Friday, February 4, 2011

All Stressed Out

There's nothing like a good, upbeat news report to put a smile on your face!

Unfortunately, the New York Times' article last week about a recent survey of mental health on college campuses does not fall into that category.  The Times' piece is well-worth reading - I'd rather not summarize it here.  Suffice it to say: stress and depression levels are the worst that have been measured in the 25 year history of this well-respected study.  The economy seems to be the primary reason for all of this: students are concerned earlier than ever about financial aid; they're nervous about finding jobs at school/during the summer/after graduation; and their parents are hurting because of the recession too.

The news of this survey and its results scares me.

Mental health doesn't just exist in a vacuum.  It organically impairs so many other aspects of our lives: our ability to socialize with others; our ability to complete our school work; and our ability to stay physically healthy. 

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make all of this stress disappear.  But, alas, that is not a part of my rabbinic superpowers.  Instead: I want to devote the rest of this week's blog posting to some basic coping mechanisms.  And - if it isn't obvious by now, I should note that these suggestions are as relevant to the adults who follow this blog, as they'll be to our college students.  Here are three important steps that we can all take to manage our stress:

1) We should remember that coping with stress or mental health challenges is not something that we have to experience alone.  Nor should we.  I cannot overstate how vitally important it is for all of us (even the most relaxed among us!) to consider seeking out a rabbi, counselor, or therapist to talk to.  There is something about the sense of release that comes from unburdening your stresses with a non-judgmental professional that is strikingly different from the experience of sharing your innermost secrets with a best friend.  Counselors are trained to listen, and to help you reflect on who you are, and why you get stressed out by certain things more than others. 

The great news is that, for college students, free or heavily subsidized counselling is almost always available on campus by the university.  Your school probably has a Counselling Center that could assist you. 

If you prefer a Jewish venue (beyond calling me, which you're all welcome to do), you might consider calling your local Jewish Family Service.  JFS's almost always offer subsidized counselling services.  (The only thing Jewish about JFS counselling is that there's a stronger likelihood that the counselor is Jewish.)  Click here for JFS of San Diego or click here for the North American directory of the Association of Jewish Family and Children's Agencies to find a JFS near you.

Local rabbis and Hillels can always refer you to a more secular oriented counselor or therapist if you prefer.

So: seeking out a person to talk to is one step toward managing stress.

Another is exercise.  I'm a huge believer in the notion that our bodies, minds, and souls are joined on some deep existential level.  When we "exercise" (or care) for one aspect of ourselves, the other two cannot help but benefit from it as well.  Thus, our minds can be eased by a little exercise. 

If you haven't gotten hooked on exercising yet, you may not realize that most campuses have incredible fitness facilities that are free to students.  Take advantage of it, and skip out on pricey gym memberships.  And if working out in a gym isn't your thing (it isn't mine either), then head outside.  Get some fresh air by going for a walk or a run.  Or find a local state or national park to do some hiking or biking.  Sitting on your butt and watching television might distract you from the challenges of life for the first half hour.  But that's not a long term solution.  Exercise, on the other hand, can provide you with a regular outlet to burn some stress and clear your mind. 

Finally: our souls.  Perhaps you have never seriously given thought to it.  But I'm your rabbi - so take it from me.  Even if you don't believe in God, you should believe in the existence of your soul.  Not as something that needs to be "saved" (Jews don't buy into that).  And not as connected to anything having to do with the afterlife.  But think about your soul as the essence of your inner self: a spark inside that needs to be tended, and cared for, just like our bodies and minds.  The inner life of our spirit (if I may call it that) affects us - just as our physical and mental health does.

What can we do to foster that sense of inner awareness?  Attending synagogue and praying formally are obvious answers.  Making time to study more about Judaism and your Jewish identity is another way to go.  You might begin on your own with a website like, and then reach out to me for further reading suggestions.  Yoga and other meditative practices can also be a route toward greater inner awareness.

Whatever you choose from these three keep in mind that we all have to choose something.  Because to do nothing is to make ourselves vulnerable to the pervasive pain and suffering that is spreading through our society right now because of the economy.

This week's Torah portion (Parshat Terumah) echoes this message.  Our parsha is focused on the many details concerning the building of the Tabernacle: that portable structure that our ancestors carried with them through the dessert, allowing them to encounter and interact with God wherever they went.

Our rabbis ask the question: does God really care if the Tabernacle is exactly X feet long and Y feet wide.  Does the Holy One actually need this structure to dwell in at all?

The rabbis of the Midrash laugh at the notion that the Blessed Holy One, whose presence pervades the universe, needs any kind of physical structure from us.  Instead, we learn that the Tabernacle - with all its detail - was meant for us.  As a set of suggestions or guidelines - a recipe, if you will, for us to build something in order to construct some meaning out of a sometimes meaningless existence.

Or, to put it in other words: our ancestors were stressed out, just like we are.  And their coping mechanism was to devote themselves to building this structure - and then using it.

We would do well to follow their example.  Today I have outlined a list of possibilities...different activities that we can build into the everyday routine of our lives.  And our hope is that - just like our ancestors in the days of old - these structures or routines will enable us to find a sense of healing, and of meaning, that will enable us to cope with the sometimes difficult task of making it through the day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Brown

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