Latter-day Saint Psychologist: Anxiety Lessons Learned During COVID-19


True confession: I have always been somewhat anxious. But I think this liability has been a blessing to me inasmuch as it has encouraged me to be more diligent in my efforts to develop faith in the Lord. Even so, I have developed many physical strategies to manage anxiety symptoms. One of these strategies has been to become a planner and organizer. I love routine. I like being able to look at my long-term calendar and see what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, and next month. Doing this helps decrease my anxiety symptoms and provides a little relief.

Cue March 2020. You may remember this month as the one when the wheels seemed to come off the entire world. I live in Washington state, which was one of the first US regions to be hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. We stopped going to church as all meetings were canceled. My daughter’s school musical was shuttered. My sister-in-law had her cosmetology business stopped in its tracks. One by one, the activities and plans on my calendar vanished. Even right now, I sit here at home when I would have otherwise been traveling for work today. With routine gone, my calendar blank, and my schedule seriously disrupted, you can imagine what has happened to my anxiety symptoms.

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So, what is to be done? I have had ample time to reflect on the overall situation and try to make sense of these very strange times. As I have done so, I have found some important lessons that have helped me try to move forward in faith. These lessons have given me a measure of peace—hopefully they will do the same for you.

Focusing on “Daily” Bread

Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). I’ve always interpreted this scripture as an injunction to ask God for what we need. But I think there are more subtle and significant lessons in this simple verse. Pay attention to the element of timing. It does not say “give us this day our weekly bread” or “give us this day our monthly bread.” To put it in more familiar terms, the scripture essentially says, “Please give us today what we need to get through today.” It’s as if the Lord is saying, “When you turn to me and ask, I’m happy to provide support for today’s challenges. I won’t necessarily give you much more than that, but if you come back tomorrow, I’ll give what’s needful for that day, too.”

Sometimes I want weekly, monthly, or yearly bread as I worry about the future. I want the Lord to say, “Okay, here’s your yearly bread. Here’s how everything will work out for 2020.” But He doesn’t give me yearly bread. I’m not sure He’ll give it to you either and for a good reason.

This crazy pandemic has caused me take life a little more slowly, one step at a time. What’s going to happen tomorrow? I used to think I had a pretty good idea about that, but now I can say I honestly don’t know. If you had asked me two months ago what was going to happen in April 2020, I would have told you a lot of things. Ask me today what’s going to happen in June 2020 and I’ll just give a blank stare. Yet I’ve come to realize that even in times of stability, it doesn’t do much good to make excessive expectations of the future. The future is notoriously difficult to predict despite our chronic attempts to do so. As I’ve learned to trust the Lord to take care of me from day to day and tried to focus less on what I can’t control about the future and more on what I can do right now, I’ve found peace in trying to exist today, in the moment, without giving undue concern to what might happen next. Spending all our todays thinking about our tomorrows tends to result in a lot of missed opportunities for happiness. There is wisdom in “daily” bread. Tomorrow will never come until tomorrow, so let’s do the best we can to find happiness and peace in today.

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Recognizing the Lord’s Hand

Alma the Elder responded to the Lord’s call when he heard the words of Abinadi. At the risk of his own life, he fled King Noah’s court, organized the church in secret, and baptized believers. Their faith and obedience resulted in the Lord prospering their small society. Then, out of nowhere, they were invaded by ruthless Lamanites and apostate Nephites. They were subjected to cruel bondage and servitude, including death threats for praying vocally. When I read about their history, I sometimes think, “Really? This is what they got for being so obedient?” But Mormon helps us understand why such terrible things happened to such amazing people. Regarding their circumstance, Mormon wrote, “Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith…. For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob” (Mosiah 23:21–23).

Does anyone else feel like they are in a bit of “bondage” right now? My favorite Mexican restaurant is closed to dine-in service restrictions. I have to wear a mask when I go grocery shopping. I’ve spent so much time at home that I’ve developed relationships with individual pieces of furniture, and I might have a mullet by the time my hairdresser opens her doors again. Surely, I am not in as desperate a condition as Alma’s followers or even as some of my friends and neighbors who are battling this terrible virus firsthand, but times are certainly tough for everyone for different reasons.

Despite all this, personally, I am convinced that the Lord’s hand is in this process. Tens of thousands of missionaries have returned home prematurely. Temples are closed worldwide. General conference had fewer members in physical attendance than were there on the day the Church was organized in 1830. But I do not believe the Lord was surprised by this situation—rather He is using it as part of our growth process. Trials present opportunities for spiritual growth. There are times He calls us to pass through grief because there are better things on the other side, as was the case with Alma’s people. With a nod to the future, Mormon continues his discussion of Alma’s people and their circumstance: “And it came to pass that he did deliver them, and he did show forth his mighty power unto them, and great were their rejoicings” (Mosiah 23:24). God can deliver us from this as well, and our rejoicings will be as great as they have been in a long time. Temples will reopen, we’ll return to regular church worship, and missionaries will again flood the earth. This experience can help us gain critical perspective that will help during stressful times in the future. We can learn from this experience, decreasing anxiety and increasing faith and making us stronger and more diligent the next time a crisis affects us, either personally or globally.

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“All These Things . . . Shall Be for Thy Good”

At one point in his life, Joseph Smith languished in Liberty Jail for more than four months. His conditions were truly deplorable. After weeks and months of humble, sincere prayer for deliverance, there was none to be found. Joseph finally cried out, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:1) The Lord responded by telling Joseph that He hadn’t gone anywhere. He was perfectly aware of Joseph’s situation and would provide deliverance in time. He further noted that these experiences, as difficult as they were, would ultimately be a benefit to the prophet: “And above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7).

Similar to Joseph’s extended incarceration, I think most everyone feels like COVID-19 has been going on forever. I heard someone refer to what they called the “346th” day of March last month—that feels about right to me. This experience has been difficult for all affected by it. Yet how this situation will ultimately affect our future lives is yet to be determined. Consider Alma 62:41, but instead of thinking about the war between the Nephites and Lamanites, I want to liken the scripture to our current circumstance: “But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the [COVID-19 epidemic] many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the [COVID-19 epidemic]; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.” This pandemic will have a significant influence on us; there’s no doubting that. How it affects us is still a work in progress. Will we become humbler and more teachable? Will we learn faith lessons that will decrease anxiety and increase our connection to God? Or will we decide that having Sundays off is a pretty good deal and stop attending church even when we can gather again? We all have a choice in this matter. This bizarre experience has high potential to encourage positive change, but we have to choose to act. For me, I’ve committed to use this experience as a reference point to manage future anxiety. This crisis will resolve; I’m certain of that. The next time something crazy happens, I can reflect on my COVID-19 experience, remember how the Lord sustained me and those I love, and choose to have faith that He will do so again. How will you let this trial change you?  Decide now how you will let this trial affect your future spiritual direction.

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We will get through this. Remember the messages of peace and faith taught in April 2020 general conference. Reflect on the Lord’s message of comfort to Joseph Smith: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high” (D&C 121:7–8). Let the Savior’s promise of a better tomorrow and daily help give you calm and comfort today.

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