We’ve all felt it—the nervousness, stress, and worry that come with anxiety. Anxiety, after all, is a normal and expected human emotion. In fact, it has become instinctual for us to avoid things that make us feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
Evolutionarily, this instinct has protected us from danger and harm. But for some of us, anxiety becomes more than a warning signal of danger or a side effect of a worrisome situation. When anxiety becomes debilitating, unbearable, and begins to affect the way we live our day to day life, it has shifted from a normal human emotion to a mental health disorder. Anxiety disorders are very common and can take many forms, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic, phobias, PTSD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
For those of us with anxiety disorders, the instinctual desire to avoid what we perceive as the source of the anxiety creeps into our daily lives, preventing us from doing or participating in things that we know we should or even want to do.
Going to church and participating in our classes and callings are some of the activities that can get sacrificed on the altar of anxiety. Many times, people set up “church” as the cause of the anxiety, and frankly, it isn’t too hard to jump to this conclusion. For one, church requires us to be out in public with other people. For those with social anxiety, the interaction with others and having to be seen might be intensely uncomfortable. Class participation and discussion can cause further stress and worry—will we say the right thing, give the correct answer, and not offend or be offended?
Avoiding church won't help your anxiety.
For those with scrupulosity (a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that centers around being moral or religious “enough” and often creates the fear that we have sinned or not repented properly) church can be torture. We hear talks or lessons telling us to do more, be more, and endure to the end. But when our brain is fighting against us, telling us that we are not ever going to be able to be righteous or good enough, hearing these messages from the pulpit further exacerbates the problem, reinforcing the whispers of our mental illness.
The problem is that mental health and spiritual health can feel so similar that sometimes we interchange them, thinking one equals the other. When we feel like it is easier to avoid church than deal with the potential panic attacks, feelings of unworthiness, and anxiety that comes with social interactions, we feel like we are faltering in our righteousness. We think, “If we don’t want to go to church, what does that mean about my spirituality?”
In fact, our feelings of wanting to avoid church have likely nothing to do with our spirituality. It is our mental health that wants to protect itself. Again, it is natural for us to avoid things that trigger our anxiety. However, that doesn’t mean that we should give into those feelings. Cognitive behavior therapy teaches that, in order to manage anxiety, we need to do the things that make us feel uncomfortable in order to see that not only can we handle the situation but that the outcome we are expecting might not be as terrible as we imagine.
Our brain is convinced that avoiding things like church will help us avoid anxiety. It tells us that avoidance is the answer. It says, “If you skip church, you won’t feel that social anxiety. You won’t be reminded of all the things you should be doing. If you ignore the things that trigger your panic, you won’t have those awful feelings.”
But the problem is that mental illness lies to us. It is true that going to church and doing the things that make us feel anxious are not going to be easy. We are going to be really uncomfortable. Our anxiety might spike. We might feel like we cannot possibly do it. We might need to take some breaks and go take a walk outside or stay in the bathroom until we can go back into sacrament meeting. But we need to keep going if and when we can. We have to remember that avoidance will not make managing anxiety any easier.
Spiritual remedies won’t cure mental illness, but they will help.
The truth is, mental illnesses do not usually have a spiritual answer, nor is managing them any easier when they are pushed aside and ignored. Just like we wouldn’t expect a blessing or counsel from the bishop to heal a broken leg, managing our mental illness won’t become easier with purely spiritual remedies.
Of course, the Lord wants to help us make it through our trials, regardless of how they originate or what they entail. In Mosiah 24:15, it states the Lord helped Alma and his people in their trials and “did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease.” We need to have faith that He can do the same for us. Just like they continued in their struggles rather than giving up completely, we need to keep going. We need to pray and read our scriptures to maintain that relationship with our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. However, we also have to be careful not to judge and belittle ourselves when we don’t feel the Spirit as readily as we once did. A common side effect of mental illness (and the medications you may take to help you with a mental illness) is a feeling of apathy or a distance from the Spirit. On the Mental Health page on lds.org, it states that “an inability to feel the Spirit, or a general feeling of apathy or numbness, is often a symptom of poor mental health.”
We can definitely maintain our spiritual habits in the midst of dealing with an anxiety disorder, but we shouldn’t expect those habits to necessarily have the same effects. We may not feel like we are doing as well as we did if we didn’t have anxiety. But this is to be expected. We are not doing anything wrong! If we had the flu and tried to run a mile while still sick, we wouldn’t expect ourselves to maintain our normal pace and feel good after the run. We need to treat our mental health with as much compassion and understanding as we do our physical health.
You need to seek extra help if needed.
That being said, we shouldn’t give into the compulsions or feelings that the anxiety feeds us. We have to be aware of the tricks and lies that anxiety and mental illness tell us and understand the proper way to handle them. This is where professional help might come into play. We cannot be ashamed to seek and use professional assistance when it comes to mental illness. The Lord has provided these doctors to help us maintain our health. There are some trials that we cannot pray away. We can find help and hope through therapy and medication, and we should not be scared or ashamed to do so.
The Lord wants us to be happy. 2 Nephi 2:25 states that we exist that we “might have joy.” Christ wants us to participate in His church. He wants us to serve and find compassion and community. He knows that is not always easy for all of us to do these things all of the time. In fact, the answer to anxiety is often counterintuitive. We have to trust our doctors and the knowledge that we have been given in our modern day and age. We have to realize that avoidance is not a long-term solution. We need to trust that, as long as we take the necessary steps and get the proper care, we will be able to manage our anxiety.
In facing our fears, we can maintain our spiritual health in addition to our mental and physical health. The Lord is rooting for us, not just when we have our highs but also—and maybe even more so—in our lows. He loves us, and He wants us to find peace not just in eternity but now. And with His help, you can.
Mental illness is not a sin. Getting help shows courage, not weakness. These are just a couple of the messages Kari Ferguson has shared on her popular blog. After years of suffering herself, she's teaching others to combat the stigmas surrounding mental illness, invite an open gospel dialogue, and keep fighting. Learn how to help yourself and those you love return to faith, service, and advocacy in this much-needed book, The OCD Mormon.