So, you’re worried about what-ifs. Well, what if you could learn to stop worrying?
Of the most common mental challenges known to man, there is one that stands out as the most pervasive: anxiety. Just to give you a sense of its proportions: In America, of the top mental illnesses bedeviling society, depression impacts 7%, bipolar 4%, PTSD 3.6%. Meanwhile, anxiety weighs in at a whopping 19%. Globally, 260 million people struggle with this veritable plague.
The good news (probably the only good news) about anxiety is that though it is highly common, it is also highly treatable. Studies show that it is particularly treatable using cognitive behavioral tools (CBT) that change our thinking. That is why it is so exciting to share this Torah-based CBT tool for how to handle anxiety. It is a tool culled from a fascinating Biblical case-study on anxiety – Jacob and Esau.
Imagine your vindictive sister is seething at you. She blames you for her failures and is set upon ruining your life. You’re estranged from your father who always seems blind to the real you. Your mother is just plain domineering and you, you feel like an outcast. You’re wandering, with no real way to make a living and no sense of security that you have what it takes to forge your own path forward.
That is Jacob’s story, in a modernized nut-shell. His twin brother Esau literally wants to kill him for stealing their blind father’s blessing. His mother was the one who machinated the whole debacle and now he needs to flee everything he has ever known. No food, no flock, no family, no plan. He is a fugitive – literally and figuratively – in the midst of an existential crisis.
On the top 10 list of anxiety-provoking circumstances, Jacob has hit most of them: Troubled family relations, moving homes, moving countries, being out of work, processing loss, not to mention, mortal danger.
And yet, in the midst of all this existential stress, what does Jacob do on his first night on the run? He pulls up some rocks for a pillow and immediately falls asleep beneath the stars.
As anyone plagued with anxiety knows, sleep is the #1 elusive essential when you are beset with anxiety. How is it then that Jacob simply slips into his beauty rest in the middle of such a stress storm?
What’s more, Jacob’s sleep stands in stark contrast to the sleepless state of his murderous twin brother, Esau. Esau is the epitome of the anxiety-riddled insomniac. The text, which is ever so sparing in words, goes out of its way to state – twice – that Esau is ‘tired.’ He is archetypally restless.
Esau is described as ‘a man of the field, a man who knows the hunt.’ Forever pursuing that next kill. Jacob, conversely, is described as “Simple/pure. A man who sits in tents.”
Jacob and Esau represent psychological states within us. The Jacob in us is the part of us who is able to sit securely in peace, happy with simplicities, satisfied. Our anxious Esau is the quintessential feverish pursuit that never allows us the peace of simplicity, the hunter whose prey is our very sense of well-being.
Their contrast is spelled out again when Jacob is finally returning home to meet Esau after his 20-year exile. In that meeting, they each sum up their lives to each other as such. Esau says, “Yesh Li Rav – I have a LOT.” While Jacob responds, “Yesh Li Kol – I have EVERYTHING.”
When it comes to the anxious mind, the difference between ‘having a lot’ and ‘having everything’ makes all the difference indeed. The anxious archetype insists that what is, is never enough – and so exhausts itself in the pursuit of more. I will never have enough, for I myself am never enough.
Then comes the antidote to that anxious thinking. Jacob’s insistence that “I have everything.” The medicine is that simple state of knowing that actually I have everything I need… and exactly what I have is everything I need. For I am connected with everything in the universe itself.
It is no wonder that on that first night of Jacob’s exile, he is able to sleep. Furthermore, he is able to dream. “He dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it. And God stood above him…” (Genesis 28:12) This is not just any dream; it is an extraordinary glimpse into the Divine workings of the universe itself.
The Jacob side of us is an invaluable source of wisdom and vision that the anxious Esau in us is set upon destroying. The goal is to not let our inner-Esau murder our inner-Jacob.
To manage that, we turn to the image of Jacob’s dream and put that magnificent metaphor to use.
Writing in the early 1600s, the mystic commentator, the Shelah, explicates that Jacob’s Ladder consists of four steps, corresponding to the Kabbalistic paradigm of the four worlds. These four rungs define the human experience of reality. They are:
Asiya – Physical Reality
Yetzira – Emotional Reality
Beriah – Intellectual Reality
Atzilut – Spiritual Reality
The ladder symbolizes order and progression. When we break down our experiences into these four essential aspects, then we are better able to organize and manage the seeming chaos of our lives.
