Dealing With an Elephant Invasion

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Menuchat hanefesh is not just about peace of mind. The term choli hanefesh refers to someone whose soul is sick, a term for mental illness. Menuchat hanefesh is the ultimate mental wellness. So. let us discuss the concept of tolerating as it refers to mental illness, and how this trait of savlanus (savlanut),tolerance, will help us in this area, as well. 

 

How Anxiety Works 

One of the most common mental challenges of our time is anxiety. If we call someone near and dear to us on their cell phone three times and they don’t answer, we grow concerned and begin to worry. What happened? Were they kidnapped? Were they in a car accident? Every possible frightening scenario flits through our mind. 

That’s anxiety. 

In truth, Gd gave us anxiety for a good reason, so that we should be concerned in dangerous situations. Otherwise, we’d just run into the street, befriend bears and bees, or walk down dark alleyways in crime-ridden neighborhoods. So we need anxiety to help keep us safe. The problem is when it becomes blown out of proportion, when an innocent pussycat looks like a ferocious tiger.  

Nowadays, many people are afflicted with anxiety disorders.  How did this come to be? 

An anxiety disorder stems from the struggle to tolerate uncertainty. The uncertainty is there, but can we tolerate it? That niggling feeling has wormed its way into our heart. Can we just hold it? If we can, then we are able to overcome the natural anxiety before it turns into a disorder. If not… 

Two Approaches to Alleviate Anxiety 

Two of the many approaches to working with anxiety in therapy are CBT and ACT.  In CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, we initiate change in either cognition, behavior, or emotion by attempting to change one or more of these three elements. Another form of therapy, which is gaining in popularity among mental health professionals, is ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy. 

The most obvious difference, in one sentence, is that CBT aims to help identify and change negative or destructive thoughts, whereas ACT maintains that pain and discomfort are a fact of life, and one would benefit more by accepting the feelings of uncertainty. In fact, Dr. Steven Hayes, the developer of ACT, posits that fighting the anxiety will often serve to reinforce it, as we are giving it an excessive amount of attention and thereby keeping these fearful thoughts in our minds rather than allowing them to fade away, out of our consciousness. 

One method to accomplish this is to add the clause I’m having a thought that… to a thought that causes anxiety. For example, if one finds that he is thinking along the lines of: I will never be successful, and then amends it to: I’m having a thought that I will never be successful, the anxiety itself can be decreased. We are not attempting to change the thought (I will be successful), but we are merely identifying what is taking place in real time. And what is truly taking place is not that we won’t be successful (as we don’t know the future), it’s that we are having a thought that we won’t be. 

With the average human brain processing about 70,000 thoughts per day, we don’t need to address most of these thoughts; it’s just that anxiety tricks our brains into thinking we must do so – particularly the thoughts that are negative or frightening.  If we have thoughts akin to: There is an army of elephants invading Brooklyn, we are (hopefully) unlikely to board our windows and doors, as we know it is just a silly thought. We accept the thought as is: a thought. 

Hence, tolerance and acceptance are at the core of alleviating anxiety. 

 TAKEAWAY 

If negative thoughts are seeping into your brain and bringing anxiety in their wake, tolerate and accept them as thoughts, while telling yourself, “The chances of these thoughts coming true are as unlikely as a herd of elephants raiding my neighborhood.”