Latter-day Saint Life

Latter-day Saint psychologist: Turning stress from a liability to a benefit


The concept of inoculation against pathogens seems to have originated over a thousand years ago. People knew that the human body had a natural system to fight disease. They wondered if that system could be strengthened by intentional exposure to certain conditions—they were correct. One of the first of these was the smallpox inoculation. By injecting a small dose of a milder version of the virus into humans, the body’s immune system was able to develop more robust defenses against serious forms of the disease.

Through this process, diseases such as polio, measles, rubella, and mumps have almost been entirely eradicated. Put very simply, the body learns to defend itself against threats by experiencing such threats in the first place.

Our mental and emotional systems are no different.

We become stronger and more resilient as we experience challenges, learning strategies to defend against and defeat future threats.

Emotional stress is very common to the human condition. It appears it has been around since the very beginning. When Eve and Adam saw the brewing difficulties between Cain and Abel, I’m sure they were concerned. Abel’s murder had to be among the most stressful things his parents ever experienced. From generation to generation, mortals experience situations that tax their emotional capacities and try their faith. Despite how universal and oftentimes beneficial stress is, the world seems bent on eliminating it entirely—something practically impossible for most people. I’m not even sure it is beneficial.

Entire industries have been built on the concept of mindless distraction, where we are temporarily titillated and sidetracked, only to return to the same stressors as before. The relentless pursuit of a zero-stress state can fuel addiction and other harmful conditions.

While languishing in Liberty Jail, the prophet Joseph Smith had much time to consider his stressful situation. He was separated from his family and loved ones. The foundling church, which relied so much on his wisdom and support, suffered in his absence. His living conditions were miserable and a constant reminder of the injustice he experienced. As he poured out his heart to God, he received the following counsel. “And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; 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” (D&C 122:7; emphasis added).

This is a laundry list of terrible outcomes, all of which we are naturally inclined to avoid. But in His infinite wisdom, our Father in Heaven knows that we cannot improve without being tested and tried. Allowing His children to pass through valleys of shadow is part of the plan for our ultimate exaltation. To me, it seems that our spirits develop greater resilience just like our immune systems do. By going through difficult challenges, we increase our capacity to deal with similar challenges in the future.

Some may say, “I’ve heard that stress is not good for you.” That’s partially true. In my experience as a psychologist, it’s not the stress that is bad. It’s our ineffective coping with stress that can compromise us.

I know people who practice meditation and other grounding techniques. They seem so calm and are almost unflappable. It’s not that they don’t have stressful situations in their lives. They have simply learned to manage them so effectively that the stress does not affect them like it does others. Instead of avoiding the stress, they deal with it directly, using mental and physical strategies to calm their minds. In contrast to the “distraction industries” which facilitate ignoring the stressful event, practices such as meditation engage the stress, defuse it, and help the person move on. Other tools, such as the thinking strategies taught in cognitive-behavioral therapy, help us consider stressful situations differently. If we can change the way we think about things, we can almost always change the way we feel about those same things. Here are two suggestions to see stress in a different light.

Don't Stress about Being Stressed

Being stressed is uncomfortable. Learning to tolerate and manage stress is important. Getting stressed about the fact that we are stressed out is not helpful. Sometimes we get stuck in thoughts patterns such as, “I shouldn’t be stressed about this. I should be able to handle this more effectively.” These beliefs usually add extra stress to the burden we already carry. Yet that additional stress is unnecessary. Some days we have the emotional capacity to handle the difficult things that come our way. We can deal with them without significant stress. Other days, we will meet our emotional match. Problems mount that tax and even exceed our current capacity to deal with them, resulting in stressful feelings. That’s OK. Some days will be like that.

We were never expected to master every challenge at the first try or dispense every difficulty without initial failure. I’m reminded of the experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they were brought before King Nebuchadnezzar. Due to their public refusal to worship pagan gods, they were condemned to death. They told the king, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:17-18; emphasis added).

What if we approached stress with a similar attitude? When confronted with stressful times we could say, “I know I’m strong and have abilities to manage stress. I also know that the Lord will support me during these times and strengthen my capacities. With those resources, I can face most things that come to me. But if not, I won’t stress any further and will accept that there are some things that will take more time and additional resources to defeat.” It’s okay to be stressed. It’s OK to fail. Once we accept those truths and resolve to try our best, regardless of the outcome, we can experience greater peace.

Balance Stress with Gratitude

One of my favorite passages of scripture is the Psalm of Nephi, found in 2 Nephi chapter four. It gives a rare glimpse into Nephi’s vulnerabilities. His father had just died, he had assumed the spiritual leadership of his extended family, and his brothers’ seditious plans were increasing by the day. That sounds like a very stressful situation. Likely feeling overwhelmed and completely inadequate, Nephi exclaims, “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Nephi 4:17-19). He appears to focus on his liabilities, bringing more stress and heartache to his situation. Yet if we continue reading, we find Nephi changes his attention from his liabilities to his blessings.

He speaks of how he has been supported by God, divinely protected against his enemies, given answers to prayers, and filled with heavenly love. This refocus changes the tenor of his writing, reversing course entirely from one of stress and despair to one of hope and happiness. Bear in mind that his immediate situation had not changed. His father was still dead, he still had the burden of being the new prophet, and his brothers were still murderers in their hearts. Yet through the power of gratitude, he was able to change his emotional reaction to his circumstance. Stressful situations are common and unending, impossible to completely avoid. When they come, if we can focus on our blessings in addition to acknowledging our challenges, it can provide needed balance and a more accurate representation of our circumstance.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges. This is not a gratitude of the lips but of the soul. It is a gratitude that heals the heart and expands the mind.”

I have every confidence that, through our own actions and the Savior’s enabling power, we can manage every stress and conquer every obstacle. Engagement, not avoidance, is critical in this process. The more we endure the more we prevail, and the stronger we become to face new challenges. And not only do we become stronger, but we also become more refined and purified to fulfill Mormon’s invitation: “That ye may become the [children] of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen” (Moroni 7:48).

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