The Spiritual Roots of Anxiety

This New Year’s Day, my daughter suddenly developed an acute, debilitating fear of vomiting. Among other things, this made her terrified of attending school, woke her up in fear in the middle of the night and brought on seemingly random panic attacks. To date, this has been my closest contact with that peculiar, yet ever-so-human form of dread known as anxiety.

According to Scott Stossel’s moving and highly informative book, “My Age of Anxiety,” anxiety affects some 40 million Americans — preventing them from easily doing things like flying, public speaking, going up elevators to high floors or even shaking people’s hands. What is the source of these intense (and often irrational) fears?  Is it a biological (hardware), a mental (software) or even a spiritual malady? Darwin thought is was an adaptive trait against physical threat, but how do we explain the reaction when there plainly is no threat?  It seems a distinct evolutionary disadvantage to be apoplectic for no discernible reason.  Psychologist and philosopher William James thought that anxiety was a reaction against the stresses of modernity while many biologists simply chalk it up to an hyperactive amygdala and the list goes on.

There is, and has always been, a great deal of speculation but the truth is that we just don’t really know.  As Freud summarized back in 1923, “anxiety is not a simple thing to grasp.”

I began to ask myself “why does my daughter fear vomiting so much?” Most people don’t love it but besides from being unpleasant it’s a pretty brief experience that generally leaves us feeling better than we did when it began.  What does it mean on a deeper level?  As we all learn at some point, vomiting is the process of the body rejecting something that has been placed in it – for whatever reason, it can no longer be tolerated and it is unceremoniously shown the door.  The human body is an astounding filter.  Without any conscious intervention on our part, it ceaselessly labors to separate the good from the bad – the healthful from the harmful.  If this process were to stop, as it sometimes does, we’d be in big trouble.

In my way of thinking a similar process exists in the human soul. Sometimes an intolerable idea gets lodged within us and we can’t seem to be able to just spit it out.  It becomes emotionally toxic and sickens our inner world.  It’s not in the intellect.  Most anxious people are fully aware that their fears are unjustifiable via the agency of logic and while there may be 40 million Americans who are willing to admit that they are afraid, there are many more who are not.  The fact is that we all live (at all times) with an underlying sense of dis-ease.  Even when things are good there is an ever present nagging sense that all is not quite well and that something bad is on its way.  How many people can say they have achieved a lasting, deep-seated peace of mind?

3,000 years ago, Solomon riffed on this topic and called the attempt to resolve it “futile.”

“The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes,ever returning on its course.  All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.”

No true satisfaction is to be found in the physical world.  “Nothing”, he says is “new under the sun.”  This is intuitively obvious and despondence is a natural reaction to it.  It can be staved off by various distractions, “keeping busy” and material pursuits of all stripes for a while but deep down we know it is not working and it sits like a bone in the craw – unable to be expelled.  At that juncture, anxiety sets in – there is a slow leak in our souls – one that eventually requires intervention, but how?

It’s true that nothing is new under the sun.  Above it, however, is another story.  Humans naturally crave expansiveness and eternality.  We are always looking to project ourselves into the future – through our children or the work of our hands.  We desperately want to connect with and hold on to others and to have them understand us on a profound level.  Most of our deepest needs cannot be measured, weighed or tested for.  They are as ethereal as the world they emanate from.  Anxiety is the cul de sac of the material world and the proper response to the realization (often unconscious) of the futility and constriction of material existence.

Perhaps then, our phobias, fears, stresses and anxieties can only be effectively addressed by letting the toxins in our souls pour forth – to willingly separate from and filter through the faulty conceptions we have of ourselves, the world and our place in it.  The soul is not of this world and cannot tolerate its falsehood and its dead ends.  Like a child separated from her mother, she longs to go home and in so doing rises above the dread and dismay of the material world to finally find peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Adam Jacobs is the Managing Director of the Aish Center in Manhattan. He was born and raised in New York and has lived in Boston and Jerusalem, where he received his rabbinic ordination. He completed his B.A. in music from Brandeis University and has a Masters of Jazz Performance from the New England Conservatory. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post’s religion section and has a penchant for writing and teaching about the uplifting, beautiful and unexpected aspects of the Jewish tradition. He was recently featured in the documentary film "Kabbalah Me" and has published a collection of essays called The Forgotten Light. Rabbi Jacobs now lives in “the burbs” with his wife Penina and their five children.
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