Stress Relief from a Soviet Gulag

Stress Relief from a Soviet Gulag

By: Rifka Schonfeld, Director S.O.S (Strategies for Optimum Success)

I have been writing about stress for the last two decades, and the coronavirus has made those pieces all the more relevant. Stress lurks around every corner: in our loved one’s coughs, in the empty hours alone, and in our dwindling bank accounts. What can we do to relieve stress when many of our traditional forms of stress relief are not available to us? I would like to look toward Natan Sharansky’s words of advice that he released at the beginning of the pandemic.

Natan Sharansky, a Soviet refusenik, spent 9 years (many of them in solitary confinement) in a Russian prison. While his conditions were far less comfortable than most of ours, he had important counsel for those of us serving what feels like our own time in our homes or small spaces:

Remind yourself why you are there. With so many beloved activities and visits with loved ones on pause, it is hard to remember why we are social distancing or in lockdown. We need to remind ourselves constantly why we are taking the precautions we are taking. Remembering the reason gives us the strength to move forward.

Don’t pin your hopes on things beyond your control. It is human nature to look forward to a milestone, to say, “by next Pesach, we will be back to normal and celebrating together.” The problem with that is that when next Pesach comes and things remain the same, you will feel crestfallen and distraught. Therefore, focus on things within your control – like learning a new language or a new skill – and set your sights on that.

Laugh. Laughter is an important part of overcoming stressful situations. When you laugh, your body produces lots of hormones that calm you. Find the humorous in the everyday. Engage with people who make you laugh. You’ll actually feel lighter!

While we are definitely not in a Soviet prison, we are all struggling with unusual stresses in an unprecedented time. Perhaps we can use some of Sharansky’s guidance to live more with a bit less stress and a little more joy.

An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools.   In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness.  She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at You can view the web at

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