A worldwide pandemic of anxiety
We live in anxious times. It’s nothing new. Whether the pandemic is over or whether it’s not over, anxiety pervades our lives and society.
Anxiety, not a severe anxiety disorder, rather just the day-to-day anxiety, is one of the most common mental ailments that affect Western society, and in fact most of the world today.
It is estimated that 1/3 of all adults in developed countries will suffer from an anxiety disorder for at least a year or more in their lifetime. Anxiety is twice as high in women as it is in men. When we are confronted by anxious times or challenges, we often fall back to our natural learned anxiety responses. Whether it’s over functioning, under functioning, taking control or learned helplessness.
Anxiety is extremely contagious
On a personal note, it’s taken me a while to understand anxiety and its impact on our lives. I’m blessed personally not to experience any level of significant anxiety (at least not that I am consciously aware of). Obviously, all humans do experience some form of anxiety, as do I, however, the debilitating anxiety that prevents people from fully engaging with, and enjoying aspects of their lives, is something that is foreign to me. However, in my work as an educator, a colleague, friend and as a family member, I’ve come across the debilitating effects of anxiety all too often.
From my vantage point, I see an ever-increasing malady of anxiety, particularly amongst our tweens, teens, and young adults, who have come of age and grown up during the social media era. It’s important to understand that anxiety is one of the most contagious mental health challenges we have ever experienced, and because it’s so contagious, many psychologists and thinkers believe that anxiety is rarely the function of an individual, rather it is usually the function of a group. For example, a work team when there is a high level of stress, or a project with deadlines. Everything seems to be going OK, then one of the members experiences an anxiety flare-up and shifts everyone into a state of anxiety. Or amongst a group of friends or family members, when everyone is under pressure and the going is tough, and one member of the friendship group or family experiences an anxiety flare-up, it is challenging for it not to spread. Anxiety is contagious.
The three greatest influences on teenagers
One of my favourite contemporary Australian speakers and thinkers about teenage development and wellbeing, is the author and psychologist, Michael Carr-Greg. I heard him repeat two particularly poignant observations about teenagers.
The first is that the three most important influential factors in a teenager’s life are their friends, their friends, and their friends!
His second observation, I’ll dub ‘the Westfield Trap’. If you’re ever out shopping with your teenager, and bump into their friends, there are two horrible mistakes you must never make. The first is, you must never actually address the friends. If you do, the likely result will be, ‘Mum! Dad! You embarrassed me so much! How could you open your mouth! How could you even say that!’ The second horrible mistake that must never be perpetrated if you bump into your teenager’s friends while out shopping is ….to ignore them! The likely result is, ‘Mum! Dad! How could you ignore my friends! You’re so rude! They’re so important to me, and you didn’t even acknowledge them! How come you couldn’t even say something to them!’ It’s obviously a high anxiety situation (so is the very experience of shopping with a teen or a tween!) and you can’t win!
Teens seek validation, or ‘likes’ from their peers, their world around them, and the associated anxiety around not being accepted or validated is often extremely high.
In an extraordinary essay on Parshat Lech Lecha in October 2017, Rabbi Sacks (z”l) quotes the book, ‘The Lonely Crowd’, printed in 1950. It’s a sociological analysis of American (or Western) society by three Jewish sociologists, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. Their sociological analysis is almost prophetic.
In their book, they discuss three kinds of societies. The first, a high-birth and high-death rate society, such as in the North American Indian societies, or pre-industrial societies in Europe or in the Middle Ages, or even Aboriginal societies where there are many people who are born and where, unfortunately, many people die. The primary focus is very much a struggle just to survive. The culture in these eras and countries tends to give rise to ‘tradition directed’ societies. People do things because that’s how they’ve always been told to do it. These societies are governed by a hierarchy, with order, authority, and rigid rules.
