Passover is known in our tradition as the holiday of freedom and liberation. Yet, the Pesach season is often muddled with anxiety and family stress. This time of year is especially difficult for individuals and families dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, and in today’s world who isn’t dealing with something?
“The Jewish holidays and Pesach in particular can be festive and meaningful,” observes Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “But Pesach can be very stressful, especially for those with mental health issues. Whether it be the obsessive cleaning or the ingathering of family, the Pesach infrastructure tends to increase family stress and anxiety.”
Additionally, students are on break from their studies. This means a long period of time with little structure. Structure tends to be a positive thing for most people. The lack of structure during the Passover season tends to increase anxiety and create more space for individual & family stress to surface.
Veteran therapists working with the Orthodox Jewish community offer insights and suggestions for better managing this pre-Passover and Passover stress and anxiety. The first step is always understanding what Pesach represents and brings up for each of us as we prepare to be with nuclear and extend families.
Your expectations and their connection to Pesach anxiety and family stress
Michelle Halle, a licensed clinical social worker in Lakewood, New Jersey, acknowledges that Passover stress “has a lot to do with expectations and self-care.” She reports, “A lot of people don’t think about giving themselves what they need.” We tend to swamp ourselves with the needs, wants, and expectations of others and ignore the most vital person, ourselves.
She goes further to highlight how “Passover often serves as a measuring stick,” which only increases pre-Passover stress and anxiety. People often have expectations of where they will be by the time Pesach rolls around. They hoped they would be married, have a child, or find a dream job before the upcoming Passover. “When these things didn’t happen, they get down, blame themselves, and add to the anxiety and family stress that already exists.”
What can we do to reduce Passover anxiety and family stress?
1- Identify expectations, feelings, and practice sitting with discomfort
Halle encourages her clients to spend time working to understand what is contributing to Passover anxiety and family stress.
Acknowledge the sadness and disappointment. Sit with the thoughts and acknowledge them.
Halle notes that, “People aren’t in the habit of doing this. However, once they develop this important life skill, they can use it all year long. Ultimately, we need replace self-judgment with compassion and add meaning to our lives so we feel empowered instead of disappointed and discouraged.”
2- Avoid regressing along with family members
Halle encourages her clients to be aware of possible triggers and regressive pulls which are often at play when people get together with families of origin. She notes a common phenomenon, during the holidays people often regress to the family dynamics of an earlier stage in life. Staying mindful of this tendency ensures you respond verses react to sudden changes in family dynamics. This of course will diffuse much family stress and tension.
3- Take advantage of support groups
Rabbi Weinstock notes an additional area of family stress and anxiety. “The seder is a reminder of who is NOT around the table.”
He has noticed a preponderance of support groups for bereaved individuals before holidays – especially Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Pesach. He encourages people to take advantage of these supports so they are reminded they are not alone in their pain and loss.
4- Watch out for obsessive tendencies
“Mitzvah observance has the potential to increase obsessive tendencies”, observes Rabbi Weinstock. This is not necessarily a bad thing if done in moderation. However, when it spirals out of control, it is very unhealthy and extra stressful.”
Since there are so many Mitzvos associated with Pesach, those who are prone to obsessive tendencies need to watch that they don’t spiral out of control. Keep your therapist and Rabbi close by!
5- Be proactive and communicative
Menachem Kiwak, LMHC and adjunct professor in the clinical mental health counselor program of Touro College, observes increased stress levels in nearly all of his private clients in the weeks leading up to Passover. “The time before Pesach is literally crazy. People expect so much from themselves!”
Kiwak suggests using communication in the pre-Passover time to effectively reduce family stress, tension, and anxiety. When spouses and families sit down together to jointly devise a plan which may include “where family members can help, when to have a cleaning lady, and where we can settle,” the holiday will be more relaxing and joyous. If you can’t do this with your spouse, do it with a trusted friend, relative, therapist, or mentor.
6- Avoid going to extremes in your Pesach preparation
Kiwak feels that many in his practice “tend to go overboard” with their Passover expectations and preparations. Remember the distinction between what is required by Halacha (Jewish law), and extra strictures individuals place on themselves.
Kiwak recommends that people remember to make a distinction between Pesach cleaning and spring cleaning. “Be realistic and honest with yourself about what you want to do, and what you need to do, and what you cando.”
Kiwak observes the wisdom of the rabbis who came up with a formula for nullifying chametz—as a way of assuring we don’t go to extremes. “If we have this formula, why not use it?” Halacha is giving us permission to not go overboard.
7- Remember the goal is Simchas Yom Tov, not Passover anxiety and family stress
Kiwak further reminds clients, “Simchas yom tov – the joy of the holiday – is also a mitzvah!” He tells his clients, “Don’t be so hard on yourself–and don’t compare yourselves to others.”
Passover preparation and the seders can induce anxiety and family stress. However, careful preparation and honest conversations will maximize your chances for a joyous Yom Tov.