You’ve had a long, tough day. You want to relax. So you open up your social media feed for a bit of virtual friendship—but you’re assaulted by disturbing images and stories that your friends have posted. You end up leaving the screen far worse than you arrived. Sounds familiar?

We know way too much. Information from every corner of the world comes flooding in, and much of it is not good—tragedy, terror, trauma . . . Many sensitive souls are having trouble sleeping We are an anxious bunchthese days, their minds filled with thoughts and pictures that disturb their rest. And this is all on top of the “normal” anxieties about health, safety, children, money, marriage, jobs, travel, our to-do list and much, much more.

Children are also reporting a disconcerting increase in feelings of anxiety. They, too, are concerned about the world situation. But they are also concerned about bullies, cliques, academic performance, separation from parents, nightmares, death, pressures, phobias and all sorts of other things.

We are an anxious bunch. What can be done about it?

The Jewish View

Our world can feel like a scary place, and many of us have fearful natures on top of that. But G‑d nonetheless asks us to bring ourselves to a state of calm confidence. In the Torah portion of Shoftim, soldiers are cautioned not to give way to fear, dread or panic on the battlefield.1 The commentaries state that a battlefield is a pretty scary place to be, and that fear is a natural response. However, the soldiers are admonished to keep their attention on the idea that G‑d is going with them into battle. By visualizing themselves resting safely in G‑d’s hands, they will be able to maintain a steady heart. Likewise, we are all soldiers in G‑d’s army. Our belief in G‑d’s omnipotence will help us quell our fears, and teach our children to do the same.

Power of Imagination

Modern psychology also acknowledges the power of attention and the power of imagination to change our emotional experience. When we picture bad things, we feel scared and our heart rhythm is disturbed. The disturbed heart pattern (the heart rate variability) is conveyed to the brain, which responds by sending out all sorts of fight-or-flight chemicals to the body. The resultant surge of energy is meant to help us deal with life-threatening conditions, but—when there is no actual life-threatening situation occurring—it simply courses through our body, causing our heart to beat rapidly, our breath to shorten and our palms to sweat. Picturing bad things is unpleasant emotionally, and also very hard on the body.

Fortunately, picturing good things has the exact opposite effect. It produces a beautiful heart-rate variability pattern that communicates wellbeing to the brain, which causes a release of beneficial chemicals that calm, heal and renew the physical body. It is the picture—and the emotion that it elicits—not the thought that has all this power. Indeed, thoughts affect us only to the extent that they elicit pictures in our mind. For example, the thought that “2 + 2 = 4” won’t disturb most of us, because for most people it won’t generate a disturbing picture. However, the thought that “robbers could be making that noise” does have the power to generate feelings of fear, because the mind will tend to picture the lurking robbers, and then the picture will elicit the fear. It is clear, therefore, that we can greatly benefit from learning how to make beautiful pictures in our mind’s eye.

This is one powerful way to combat the stress and discomfort of anxiety. Moreover, there is an ever deeper benefit to engaging the power of positive imagination—activating the spiritual power of manifestation. As expressed most famously by the Tzemach Tzedek, “Think good and it will be good.” That is, picturing positive outcomes will help those outcomes manifest in reality, because G‑d utilizes our very trust in Him to help make it so. Deeply absorbing this teaching can also help in reducing, and even eliminating, anxiety.

Building New Pathways

But how is it done? How can one overcome the tendency to worry (generate negative pictures in the mind)? In fact, the strategy is simple, and we can teach it to our “worried” children as well. It begins with understanding how the brain works. Think of the brain as a “preloaded computer.” Imagine that it starts off with two sections of wiring—one for detecting problems and dangers, the other for noticing things that are fine and good. The problem-focused section has many, many more wires in it, but this is just a starting point for the “user.” The “user” is now responsible for all future How can one overcome the tendency to worry?wiring of the brain.

Wiring occurs as a person uses her brain. For instance, if she learns to knit, the brain will add “wires” (neural pathways) for knitting. The more she knits, the more wires are formed, until eventually she becomes a skilled knitter, able to mindlessly knit complex patterns. Similarly, as a person uses her brain to visualize, she makes more wires for picture-making. If she makes scary pictures, she becomes expert at making scary pictures (worrying), because she has created a superhighway of neural pathways specializing in this area. Of course, if she makes inspiring, motivating, calming or otherwise good-feeling pictures, she wires that habit into her brain.

But here’s the catch: the brain hasn’t got very many starter wires for the good pictures (see the “preloaded” concept above). Therefore, it will be far easier and faster to make scary pictures at first—until more wires are created on the calmer side of the brain. This means that generating good-feeling pictures will feel awkward and unnatural at first. Only after a person perseveres, relentlessly wiring positive images with complete determination to outnumber the networks for negativity, do optimism, trust, calm and joy finally begin to feel “normal,” and, after much conscious effort, “natural.”

There are many other strategies that can help speed up the wiring process, but the bottom line is the same: A person must practice making positive pictures, and absolutely refuse to attend to any negative pictures that “pop up” unbidden in her mind, as if to say, “I’m not spending any time with you—I’m spending time with my positive pictures now.” When wires are not used, they die off (which is why people forget how to play a piano song they learned decades ago but haven’t played since). Absolutely refusing to watch the scary movie in the mind, even when you’ve received a personal invitation from your brain to do so—“Hey, come watch this scary movie over and over and over again!”—causes the wires for that kind of movie to shrivel up.

So, say “no” to any scary pictures, and invest your time, energy and attention in the positive side of your brain. Make pictures of the plane landing safely, the child standing under the chupah, the money arriving, the child being successful, the relationship improving, and most of all—Moshiach arriving and bringing peace, love and success to all of humanity!