The second society they describe is a ‘transitional society’, or a society on the brink of growth, like Europe during the Renaissance or the Reformation. I cannot help but think that The Modern State of Israel, which is in a constant state of development, is a transitional society. There is high personal mobility and a mood of invention, exploration, and innovation. They are on the brink of growth. The challenge in such societies, is to not lose a sense of who you are, and to keep in touch with your values, traditions, and your faith. These societies tend to emphasise education as a means of instilling the values of the group in their young, and as a way to preserve their identity and help them navigate and stay oriented during their lives. The focus of a transitional society is to strengthen its inner world, value, faith, and identity. It is an inner-directed society.
Finally, the third type of society. A society that has already achieved maximal growth and is on the brink of decline. Life expectancy is high, and birth rates fall. There is enormous affluence. The burden of care has very much been taken over by centralised agencies. There is less focus, less need, and less drive to be resilient or inner-directed like there was in the growth age. The focus is not on scarcity, but rather on abundance and luxury. The primary problem is not dealing with the material environment and having enough, there is plenty, but rather with winning the approval of others. This is an ‘other-directed society’, giving birth to other directed individuals. People who are influenced and directed by others in their age/social group or by the media, far more than by their parents. Their source of drive is not tradition, nor an internal drive to achieve, but rather contemporary culture, and being accepted, ‘liked’, and loved. When they fail, they feel ‘anxiety’.
The ‘perfect’ social media driven anxiety
That was Reisman’s and his colleagues’ analysis of Western society in the 1950s, before the advent and the explosive spread of social media. Imagine what their analysis would look like today.
The impact of the ‘Instagram perfect life’, the ‘Tik Tok-ers legendary existence’ or the ‘Utopian Facebook profile’, together with the associated ‘likes’, ‘views’, or ‘hits’, is what drives much of our society and our young people today. How that impacts their other-directiveness, and the resultant anxiety is obvious.
Judaism is intrinsically inner-directed
Judaism focuses on bucking the trend. In fact, we find that the very first Jew, Avraham Avinu, was commanded, ‘Leave your father’s house’, i.e., ‘Leave the tradition-directed societies doing things the way you always did them just because that’s the way they’re done’ and ‘Leave your land in your birthplace’, meaning ‘Leave the contemporary trends of other-directed society.’ He was guided to become the father of an inner-directed people. A people governed by the voice and values of Hashem as it appears in the Torah. A people who are unafraid to become ‘Ivrim’, as Avraham was known, ‘Avraham Ha‘Ivri – the other sider’, whilst the rest of the world was on the other side, he stood up to the current. In fact, Avraham’s monotheistic belief reshaped the world and history forever after. He became a great influence on Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the monotheistic religions of the world. He did so not via amassing great wealth, or becoming a King, or having a great army, or leading an Empire, but rather, as it says in the Torah, simply because ‘he instructed his children and his household after him, in the ways of Hashem’. In doing what is right and what is just. Because he guided them to become inner-directed individuals, and eventually an inner-directed nation.
Moriah College: Inner-directed Jewish identity
Jewish identity and Jewish pride are our inner-directed voice. That voice of values and identity that we learn in childhood, that is reinforced by a lifelong study, rehearsed in our daily prayer, and our weekly and annual cycle of Jewish life and rituals. These give us a sense of inner-direction in life. The inner-directed Jewish spirit tends to lead to pioneering, exploring new and unknown ventures, being entrepreneurial, innovating, and problem solving. Which is also why, although Jerusalem is one of the most ancient religious centres on the planet, it is has been identified as one of the world’s fastest growing centres for high tech innovation and start-ups.
This reflects the essence of Moriah College. We are a Modern Orthodox school adhering to authentic Jewish values that have carried us as an inner-directed people for thousands of years, into the present Modern world. Our job is now to infuse that world with values and innovation, to build and look forward to the future with confidence.
Our natural response to anxiety
Coming back to our anxiety, and anxious response. Often, we have habitual ways of dealing with anxiety. These habits have been developed in our first family, the family which we are born into. We have developed patterns of responding. Often firstborn children, albeit there are always exceptions, become over-functioning during times of pressure and anxiety. They give advice, they rescue the situation, or micro-manage others. They may even intrude into others’ business. Often this is an excuse, to avoid looking inwards at themselves and confronting their anxiety.
