiate between “anxiety” and normal concern is based on whether the level of emotion corresponds to the level of danger inherent in the situation. As mentioned in the February 3, 2017 edition of The Couch, “I have defined anxiety…as feelings of stress that don’t logically match the situation…There is a spectrum with regard to the level of anxiety experienced…People on the lower end of the spectrum feel little to no anxiety, while those on the upper end of the spectrum feel constant anxiety.” In a utopian world, no anxiety would ever exist. That being said, since we are not solely logical beings, emotion will impact on almost every situation. Everyone feels some anxiety at times. While anxiety defined in this way is not helpful, it is completely normal—indeed inevitable—at some level.
In theory, the goal in therapy should be to completely eliminate anxiety of any form. In practice, however, this is impossible. You speak of having been in therapy for a few years. This often leads to the sense that the average person has no anxiety. In fact, you may feel that many people feel no worry or concern at all. You seem to be defining anxiety, worry, and concern in the same way. Perhaps it is never proper for you to feel “anxious,” but at times it may well be appropriate for you to feel some level of concern. One problem that you may be facing is the inability to differentiate between the two. Although I’ve described the logical difference, emotionally identifying and feeling them differently can be very difficult.
Some people at specific points in their struggle with anxiety should try to stay away from all triggers. However, not only is this unsustainable but it should not be the ultimate goal. The eventual goal should be to properly identify situations and their sources of concern, and to respond appropriately.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317
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