Latter-day Saints are promised blessings such as peace, strength, and increased spirituality when we attend church regularly and go to the temple often. But for those who live with some form of mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, it is not always easy or comfortable to attend church and go to the temple and feel the effects of those promised blessings.
Since we are physical, emotional, and spiritual beings, mental health can affect our ability to feel the Spirit and experience peace. This article will suggest four tips for managing anxiety at church or in the temple based on talks from general authorities and insights from those who have experienced anxiety in church settings. It is important to acknowledge that each person has a distinct genetic makeup and brain chemistry and comes from a unique situation and personal background. Consequently, strategies that may help some people manage anxiety might not be helpful for your situation. It is also important to remember that there is no “fast-fix” or “one-size-fits-all” approach to this complex issue. Please seek professional help if your mental health is seriously impacting your quality of daily life or making it difficult to function. (You might consider finding a counselor with the help of your bishop or through LDS Family Services.) As Elder Holland eloquently and sensitively stated:
“If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” October 2013).
Here are four strategies to help manage anxiety at church or in the temple:
1. Practice mindfulness
“Seek pleasure in small and simple things by noticing the texture of a flower, the flavor of a favorite food, or the beauty of a birdsong. Practice mindfulness or another relaxation technique. Allow your thoughts to turn to God as you give your mind and body time to rejuvenate” (lds.org/mentalhealth).
It can be difficult to enjoy church or the temple when you are feeling anxious. Since anxiety often involves thoughts about the past or the future, it can be helpful to find a way to return to the present moment.
The concept of mindfulness can be a useful tool in shifting your focus. Mind.org defines mindfulness as:
“making a special effort to give your full attention to what is happening in the present moment—to what's happening in your body, your mind or your surroundings, for example—in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness describes a way of approaching our thoughts and feelings so that we become more aware of them and react differently to them.”
If you are feeling anxious at church or in the temple, find something concrete to focus on using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, sound) that will bring you back into the moment. For example, it can be helpful to focus on listening to a speaker’s words during a talk or lesson, noticing colors in the environment, feeling your feet grounded to the floor, or focusing on the hymns or prelude music. These strategies, though seemingly simple, can help you return to the moment and divert anxiety-provoking thoughts.
2. Focus on relationships and service
“Social connections with family, friends, and others in your community can increase your happiness and physical health and may reduce the incidence of mental health challenges. Remember, it’s the quality of the relationships you have that’s important, not the number” (lds.org/mentalhealth).
When you are struggling or in pain, it can be immensely difficult to turn outward. Mental illnesses can make it especially challenging to reach out to others; however, many people can benefit from your love and service. As Elder Renlund quoted from a story in his April 2015 address at general conference: “[The] church is like a big hospital, and we are all sick in our own way. We come to church to be helped.”
A line from the hymn, “Lord, I Would Follow Thee,” reminds us that others may be quietly struggling with trials that we don’t know about: “In the quiet heart is hidden, sorrows that the eye can’t see.” In April 2004, President Eyring shared a similar idea:
“When I was a young man, I served as counselor to a wise district president in the Church. He tried to teach me. One of the things I remember wondering about was this advice he gave: ‘When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time’” (Henry B. Eyring, “In the Strength of the Lord,” April 2004).
When we focus on looking for someone who may need a friend at church or helping others to feel more comfortable at church, we can be blessed to feel greater peace ourselves. This is much easier said than done and can be uncomfortable (especially if you’re dealing with social anxiety), but approaching church or temple attendance with the mindset of “Whom does the Lord need me to serve?” (or even adopting Paul’s question from Acts 9:6—“Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”) can be a helpful way to move through anxiety.
Going to the temple provides many opportunities to perform vicarious ordinances for ancestors and others who have passed away. President Nelson taught, “By doing for others what they cannot do for themselves, we emulate the pattern of the Savior, who wrought the Atonement to bless the lives of other people.” If there are ordinances you don’t feel as comfortable with, remember to be patient with yourself. Aleah Ingram from LDSDaily.com suggests:
“Focus on the ordinances you feel most able to do. Don’t push yourself out of anyone’s expectations. When you feel ready, try to do a temple ordinance that may be harder for you. Think of ways you can make the situation more comfortable for you. Pray for the strength and ability to fulfill your righteous motivations.”
