Every culture hat its own expression of guilt and family obligation, but Jewish guilt transcends the confines of our homes and neighborhoods. It has been transported to mainstream America through pop culture.
However, guilt in any form, Jewish or otherwise, is no laughing matter when it comes to the ways in which it can affect an individual’s health, notably the heart.
“Guilt is a negative emotion caused by a thought which extracts us from the now,” says Karen Powell, a wellness educator, author and host of the radio show “60 Second Wellness.”
“It can be self-created or foisted upon us by a manipulative other. You can stop guilt right where it starts by bringing simple awareness to what you are doing.”
The two most obvious physical warning signs, Powell says, are an inability to breathe fully and deeply, and pain in the heart area.
“Guilt literally makes you feel heavy-hearted, which is an instant response to the self-judgment creating the guilt.”
Dr. Howard Eisen, chief of cardiology at Drexel College of Medicine and an American Heart Association governor, acknowledges that Jews don’t have a monopoly on guilt. For everyone, he advises keeping guilt-inducing situations at bay to make a difference in one’s overall well being. His simplest advice to patients is to pick their battles more carefully.
“You need to understand your role in how you are ‘guilt-ed’ into feeling or doing certain things for others,” he says. “While you are not responsible for everything that happens to you, don't let yourself be bullied into doing things or gratuitously be made to feel guilty. Maintain perspective anytime somebody tries to manipulate you into doing something you don't want to do, or makes you feel guilty about something that really has nothing to do with you.”
Sometimes the fault lies within, he says. “People who allow themselves to be guilted into something they are not comfortable” with are subject to stress.
“If you have people in your life doing that to you repeatedly, then you need to spend time away from them — the exception being your mother, of course, because they are usually right.”
From the cardiology standpoint, guilt generates emotional and physical stress, Eisen explains. When that happens, the brain generates and releases several chemicals into the blood, including adrenaline, which puts stress on the rest of the body, including the heart.
Continued guilt-related stress can lead to depression, which, in turn, can damage different organs in the body, including the heart.
“Stress has a direct impact on the heart, and there is Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy (Broken-Heart Syndrome), where excessive stress from emotional triggers can damage the heart to the point where it ceases to function properly,” notes Eisen.
“Once you treat heart disease and recognize stress’s impact, things can return to normal. However, it is important to recognize the manifestations of stress that tie directly to guilt.”
There are a number of signs to watch out for, he adds: “Are you not sleeping well? Are you fatigued during the day? Do you get short of breath, or feel chest pains or palpitations? Any physical sign that you experience when you experience guilt should be a warning sign.”
Eisen muses that because he is a Jewish doctor who has some personal experience with the Jewish guilt concept, he can relate to what some of his Jewish patients are going through, and knows how to deal with it.
He points out that more stressful guilt-inducing situations come up as a result of family disputes or disappointments rather than the activities associated with attending synagogue or religious gatherings, compared to groups of people observing other faiths, where guilt is often tied in to services or religious-oriented gatherings.
“The best way to avoid being manipulated by guilt is to communicate,” states Powell. “Tell the person that you love them, but if you feel like they are trying to control you through guilt, you will be leaving the meal, the party or the event because you also love yourself! Give yourself permission to do that. Reclaim your vitality by walking away from that which no longer serves your well-being.”
From intense situations springs “unreasonable” guilt, which takes place when a person assumes responsibility for a situation he or she is ultimately not responsible for, according to Lee Gerdes, CEO of Brain State Tech, an Arizona-based company focused on computer technology that helps patients deal with a variety of psychological issues. Doris Jeanette, a Center City-based psychologist who authored Find Peace Beyond Guilt and Judgment, available now as an audio at drjeanette.com, says people should learn how to distinguish between “authentic” emotions (such as grief and joy) and conditioned responses, which include guilt.
“Your brain overrides what your body needs and what your heart needs in order to be healthy,” observes Jeanette. “Guilt is extremely unhealthy, it lowers your self esteem and keeps you from being free and happy. Guilt kills your free spirit and sense of inner knowing. People with a lot of guilt do not trust themselves.”
While Jeanette says guilt is a conditioned response, it still creates authentic stress that affects the heart and body. “Your brain overrides what your body needs to cope with in a certain situation where you put other people’s well-being ahead of your own,” she says.
When such brain changes happen, “the body breaks down. The conditioned response is memorized by the lining of the stomach, which is why guilty feelings are often hard to shake and the stomach will be the first place you will feel something when somebody tries to make you feel guilty.”
And there is a sex bias at play, she asserts. “It is also important to note women have a more difficult time with it, because we are more emotional, care more and are more compassionate and empathetic.”
Overall, she says, feeling bad about yourself will also make you physically sick. After all, how can your body be healthy if you do not love it? If you allow somebody else or a situation to make you feel like a bad person, you will dislike your body, abuse it and mistreat it, she says.
As for Jews?
“Jewish people are often wrapped up in a world view of guilt so that they cannot move on their own free will without experiencing an onslaught of mental judgment against their actions,” says Jeanette. “You can apply this to simple things, like relaxing and doing nothing. When you sit down and relax, the mental judgments start about what you need to be doing. Soon you jump up and do what your brain is telling you to do. Your body suffers because it needs to relax and rest to be healthy and strong.”