Latter-day Saint Life

Latter-day Saint Psychologist: What Simone Biles and King Benjamin taught about coping with mental health issues

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The 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games were strange to begin with. They were delayed by a full year due to COVID-19. Even weeks before the event began, case counts surged in Japan, leading to speculation of another delay. As the games proceeded, athletes performed to largely empty stadiums. The families and friends of most athletes were often a hemisphere away, cheering from home. Then something happened that caused an international stir.

USA Olympian Simone Biles was the prohibitive favorite to win several gold medals in gymnastics, including the women’s all-around competition. Coming from five medals in the 2016 Olympics and being one of the most decorated female gymnasts of all time, all eyes were on her to bring home the gold once again. After several days of competition, in the middle of the team final, Simone made a startling announcement: she would withdraw from the team competition and the individual all-around final, eliminating her chance at the all-around gold and jeopardizing her team’s potential championship run. She cited mental health stressors, in addition to a condition called “the twisties,” for her decision. Social media ignited with polarized reactions. Some lauded her courage to take needed time and care for herself. Others derided her for “abandoning” her team and cracking under pressure. What’s the bottom line? Well, in most cases the view from the cheap seats is about as good as what you paid for it. Only Simone was truly fit to judge her mental, emotional, and physical abilities at that time. Yet her decision raises some interesting points regarding coping and knowing our limits.

The Spiritual “Twisties”

As part of her decision to withdraw from certain areas of competition, Simone mentioned having “the twisties.” This is a condition where the gymnast loses a sense of kinesthetic awareness while flying through the air. Most advanced gymnastic routines involve intense flipping and turning in the air, yet within a matter of milliseconds the gymnast needs to be aware of her relationship to the ground and how to land safely. After years of practice, gymnasts usually develop a second sense, so their body and mind seem to automatically know how to land. When they experience the twisties, they lose this sense of awareness. Without this stability, throwing their body high in the air becomes a daunting prospect. The risk of injury or death can increase dramatically if the gymnast is not able to land safely. This can trigger anxiety and fear.

I think some might have a similar experience, not in the gymnastic sense, but in the spiritual sense. Do you ever feel confused or doubtful regarding truths you once knew? When life circumstances change, do you ever feel like the once-clear path forward is now a maze of forks in the road? Such times can inspire feelings of anxiety, depression, and perplexity. It can be hard to press forward under these circumstances. Paul taught the Ephesians that we need to be grounded spiritually in order to avoid being “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). While the righteous will inevitably face adversity as part of their spiritual development, they are also promised stability as they look to the Savior and strive to keep their covenants. “And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall” (Helaman 5:12; emphasis added).

So, what do we do when the hail and storms come? When coping strategies run thin and mental health stressors increase? Helaman’s promise states the obedient will not be “dragged down to the gulf of misery and endless wo” but he does not promise there won’t be struggle and difficulty as we strive to remain solidly grounded on the rock of our Redeemer. We have been given moral agency to choose for ourselves, and to bring to pass much righteousness (see D&C 58:27–28), so much of this process is our responsibility to manage. How then do we cope during times of difficulty?

Know Your Limits

In his final days, King Benjamin gave a remarkable address to the Nephite people. He taught them about the advent of Jesus Christ and the importance of taking His name upon us. He emphasized the need to be kind and charitable to others, encouraging his people to be generous with their substance towards those who have less. Then, as if anticipating the potential for zealous followers to be overgenerous or perhaps to misunderstand his counsel, he stated, “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order” (Mosiah 4:27; emphasis added).

“It is not requisite that a man run faster than he has strength.” That seems simple enough. Yet in practice, it can be more complicated. Determining your relative level of strength takes insight and practice. It involves an individual, daily decision in concert with heavenly inspiration. Do you sign up for every service project, or do you pass the clipboard along at times? Do you attend every ward activity or take a break on occasion? I don’t have the answer. The point is, such answers are for you, and for you alone. They will come through the power of the Holy Ghost as you diligently seek such direction. President Nelson has literally pleaded with Church members to increase our ability to receive revelation. We need that connection with heaven to know our limits. There will be days when your pace in the race will be slow, limited by your available strength. Other days you’ll be stronger and able to do more. Just like no mortal could get inside the head of Simone Biles and truly know what she was experiencing, no mortal can fully understand your circumstance. But the Savior knows, and He will instruct you on when it is time for a needed break.

Persist in Faith

Now consider the seemingly opposite counsel in the aforementioned scripture: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order” (Mosiah 4:27; emphasis added). One may say, Wait, I thought you just told me it was OK to take a break? Now you’re saying I need to be diligent and win the prize? Like I need to keep going? Yes, I believe that is exactly what King Benjamin taught. It is a delicate balance that can vary from day to day. I think one could reframe the king’s words to read, “No, you don’t have to run faster than you are able. But you should run as fast as you are able; give your best effort every day.”

In a world of black-and-white thinking, it can be easy to miss the mark. Sometimes we go too fast and burn out; other times we move too slowly and don’t progress. Again, we are back to the need for constant communication with and revelation from the Holy Ghost. What is your daily best effort? Only you and God know that. Our loving Father in Heaven will encourage you to move forward, pushing your limits, with His exceptional and perfect timing. It is critical that we follow His direction and trust His judgment. There will be days when you think you can’t go on, but He will ask you to take one more step. Take that step. He will never ask more of you than you are truly able to give, although sometimes that effort may be the equivalent of our last two mites (see Luke 21:1–4). You can trust your Father in Heaven and His estimation of your abilities. Whereas the counsel of others, even your own best judgment, may sometimes be incorrect, His counsel will never miss the mark.

You can do this. Recognize your limitations and strive to increase your capacities. Tune your mind and heart to hear Him. Strengthen your resolve to follow His counsel, even when conventional wisdom may dictate a different path. Trust Him. The same Advocate who calms the tempests, opens impassable seas, and turns water into wine will guide you through your difficulties to ultimately moor in safe harbors.

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