The Tanach speaks of mental health, specifically in Proverbs, which says, “Anxiety in the heart of a person causes dejection, but a good word will turn it into joy.” The Hebrew for this is: Da’agah belev ish yashchenah, vedavar tov yesamchenah (Proverbs 12:25). Some interpret the passage to mean that speaking about one’s anxiety can help relieve anxiety. As a psychologist I am inclined to agree with this wisdom of King Solomon. But more recent research tells us that anxiety or stress may not be all bad. In fact, studies show that a certain level of acute (short term) anxiety can increase performance, allow us to adapt, or act as a motivator to “get things done.”
Apparently, it is what we believe about stress that does us in. According to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, belief in harmful stress, not stress itself, is the deleterious health risk. McGonigal found that according to research done at the University of Wisconsin, what we believe about stress–especially if we perceive it as a “bad” thing–kills over 20,000 Americans each year.
But let us get back to “using a good word to turn it into joy.” We know that according to a study by Jeff Levin, Ph.D. at Baylor University, Jews who attend synagogue are healthier than Jews that do not attend synagogue. One of the reasons for this may be the same reason that anxiety is not all bad: oxytocin. When one is stressed the body releases the hormone oxytocin (AKA, “The Cuddle Hormone”), which compels us to seek support; oxytocin is also released when we hug someone. According to McGonigal, “Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience–and that mechanism is human connection.” We connect when we go to synagogue. In seeking out our friends, fellow members of the tribe, and social support, we are increasing our oxytocin levels, which in turn lowers our levels of anxiety and/or stress.
McGonigal referenced another study by the University of Buffalo that discovered that every major stressful life experience increased an adult’s risk of death by 30 percent. However, that was mitigated when they spent a significant amount of time helping others. If you are feeling stressed out, do a mitzvah! You might live longer by helping others live better. According to McGonigal, “Caring creates resilience.”
There is good news here. Firstly, stress is not all bad. At certain levels it acts as a motivator. Secondly, what you believe can change your experience of stress. Again, McGonigal notes that when one “chooses to view the stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.” We experience this biology of courage in our own community when we rally together for Israel when there is a crisis; or when a member of our community is in need and we pool our resources to get him or her through the catastrophe.
If we change what we believe about stress maybe we can learn to see stress as a friend. Try it out–the next time you feel stressed out, ask for a hug–there is now proof you can live longer, even with stress.
Lisa Grajewski, Psy.D. Is a licensed psychologist with JFFS and an adjunct instructor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has been a contributing writer for Jlife Magazine since 2004.