The Jacob’s Ladder Tool:
Take a moment now to think of something that has been anxiety-provoking for you. Ascend the ladder by filling in these four levels:
Rung 1: Physical Level – Notice what triggering external circumstances are occurring when the anxious thinking hits. Perhaps you are in a crowded area. Perhaps you skipped lunch and just downed a coffee. Perhaps you just heard bad news. Perhaps all four are happening at the same time. Mental fitness comes from being intimately familiar with the types of circumstances that disrupt our sense of calm. Notice when you are in the danger zone of those recurring triggers. List them out.
Rung 2: Emotional Level – Notice your emotional terrain too. When that trigger occurs, what do you feel? It is crucial to be able to identify the range of your emotions. Create the self-awareness that “When x trigger happens, I usually feel y.” Typical triggered feelings are things like fear, worry, overwhelm, panic, hopelessness, worthlessness. Emotions often express themselves as physical symptoms with no physical cause (like getting sweaty when you are sitting on a couch.) Notice how your emotions are expressing themselves in your body – sweaty palms, racing heart, heavy chest. Take stock of your emotional reality.
Rung 3. Intellectual Level – Now notice your thoughts, particularly the over-exaggerated, negative ones. Those distorted thoughts are Esau’s sharpest weapons. Distorted thoughts claim domain over our reality, wreaking all sorts of havoc on our emotions. They put us in a highly unproductive anxious state… which in turns makes it increasingly harder to deal with life’s genuine challenges… which in turn produces more anxiety…and the cycle becomes endless. List out those distorted thoughts.
Rung 4: Spiritual Level – At the apex of the ladder is the spiritual reality. Here take a deep breath and ground yourself in Jacob’s essential spiritual truth: “Yesh Li Kol. I have everything.” Notice in what ways you actually have everything you need right now. Just as Jacob is described as ‘simple’ and ‘pure,’ search out the simple truths in your life and within yourself. Remind yourself that you are connected to everything in the universe, an encompassing and benevolent force that pulses in and around you and sustains you.
List the ways in which you have everything.
Then list some simple, pure truths of who you are.
Example: A client of mine was struggling with the debilitating anxiety she felt since her first child was born. Here is how her chart looked going up the ladder:
Physically: I was changing my baby’s diaper after another sleepless night. (Trigger zone of exhaustion and monotonous task.)
Emotionally: I felt frustrated. I noticed my heartbeat speeding up. It was hard to breathe. I felt sick. I started crying in despair.
Intellectually: I was thinking to myself, “I am useless. All I do is change diapers. I will never amount to anything. Everyone else is successful.”
Spiritually: Ways in which I have everything – I have a warm home and supportive family. I finally have this gorgeous baby I have been wanting for so long. I have the ability to get through this.
Ways I am simple: I don’t need to be some CEO or VIP in order to have value. I can just be myself. And right now that me is a mom changing a diaper. I can simply be caring and nurture this child.
Descending the Ladder:
Now head back DOWN THE LADDER with this new awareness in mind.
Rung 3: Intellectual Reality – What are your thoughts now that you have anchored into the spiritual rung? (Example for my client: Instead of ‘I will never amount to anything,’ say, ‘I am right now focused on mothering and have time to develop my career in the future.’)
Rung 2: Emotional Reality – Notice the emotions evoked by this new thinking. (Example: With this new perspective, I feel relieved, a sense of acceptance and a sense of self-empowerment that I can indeed get through this. I feel calmer.)
Rung 1: Physical Reality – Make adjustments. Now what can you do to tweak any of the realities on the ground that had unnecessarily stirred up the anxiety? (Example – I can hire a babysitter so that I can get a much-needed nap in the afternoon. I can hang out with other new mothers to remind me that I am not a failure because I’m not working.)
Commit to creating a reality on the ground that fosters calm and peace. More sleep, more healthy eating, less caffeine, less mindless internet… or rather, more mindful internet – like this!
And remember, we are like the angels in Jacob’s vision – ever ascending and descending the ladder. May we embody Jacob, deftly defying anxiety’s hot pursuit.
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