Latter-day Saint Life

Latter-day Saint psychologist: Tips to reduce anxiety—3 things to consider


Not long ago, I was at Walt Disney World with family. We were in line for one of the more intense attractions at the resort—the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. This attraction is housed in a very creepy-looking hotel, full of ghostly sights and sounds. Following an elaborate preshow, you enter a modified elevator where you are strapped into your seat. At some point, in the pitch black and without warning, the elevator car plunges more than 10 stories to the ground, then accelerates up and down the shaft in a frantic motion. The experience is incredible, potentially terrifying, and one of my favorites. 

After we rode it, we exited and were walking next to a family who had been on the attraction as well. They had two younger children; the boy was sobbing. Evidently, it was his first time on the ride and he truly didn’t know what to expect. The poor thing was frightened to the core and inconsolable. Hopefully he felt better in the coming days, but he was sincerely shocked at the time. I reflected and asked myself how his emotional reaction to the attraction could have been so different than mine. We were both in the same car on the ride and experienced the exact same input, yet I was exhilarated, and he was horrified. This is because emotion is a product of the way we think and how we interpret our environment.

This phenomenon is not limited to theme park rides, however. Chronic anxiety is becoming a more and more pervasive emotion, and while there are many causes for the increase in anxiety, one of the primary culprits is our thoughts. The most common therapeutic approaches to dealing with anxiety involve analyzing thought patterns and trying to change them. Developing emotional discipline begins with developing discipline of thought—it is very difficult to manage anxiety if we let our thoughts run amok or continue to feed our brains with inaccurate or anxiety-inducing stimuli. However, we often need help to recognize our thoughts and change them. In that spirit of helpfulness, here are three strategies to reflect upon, or consider, that can be a good starting point to help reduce feelings of anxiety.

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“Consider how great things He hath done for you.”

1 Samuel 12:24 states, “Only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you.”

A common symptom of anxiety is what some people call “future tripping,” or when one starts to worry excessively about the future, imagining catastrophic outcomes with little supporting data. For example, one might have a tense interaction with their boss. That event could trigger an avalanche of anxious thoughts, such as “My boss probably doesn’t like me. I’m sure I’ll get fired soon. I’ll never be able to find another job in today’s economy. We’ll lose the house and all we have. Our livelihood and lives could be in peril.” In just a matter of seconds, this individual has gone from the good feelings of being securely employed to the petrifying feelings associated with unemployment and chronic homelessness.

Indeed, the future is unknown, including the possible outcomes of our individual lives. But when there is limited peace provided by an uncertain future, we can use our knowledge of the past to gain comfort. 

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Many years ago, as a doctoral student, I found myself “future tripping” in a professor’s office. I was very worried about potential outcomes and was pessimistic about positive results. My wise professor put his hand on my knee, looked me in the eye, and said, “David, the Lord has cradled you in his hand throughout your life. What makes you think He is going to drop you now?” His counsel was not only calming but prophetic, because the years since that time have been successful and my worries were unfounded. His advice was to think about all the great things the Lord had done for me in the past. Truly there were many to consider. My Father in Heaven had always taken care of me because He loves me. There was no reason to believe He would suddenly shift course and cease His protective influence. The same is true in your life. Without exception, each of you can also look back at your past and identify abundant blessings and mercies extended to you from heaven in unique ways. The same loving Heavenly Father who preserved and comforted you in the past will do so in the future. As we consider our past blessings, we will find greater evidence to believe in provident days to come. Such evidence can help dispel feelings of anxiety.

“Consider your ways.”

The Old Testament prophet Haggai taught, “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; consider your ways” (Haggai 1:7). The story of our lives unfolds daily. We are meant to be actors in our story, not passive observers. The marvelous gift of moral agency is not simply the ability to choose, it is the obligation to choose deliberately and wisely. Sometimes, when overwhelmed, we feel like we are only observers, tossed around by the winds that disrupt our progression. But we always have the power to act. God granted us that power in the preexistence. Despite Lucifer’s bold attempts, he was unable to eliminate agency. Agency is key to our mortal progression, which is why it is so critical to use it sensibly. Paul explained to the Galatians, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). This means that what you plant will surely grow. If you plant peace, you will reap peace. If you plant fear, you will reap fear. While the day-to-day manifestations of this principle can be complex, the core teaching is really just that simple.

The year 2020 has brought an overwhelming number of potential fears: COVID-19, economic devastation, racial unrest, divisive political campaigns, and dozens of others that are felt in individual hearts around the world. If you want to be anxious right now, you’ve got plenty of fodder. If you fill your mind every day with thoughts of gloom, horrible outcomes, panic, and alarm, I can tell you right now how you are going to feel tonight and tomorrow. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” That principle is true in the spiritual sense, and I’ve also seen it play out constantly in the professional practice of psychology. Consider your ways; what are you feeding your mind and heart on a daily basis? If you spend five minutes in the scriptures and five hours watching a cable news outlet, your potential for peace could be compromised. I’m not suggesting you need to spend five hours in the scriptures either, but appropriate balance is critical. As the world rages, the Savior whispers: “Therefore, fear not, little flock; do good…look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not….be faithful, keep my commandments, and ye shall inherit the kingdom of heaven” (D&C 6:34–37). As we consider our ways, filling up daily on words of peace and comfort, we will find greater relief from anxiety and fear.

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"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow."

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior counseled His apostles with a beautiful analogy: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, o ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28–30). Essentially, He was telling them to not worry, because if God would give such careful care and attention to a flower, how much more would He bless them, His beloved children?

My wife and I live in Washington state and are currently in the middle of a late autumn. Just two weeks ago the trees went from green to dazzling colors. There are reds, yellows, and oranges that are truly breathtaking. As I was taking a walk and enjoying the visual feast, a thought came to mind. These leaves are dying, I realized. In death they have such brilliance. I reflected on the kindness of Father in Heaven, and how much attention He gave to every aspect of creation. He probably knew we’d enjoy the fall colors. I suppose he could have made all the leaves turn grey when they died. Instead, He made them to burst with pigment, giving us a little smile as the year grows colder and darker.

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If Heavenly Father makes flowers beautiful and dying leaves gorgeous, why won’t He help and bless us? So much of anxiety is based on fears that things are not going to work out well. If we truly believe that our Father in Heaven is at the helm, that He is all-powerful, and that He loves us so much that He sacrificed His Only Begotten Son on our behalf, then fearing the future is simply irrational. That doesn’t mean we are not rational if we have anxiety; anxiety is a natural emotion and common to the natural man. However, just because it comes to us naturally, that doesn’t mean it should stay. We are here to change our natures. We are here to become different; to become the sort of people who look forward with faith instead of fear. How is this possible? Because we have a Heavenly Father who considers the lilies. He considers us every day. He has prepared the way before us and will be there to assist in our journey. With Him by our side, there is nothing that can happen that will be truly catastrophic or calamitous. He who notes the falling sparrow will always be there for us, no matter what (see Matthew 10:29–31). Considering the love your Father in Heaven has for you can help calm anxious hearts.

God bless you as you consider these truths. Consider carefully the information you put into your mind and heart. Consider the great things God has already done for you. Consider the great things He will yet do for you. As you do these things, may you find the comfort promised by the Almighty Redeemer: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).

Lead image from Shutterstock

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