Fear is a Form of Wisdom

By Dr. Betsy Stone

In this very strange age of quarantine and social distancing, many of us are overwhelmed. Stressed. Anxious. Disorganized. We worry about toilet paper and taking a walk. We feel isolated and scared.

For many years, I have been teaching and talking about stress and anxiety, especially in teenagers and emerging adults. I know these to be separate problems. Stress, which is normal and healthy, is the accelerator that makes us act. It encourages us to study for that test, plan for that party, pay our bills before the fee for late payment. Stress is normal, and dealing with stress allows us to behave proactively. I’m rarely late because I want to avoid the stress of being late. Stress helps me avoid discomfort.

Anxiety is a totally different beast. Anxiety makes us spin in one spot, unable to act. Anxiety makes us stop. When we’re anxious, we don’t act. We simply worry and perseverate.

Most of the time, when we talk about anxiety, we really mean stress. I’m stressed that I haven’t done laundry, or my homework, or called a friend. That stress (hopefully) gets me going.

What we’re feeling now ISN’T stress; it’s anxiety. We’re spinning, worried about the present and the future. The manifestations are idiosyncratic – my anxiety (craving sugar, sleep disruption) may look different from yours.

We are also feeling huge loss, especially of the illusion of control. Kids are home, partners and roommates are home, work needs to get done, we worry there won’t be food/Purell/supplies. We are people who believe we can manage our lives. And suddenly we must give up this belief. What happens when your controlled life is battered by illness and fear? We all know people who are controlling – and they’re often anxious people. Anxiety makes us try to control more of our lives. Control helps us keep fear at arm’s length, instead of seeing the value in fear.

Fear is simply a form of wisdom. Don’t fight it. Reach out to other people, by phone. Admit what you can do and cannot do. Say no. Be kind to yourself and to other people. Turn off the TV news. Don’t bombard yourself. Join me, and the Jewish Education Project Friday at noon EST for more.

Caring for Yourself and Others in a Time of Crisis

Mar 20, 2020 12:00 -1:00 PM EST

In this time of increased anxiety and stress, we are seeking strategies that provide emotional support so that we can be there for our communities. Join us for a pre-Shabbat opportunity for reflection and renewal with Dr. Betsy Stone, psychologist and adjunct professor at HUC-JIR, and Naomi Less, Founding Ritual Leader and Associate Director at LabShul,  as we explore responses that will help us, our learners, and their families cope during this crisis.


In a little less than a month, we will be celebrating our freedom from bondage. There is a bondage in fear. But fear also produces wisdom. What will we learn from this time? Hopefully, we will find a new Dayenu, a new understanding of enough. Hopefully we will make a little more effort with our loved ones, with the widow and the orphan among us. Don’t fight your fears and your anxiety. As my student (almost) Rabbi Sarah Berman taught me, hold the thing lightly. This is a Buddhist teaching that advises us to feel the fear, not be the fear. Give yourself that freedom.