Sometimes the youngest child, or middle children, albeit there are always exceptions, become under-functioning during times of stress and anxiety. They become less confident. They often invite others to take over and they become, perhaps, a secondary source of concern for the family. They could even appear fragile or be dubbed as irresponsible or people that can’t take the pressure.
Developing a ‘calm-practice’
These, and many other patterns of response, can be changed. The first step is to name it, acknowledge it, to own it, and to develop what is called a ‘calm-practice’, to quote Brené Brown. Brown defines ‘calm’ as ‘responding to a situation with perspective, mindfulness, and ability to manage emotional reactivity’.
‘Calm-practice’ empowers people to bring perspective to complex situations. They feel their feelings, without reacting to them, and without responding with heightened emotions like anger and fear. Some are naturally calm, others have to learn calm practice, and work on it regularly. When someone practices calm, they influence others around them. They cause them to slow down and not be too quick to think. They ask themselves and others calming questions such as, ‘do I have all the information I need to emotionally respond, or to make an informed response?’ They stay mindful of the positive impact that calm has on the situation. They realise that a panic response produces more panic and fear.
Anxiety may be contagious, but so is calm. So, we need to choose if we want to infect people with more anxiety or heal ourselves and others with more calm.
In practicing calm, the small behaviours matter. The old classic, ‘count to ten before you respond’, or give yourself permission not to have a definitive feeling or response to a situation, and when you ask yourself, or others ask you, ‘how you feel about it?’, you give yourself permission to say, ‘I’m not sure yet’, or ‘I think I need more time to think about it’, or ‘tell me more’.
Calm works wonders with our children
When speaking with tweens and teens, who often tend to think with powerful emotions, try to talk calmly. Some of the most engaging and talented educators and teenage speakers, speak calmly and softly to them. Not just because they need to strain to listen, but because their mirror neurons cause them to reflect back and match the level of intensity and tone of the person they are engaging with. Thus, a calm person brings about calm, particularly in teenagers.
Responding to a teenager by mirroring their anxiety with words of anxiety, by matching their cadence, tone, and urgency, just encourages further anxiety. Being calm, in the face of teenage anxiety, often has a calming effect. For example, ‘tell me more about that’, ‘I haven’t heard about that’ and ‘where did what did you hear that’, or ‘from whom’. Breathe. Speak low. Ask calming questions. Slow down.
Try it with anxious tweens or teens and see what happens. Calm practice is highly effective with children.
Calm-practice with inner-directedness reduces anxiety
I would like to suggest that calm-practice, combined with being inner-directed can be a powerful antidote to some of our anxiety-ridden responses and the anxiety we experience within ourselves, our families, our children, and our community.
By connecting with our Jewish pride and heritage, we know we’ve been there done that, throughout history, with resilience and hope. When we are inner-directed and seek creativity, innovation, problem-solving, and direction, it is almost impossible to experience feelings of sadness. Creativity is actually the opposite of anxiety and depression and can’t be experienced simultaneously.
When we remember that we are all children of Avraham and ‘Ha’Ivri’ – Avraham the ‘other sider’. The very first Jew who showed us that he was unafraid to stand up to the ‘social media norms’ of the time. That he wasn’t interested in ‘likes’. That he wasn’t interested in being popular or following the traditions, or expectations of society, but rather he was inner-directed looking at how he filtered the world and influenced those around him.
Our response to COVID anxiety is ‘contagious-calm’
The times in which we find ourselves, after two years of opening and closing, of being tired of hearing about new variants of COVID etc, about restrictions and no-restrictions, travel, or no-travel, being able to experience work, life, and school together, or via remote, or somewhere in between, we realise there are certain things that are in our control and certain things that aren’t. The things that aren’t, let’s let them go. The things that are in our control, such as calm-practice and our response, impact not only ourselves but our families and our children around us.
The Modern Orthodox Jewish way is to combine the age-old inner-directed Jewish pride and values with hope and faith that whatever challenges we face, we can spread calm in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Wishing you and your families a relaxing, rejuvenating, calm, and safe holiday. Enjoy! Come back well rested and we look forward to seeing you next year.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.