As you focus on others, it is also important to care for yourself and your needs. Remember to be kind to yourself and don’t metaphorically “run faster than you have strength” (see Mosiah 4:27). Check out this article for more ideas about finding a balance between selflessness and self-care.
3. Identify moments when you have felt the Spirit in the past
“God has not forsaken you. Even Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane, felt the Spirit withdraw for a time, but then God sent an angel to support Him . . . . Remember what you knew. Find an old journal entry that describes a spiritual experience or talk to someone you trust” (lds.org/mentalhealth).
Since it can be difficult to feel the Spirit at church or in the temple if you are struggling with feelings of anxiety, it is important to remember times when you have felt the Spirit in the past.
Everyone feels the Spirit differently. Whether it’s reading scriptures, listening to testimonies, singing the hymns, or sitting quietly and pondering, seek to find and recognize moments at church or in the temple when it is easier for you to feel the Spirit.
If you are struggling to feel the Spirit at all, hold to moments when you have felt God’s love in the past. Elder Holland has taught:
“Above all, never lose faith in your Father in Heaven, who loves you more than you can comprehend. As President Monson said . . . : ‘That love never changes. . . It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve [it]. It is simply always there.’ Never, ever doubt that, and never harden your heart. Faithfully pursue the time-tested devotional practices that bring the Spirit of the Lord into your life. Seek the counsel of those who hold keys for your spiritual well-being. Ask for and cherish priesthood blessings. Take the sacrament every week, and hold fast to the perfecting promises of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Believe in miracles. I have seen so many of them come when every other indication would say that hope was lost. Hope is never lost. If those miracles do not come soon or fully or seemingly at all, remember the Savior’s own anguished example: if the bitter cup does not pass, drink it and be strong, trusting in happier days ahead” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” October 2013).
4. Remember that you don’t have to be perfect to be worthy
“While the causes of mental illness are complex and debated among professionals, we know that mental illness is not a result of sin or weakness of character” (lds.org/mentalhealth).
Mental illnesses can make it difficult to feel like you are good enough to be in the temple or at church. On her blog The OCD Mormon, Kari Ferguson writes:
“For me, the OCD says, ‘You can be perfect. You can do everything. Your best is perfection. Obviously, or else you wouldn’t be asked to be perfect or as close as you can get. You can get closer. Try harder. You’re not doing quite good enough.’
Some religious people might say that’s not the OCD, that’s Satan. And I don’t know, they have similar voices sometimes and maybe their messages overlap. But the fact remains that I feel this way and it’s up to me to decide if I let it control my actions or if I stand up to it and take a risk. By taking a risk, I mean, going to the temple even if I feel that maybe I’m not as worthy as I could be. Taking the Sacrament even if I haven’t perfectly repented of something. Praying even if I don’t think I am 100% in tune with the Spirit.
Sometimes it is incredibly hard. Sometimes I feel like I’m a sinner and am faking it in front of everyone. But I’m not sure if that’s me or the OCD talking. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. . . . It’s worthiness, not perfection—even if that’s hard to remember and understand sometimes.”
Remember that God loves us and wants to bless us, even though we are imperfect and often make mistakes. President Nelson taught, “We need not be dismayed if our earnest efforts toward perfection now seem so arduous and endless. Perfection is pending. It can come in full only after the Resurrection and only through the Lord. It awaits all who love him and keep his commandments.”
Although attending church and the temple with mental health issues is not always easy or comfortable, it can be worth the sacrifice. As you seek to manage church and temple anxiety, ask for help from family members, close friends, bishopric, home and visiting teachers, and most importantly, from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. In the March 2017 Ensign, Lyle J. Burrup of LDS Family Services wrote:
“Anxiety disorders may be a lifelong struggle for some, but with training in how to change distorted perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, they can become manageable. We can all benefit from understanding anxiety better. If you are struggling, you can find comfort through the gospel of Jesus Christ, assisted by professional counseling if needed. And in His Church you can find support and acceptance as we all strive together to become one and strengthen one another.” (Lyle J. Burrup, “Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders,”Ensign).