Judaism is not just a religion based on commandments and laws. Practicing Judaism and knowledge of Jewish Philosophy gives us a guidebook on how to lead healthy lives. Interestingly enough, a 2013 study published by Journal of Affective Disorders states that those who have a moderate to high belief in a higher power do notably better when they are seen short term by a psychiatrist than those who do not. In addition, the study makes note of the fact that patients who are treated for anxiety and/or depression responded better to treatment if they believed in G-d.
Over Sukkot, I had the opportunity to read a fascinating book by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, “The Rabbi and the Nuns.” He relates a story about a Charlie Brown cartoon where one of the characters is staring out a window and it’s bright and shiny. The other character is unknowingly standing in front of a blackboard and comments how dark it is outside. This is the reality for people who are depressed or anxious.
READ: Perspectives on Mental Health in the Orthodox Community
I have an anxiety disorder. I have immediate family members who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, so I know what it’s like to grow up with someone who has a mental illness and in my case, lives with one. I will have panic attacks to the point of not being able to breathe. In my late teens, I learned the brown paper bag method to prevent hyperventilating.
I’m lucky that my mom showed me through example that seeking help from a psychologist or psychiatrist is a good thing. I was lucky to have my mom teach me that lesson.
People say that G-d only gives you what you can handle. I know many people who take this statement at face value and say that G-d will help. It reminds me of the parable about having faith in G-d and in His ability to help us. The story tells of a man who went overboard and could not swim. The waters were too high for him to walk to safety, so he prayed to G-d to save him. A few minutes later, a boat with a life preserver and a helicopter came to save the man. Each time someone came to save him, the man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God, and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
READ: The Illness You Will Not See
Soon the man lost his energy, wasn’t able to keep himself above water and drowned. He went to Heaven and when he reached God he shouted, “I had faith in you, but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this G-d replied, “I sent you a rowboat with a life preserver and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
From this we learn that even though we pray to G-d and have faith in Him, we must put forth an effort (hishtadlut) to help ourselves. G-d helps those who help themselves.
As someone who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder, I understand feeling angst at G-d and questioning why he gave me many challenges in life. I also know that He gave doctors the knowledge of how to treat mental illness and gave chemists the knowledge of how to make medications that can help in controlling certain illnesses.
As I am an avid reader of both Jewish and secular books, I did a lot of research trying to find ways in addition to medication that can aid in easing the feelings brought on by an anxiety/mood disorder. I found that many sources including the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect, talk about being outdoors in nature. Rabbi Nachman speaks of hitbodedut (which literally translates into “self-seclusion”). Hitbodedut is an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation. The goal of hitbodedut is to establish a close, personal relationship with Hashem and achieve clarity into a person’s personal motives and aspirations.
The rabbi himself wrote that the purpose of hitbodedut was to rid yourself of negative feelings or energy, which is perfect for a person like me with an anxiety disorder. Perhaps this is why I love the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, watching the waves on the sand, walking around the city and museums. It gives a person the opportunity to clear his or her mind and focus on ways to improve his or her life. I feel lighter whenever I’m walking in nature. It truly calms me and my soul.
Your spirit can be lifted by Torah as I mentioned before, but if there is a need, please don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If you know someone who can’t get help because their family says “Hashem will help and we don’t need a doctor,” please find a way to get people the help they need. As a Jewish community, let us recognize the work of psychologists and psychiatrists as avodat hakodesh (holy work) and destigmatize the resources that offer help and comfort to those who need it.