On Sunday evening, January 2, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Schwartz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, licensed in New York and New Jersey, specializing in anxiety, spoke for Let’s Get Real With Coach Menachem. Coach Menachem Bernfeld began by sharing that we’re all performing in life. Sometimes we want to do something and we start feeling nervous so we stop doing it. “Life starts beyond your comfort zone.” It’s a good feeling after you are able to step out of your comfort zone. This is how we grow in life.
Rabbi Dr. Schwartz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and is Clinical Director of the Center for Anxiety Relief in Union, New Jersey.
Dr. Schwartz shared how the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) reacted when Hashem told him that he was chosen from birth. He said, “I can’t speak. I don’t feel comfortable.” Moshe also reacted this way when Hashem told him that he was going to lead the Jewish people. He said, “Send somebody else.” Moshe, in the end, does more speaking than anyone else in the Torah. He overcame his feelings of not wanting to do it. Yirmiyahu overcame. We can overcome.
Dr. Schwartz said that it’s a common thought process when we are nervous about performing to think what we will do if we mess up. We ask those evil questions. There are some phrases that signify anxiety: “What if,” “Let’s say,” “Maybe,” “Oh, my gosh!”
You want to slow down and tell yourself, “I’m using an anxiety phrase. It is not reality yet.” Saying these phrases makes you anxious in the process.
When you are stuck in a situation, you need to say to yourself that you will focus on basic things. Look the other person in the eye. Tell yourself you will do it. After half an hour, there is habituation and you won’t feel nervous anymore. It gave the analogy of jumping into a cold pool. Concentrate on looking the other person in the eye and on what you want to say. If you are speaking to a crowd, then focus on one person in the crowd. If someone is afraid to daven before the amud, he should realize that everyone has the same fear of looking like a fool in front of everyone. We don’t have to worry what others think.
Also, don’t tell yourself not to think about something. This in itself will create anxiety. Tell yourself that right now you want to look at the person and keep the conversation going back and forth. Tell yourself that it’s okay if you have other thoughts. Tell yourself to focus now.
Someone asked about the feeling she has that she is afraid of sounding stupid. Dr. Schwartz replied that this is very common. He shared that anticipatory anxiety is worse than the actual situation. It lasts longer than the actual situation. We need to remember that our mindset causes anxiety. The Steipler taught that we should put ourselves into a situation by just saying one word at a time.
Someone asked how to talk to his thoughts. Dr. Schwartz taught that we talk to ourselves all the time. Don’t listen to rumination. Tell yourself that I am having an anxious moment but I can have a parallel process. I can concentrate on davening at the same time, for example. He explained that our brain is always looking for new material. “I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be me.”
He added that “Avoidance is the death knoll of anxiety.” I have to stop running away from the anxiety and turn around and face it. One out of five people suffers from anxiety. Tell yourself, “I’m not going to avoid. I’m going to approach.”
By Susie Garber