The line between a healthy negative emotion and a disordered one is not always clear. For instance, anxiety is normal and healthy (and an emotion we all experience). Anxiety disorders, however, are not. Where do we draw the line between healthy and disordered anxiety?
Dr. David Myers defines a psychological disorder as being deviant (different from the norm), distressful (to oneself and/or others), and dysfunctional. This last point is especially important in distinguishing healthy versus unhealthy anxiety.
If the anxiety is based on a real threat and motivates us to prepare effectively for that threat, it is likely not disordered. However, if the anxiety gets in the way of us trying to solve whatever problem initiated the feeling (i.e., we avoid it so the problem and/or the anxiety gets worse) or it hurts us in other areas of life (like our relationships with others), it is likely dysfunctional and worthy of intervention.
Yaakov, perhaps setting the stage for his Jewish descendants throughout the millennia, experiences his share of anxiety. His last interaction with his brother Esav leaves him fleeing for his life. He is now about to meet Esav again and is unsure how Esav will react. Has Esav moved on and forgiven or does he still want to kill him for stealing the blessings?
Yaakov sends envoys with an appeasing message and finds out that Esav is coming to greet him with 400 men. When Yaakov hears this, we are told that “Yaakov was very frightened (vayira Yaakov meod) and distressed (vayeitzer lo).” That Yaakov was afraid for his life is self-evident from the context. However, the fact that the Torah adds that he was also distressed opens the door for the commentators to add a host of secondary triggers that may have contributed to Yaakov’s anxiety.
Rashi suggests that he was “frightened” of being killed by Esav and “distressed” that he may have to kill Esav. Even though killing Esav in self-defense would be morally justified, this fact didn’t mitigate the anxiety Yaakov felt (and wouldn’t necessarily have mitigated the trauma he would have felt afterward had he been forced to kill him).
Others suggest that he was “frightened” for his own life but was “distressed” or worried about the welfare of his family or the loss of his property. Alternatively, he may have been anxious as he was uncertain of Esav’s intentions. He feared that Esav might be coming to kill him, but if he knew for sure, at least he could prepare militarily. Since it was also possible that Esav was coming in peace, he was reticent to show military strength, which could instigate Esav unnecessarily.
An additional layer that complicates Yaakov’s emotional response is the fact that G-d previously promised him that He would protect him. If that’s the case, why was Yaakov afraid? The Talmud answers that Yaakov was afraid that his sins may have rendered G-d’s promise to him null and void. He knew in particular that he was unable to honor his parents while he was away for so many years (see Chizkuni) while Esav was able to fulfill this mitzvah. Perhaps Esav then had enough merits to defeat him, Yaakov thought (see Bereishit Rabba 76:2).
Taking a different approach, other commentators suggest Yaakov’s “distress” was actually a direct result of being “frightened.” Since G-d promised to protect him, he shouldn’t have been anxious (Daat Zekeinim). He was actually anxious about the fact that he was anxious!
Yet, despite being both “frightened” and “distressed,” and despite the plethora of anxiety-provoking stimuli, Yaakov’s emotional experience was healthy. As Abarbanel points out, Yaakov clearly did believe in G-d’s promise; otherwise he would have hid and avoided going back home.
He rationally trusted in G-d, and feeling anxious was a normal emotional reaction. Just because we know things rationally doesn’t mean our anxiety will disappear. The essential question is not: “Do we feel any anxiety?” but “How do we act to in accordance with our goals and values despite the anxiety?”
Yaakov serves as a paradigm on how to deal with anxiety. Despite feeling anxious, he takes charge of the situation and prepares for different possibilities. He plans the diplomatic route of gifts and appeasement, he sets up his camp for fighting if necessary, and he engages in heartfelt prayer.
We would do well to learn from his example when we are anxious, effectively preparing for different realistic outcomes and praying to G-d for help and guidance through our challenges.