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Letting Go of Emotional Baggage

Dov Finkelstein, LCSW

When people have physical ailments, they usually see a doctor right away. Yet it’s not unusual for those with emotional pain to go for years, even decades, without seeking professional help. The result: Countless people in our communities are suffering needlessly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for people with emotional problems to go for years, even decades, before receiving appropriate treatment. This is especially disturbing considering that mental health issues are relatively common. The US Surgeon General’s report shows that, in any given year, 23 percent of the population will have some form of emotional disorder, and that over 50 percent will struggle with one at some point in their life.

Emotional disorders can range from diagnosable conditions (such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or attention deficit disorder) to the baggage that people carry around with them from emotional traumas (such as growing up with an overly critical mother, as in Chana’s case, or surviving the loss of a parent, sibling, or spouse).

What sets these emotional disorders apart from life’s everyday struggles is that they significantly impact everyday functioning, making it difficult or impossible for people to achieve success according to their abilities. Emotional disorders can be so all-consuming that they cast a shadow on the positive parts of life, triggering a sense of helplessness. “I have so much going for me … a nice husband, beautiful children, a solid parnassah. And yet, I’m miserable. What’s wrong with me?”

People with emotional disorders often wonder why they haven’t been able to actualize their potential like their peers. They feel a sense of inferiority, along with shame and isolation. They often go to great lengths to hide their issues, thinking that if people ever got to know who they really were, they’d end up friendless. If this distorted sense of self isn’t corrected — especially if it goes unchecked for a long period of time — it can have a devastating impact on one’s self-esteem.

Take Bracha, for instance, who has a panic disorder. She’s constantly afraid she’ll have a panic attack in a place where she won’t be able to exit and, as such, she refuses to go on airplanes, elevators, bridges, or tunnels. Despite these looming fears, the 27-year-old spends all her energy trying to act “normal.” This challenge is all the more difficult on dates because, in the back of her mind, Bracha is always worried about where the boy is going to take her. Which one of her 15 excuses will she use this time to explain why that particular location won’t work out? And how mortified and ashamed will she feel if he finds out about the issue?

It took Bracha five years to step into a therapist’s office. Compared to Chana, this could be considered a relatively short period of time. Research shows that it takes seven years for a person with marital problems to seek help, nine to 12 years for someone with generalized anxiety disorder, and 16 years for someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Why does it take so long for people to seek help? There are a number of barriers — a lack of information about emotional disorders, unawareness of successful treatment options, a mistrust of the mental health world, and difficulties navigating the mental health system. 


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