Is it friend or foe? In an age where time seems to be traveling faster and choices are vaster — living on the verge of an anxiety attack is becoming commonplace. Learn what triggers this strange emotion and how to use its force in your favor.

One word is all it takes and suddenly your thoughts are going so fast that they create a vortex in your throat making breathing impossible. Confusion is the name of the game and you cannot imagine where to go from here.

These are some of the symptoms of anxiety. There is little comfort in knowing that we've all experienced anxiety on some level at some point in our lives. Anxiety comes when we are faced with a defining, life-changing moment or, perhaps, when we are required to make an important decision. We feel our worst imagined fears creep into our self-conscious where they multiply, inciting uncertainty and worry over something that might — or might not — ever happen.

The great French philosopher Montaigne once wrote, "My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened." Anxiety distorts normal worries and magnifies them. We become trapped like flies in webs of our own making, struggling helplessly, paralyzed from taking the necessary action to free ourselves.

Fear is based on known danger, something tangible: a lump discovered during a routine breast self-examination, an impending bankruptcy. These are problems we know are real: we can touch the lump, we can see the debt. And although the problems are overwhelming, there are things that can be done: removing the lump, special diets, treatments; restructuring the business, finding investors. With anxiety, however, we feel haunted, out of control. Yet when pressed, we can rarely pinpoint the exact cause. Because anxiety has no physical origin, it is a disorder that baffles doctors and resists medicine. Sufferers who look to pills, tonics and drug regimens for relief rarely find it.

Yet, despite the negative connotations attached to the word anxiety, the sensation itself can create within us a truly positive effect. And though it is something we desire never to experience, we are usually better for having done so. Anxiety is both a terrible curse and an enormous blessing.

It all depends on how you look at it.

Kabbalists suggest that we should view anxiety in a positive light. They believe that it manifests itself to remind us that we are not realizing our full potential in this world, that we are not fulfilling our purpose. Only with the spur of constant self-evaluation, which often begins with anxiety, will we strive to do better and succeed in our efforts. In fact, medical science supports this perspective. Many doctors contend that some anxiety is a good thing. In his full-length treatise on the subject, Anxiety (Oxford, 1986), Donald W. Goodwin, M.D. suggests that stress is a useful tool that can "build character, enhance creativity and encourage us to do better." With anxiety, we experience a heightened awareness of ourselves. According to the American Medical Association, anxiety also helps us respond to emergencies.

Thus the paradoxical nature of anxiety — is it good or bad for us? How can we diminish the negative effects of anxiety and use its positive effects to prod ourselves to do better? How can we best use our anxious thoughts to help us achieve our goals?

There is an old saying: "Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there." Those who study the Kabbalah believe that anxiety occurs when we don't have certainty. By refusing to trust in God, or in the perfection of the ultimate plan, we accept burdens we were never meant to bear and, therefore, feel uneasy, depressed and afraid. Our bodies respond physically to this spiritual imbalance, which is why anxiety sufferers often experience headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations, incredible fatigue and respiratory problems.

According to the Kabbalah, however, our awareness of anxiety is the Creator's way of offering us a chance to reconnect with Him, a wake-up call to the spirit. Kabbalists believe that through anxiety we are alerted to a wrong turn we have taken, thereby giving us the capacity to re-orient ourselves on the path to our true destiny. Perhaps we were too focused on personal desires or in attaining fame or fortune and neglected our spiritual needs and the needs of others. Anxiety offers us the chance to step back and look objectively at our lives. "Review it and it will uplift you" (Mishlei 4:8). We need to examine our emotional and spiritual priorities and actively work to achieve them. Only then can we experience true peace of mind.

Tips For Dealing With Anxiety When It Strikes

•    Keep a diary: each day write down five things for which you are grateful.

•    Practice random acts of kindness.

•    Recognize your incredible potential and strive to maximize it every day.

•    Take your mind off your worries by helping others.

•    Face your fears — they are not as terrible as you imagine.

•    Embrace the positive aspects of anxiety and use them to improve your life.

 

Continued reading on Anxiety and Fear: The Monster is Real