Latter-day Saint Life

Dr. David T. Morgan: 3 things Jacob in the Book of Mormon can teach us about managing anxiety


The word “anxiety” is mentioned only eight times in the Book of Mormon. Four of these times it is used by the prophet Jacob. At one point he seems to indicate he has excessive anxiety, stating, “Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you; if I do not, by any means, get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit, and stumble because of my over anxiety for you” (Jacob 4:18; emphasis added). Looking at his life, it makes sense that he probably experienced anxiety. He was born in the wilderness, never knowing the comforts and constancy of Jerusalem. He witnessed ongoing fights between his older brothers, ranging from small skirmishes to literal attempted homicides. External instability colored his life, which surely affected his emotional development. And yet, Jacob seems to have learned skills and strategies to cope with his circumstances and obtain internal stability.

The conclusion of Jacob chapter six looks like it was meant to be the end of his record, when he states, “Finally, I bid you farewell, until I shall meet you before the pleasing bar of God, which bar striketh the wicked with awful dread and fear. Amen” (Jacob 6:13). Then he has his remarkable confrontation with the detractor Sherem and writes chapter seven to document this event and conclude his record. We don’t know how much time passed between his initial writings and chapter seven, but there seems to have been a change in Jacob. In chapter four, he is worried that he might be “shaken” from his firmness in the Spirit due to his anxiety (see Jacob 4:18). But in chapter seven, as he prepares to confront Sherem, Jacob says, “And he [Sherem] had hope to shake me from the faith, notwithstanding the many revelations and the many things which I had seen concerning these things; for I truly had seen angels, and they had ministered unto me. And also, I had heard the voice of the Lord speaking unto me in very word, from time to time; wherefore, I could not be shaken” (Jacob 7:5; emphasis added). How did anxious Jacob go from “over anxiety” and fears of being shaken from his faith to a firm confidence that he could not be shaken? His writings reflect certain practices which, if employed consistently over time, can help anyone decrease anxiety and increase peace.

Take Responsibility

“And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day” (Jacob 1:19).

When I was a full-time missionary serving in Mexico, one of my companions and I would recite this scripture each morning. We knew we had a work to do and took it seriously. It didn’t matter if people answered the door or accepted our invitations to teach them. What mattered is that we kept knocking and kept inviting. Each night, after a responsible day’s work, we could rest knowing we had done our part, regardless of the outcome. Jacob seemed to understand this as well. As the spiritual leader of his people, he was not accountable for their individual sins. But he was accountable to do his part, as best he could, or he would be guilty of the dereliction of his duty. Jacob appears to have focused his efforts on what he could do and did not spend time on things that were outside of his control.

Those who suffer from anxiety often spend much time trying to control things they can’t. They worry about changing the behavior of others, changing external circumstances, or modifying other issues that are outside of their control. They do this for the purpose of reducing anxiety, yet the typical result is even more anxiety when their efforts almost always yield little effect.

A common adage, known as the Serenity Prayer, reads as follows: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This is excellent advice for those who suffer from anxiety. Every day, we have a fixed amount of emotional energy to confront our challenges. Learning to apply that energy where it is most effective is an important skill in emotional management. Sometimes we do things backward, trying to change things we cannot and neglecting those things we can change. Anxiety management begins with each of us taking responsibility for our own situation. We can analyze our circumstances, determine what changes we need to make in ourselves to decrease fear, and start applying our efforts there.

Do Difficult Things

“But, notwithstanding the greatness of the task, I must do according to the strict commands of God, and tell you concerning your wickedness and abominations, in the presence of the pure in heart, and the broken heart, and under the glance of the piercing eye of the Almighty God” (Jacob 2:10; emphasis added).

Jacob’s people had started to become more selfish, neglecting the poor so they could enrich their own lifestyles. But even worse, many of the men had become immoral, forsaking their covenants and committing adultery and fornication. Jacob knew this was happening and knew he had an obligation to address this with the saints. But he didn’t want to do it. If you review the initial verses in Jacob chapter two, you’ll see how he felt compelled to have this difficult discussion but found it very difficult and onerous. He describes being “weighed down with anxiety” and his soul being “grieved” (see Jacob 2:3,6). However, as noted in verse ten, he proceeds with the personally challenging task because he knows it is the right thing to do. We don’t know the outcome, but I’m confident that many in that audience had their hearts softened and sought repentance because of Jacob’s willingness to do the difficult thing.

Anxiety thrives on fear of the unknown. Difficult tasks often beg the fear-laden questions of “What if I fail? What if I break down? What if other people see that I’m not capable?” Such trepidations can lead to inaction, increasing anxiety, and decreasing progress. Effective anxiety management demands that we do things that we find difficult. What keeps many people stuck is they feel they must confront all their anxieties at once, which would be overwhelming for anyone. The good news is that we don’t have to jump in with both feet into deep water at first. We can start small.

A friend of mine, who suffers from anxiety, made progress as he applied what he called “stretch goals.” This involved doing something mildly difficult and anxiety-provoking and then stretching himself to increase the difficulty on a regular basis. For example, if he was afraid of talking to others, he’d resolve to say hello to just one person the next day. Once accomplished, he would increase or “stretch” that goal to say hello to two people in a day. The progress continued, at his pace, to the point where he had less anxiety when talking with others. He experienced no profound changes or incredible insights; his transformation was slow and consistent. That’s completely acceptable. Small and steady progression is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s the norm and doctrinally sound (see Alma 37:6-7). Anxiety management improves as we commit to doing something difficult every day.

Accept Your Weakness

“Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things” (Jacob 4:7).

Jacob knew that he was weak. He recognized his weakness and relied on the Lord’s power for strength beyond his own abilities. Jacob knew what Moroni learned much later when he was compiling the Nephite record. Moroni feared that future generations would mock his writing, as he felt he was not as good a writer as he was a speaker. The Lord reassured him, and then taught him something very important regarding weakness. “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27; emphasis added). God gives us weakness so we will be humble. As we turn to Him and do our part, He will help us grow spiritually so that our weakness becomes strength.

I have worked professionally with many people who suffer from anxiety. Sometimes their symptoms can be extreme. But even worse than their anxiety symptoms, many are anxious about the fact they have anxiety. They feel like something is wrong with them or they have not been valiant like others. They have anxiety about a certain situation, then think “I shouldn’t be anxious about this,” which adds another layer of worry on top of existing fears. For once, I’d like to formally invite all anxiety sufferers to quit worrying about the fact they have anxiety. Let go of that additional burden. Free up the emotional strength to deal with the already underlying anxiety issues.

What if having anxiety is simply part of the plan for some of us? What if anxiety is part of the weakness that all humans experience? What if anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of, but simply a stressor that can be reduced and even eliminated through personal effort and professional intervention? Adopting such a mindset can change the way we view ourselves, and the way we view our liabilities and introduce hope that may have been long forgotten. It’s okay to have weaknesses. It’s okay to have anxiety. And it’s our obligation to do our part to improve. Let’s be responsible. Let’s do difficult things. Let’s accept that we are all weak, anxiety, or no anxiety. Let’s figure out the way forward, and get moving.

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