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I have felt anxious about tests, job interviews, parent/teacher conferences, going to the bedside of very ill family, driving in bad weather, even going to lunch with friends. This event-related, temporary anxiety is beneficial. It has helped me focus on the task at hand, avoid dangerous situations, recognize others’ needs, prepare well for presentations, ask for help, and be motivated to act in ways that minimize unpleasant consequences.
Anxiousness turns into a medical problem, “when it extends beyond logical worry in an unreasonable, unwarranted, uncontrollable way. Situations that should elicit no negative emotions all of a sudden seem life-threatening or crushingly embarrassing.” Anxiousness becomes a mental disorder if it hangs around after the test, interview, conference, visit, weather, or lunch is over. Like winter snowstorms, anxiety can accumulate as snowflakes, piling anxiety upon anxiety until there is no place to shovel it away to clear an emotional pathway.
Anxiety is increasing. Medical News Today, September 2018, reported: “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting around 40 million adults — almost 1 in 5 people…. Compared to the results of a similar poll a year earlier, 39 percent of adults in the U.S. are more anxious today than they were a year ago…. Women reported a greater increase in overall anxiety in all dimensions than men.”
Social anxiety is likewise on the rise. “Social anxiety is… a mental illness that can disrupt the regular flow of life, making everyday tasks and responsibilities seem impossible…. People with social anxiety often suffer in silence, their behavioral and emotional symptoms not apparent to friends and family. As the number of young adults with social anxiety continues to increase, mental health experts are trying to help dispel the notion that social anxiety is as simple to overcome as shyness. Social anxiety disorder can develop at any age, but symptoms of the mental illness usually begin in adolescence around the age of 13.”
Social anxiety is defined as “the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression. People with social anxiety disorder usually experience significant emotional distress in the following situations: being introduced to other people; being teased or criticized; being the center of attention; being watched while doing something; meeting people in authority; most social encounters, especially with strangers; going around the room (or table) in a circle and having to say something; interpersonal relationships.”
I interviewed six persons with serious social anxiety, four males in their late twenties or early thirties and a fifty and a sixty-year old female. In the table below, I paired the general situations that cause social anxiety (from the Social Anxiety Institute listed above) to comments the persons I interviewed made about the social anxiety they experience at Church.
As I spoke individually to my small sample of persons, I asked them in what way their anxiety affected their testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ and/or desire to be active in the Church. The following are some of their comments:
- Growing up, any joy I felt in the gospel was always overshadowed by guilt. Guilt absorbed me.
- I was always so worried about being obedient. I never felt good enough.
- It was painful going to church. Church is social with lots of people.
- As I got older, some Sundays I would sit in the parking lot and think, “I can’t handle this.” I felt panic about what interactions might happen if I went in. Many times I stayed in the car until it was time to go home.
- When I feel anxious, I can’t feel the Spirit. My mind and heart are occupied. There is no room, whatsoever, for the Holy Ghost.
- Negative thoughts about religious matters linger. I dwell on doubts more than aspects of the gospel that build faith.
- My anxiety keeps me from believing that God knows and/or loves me.
After these interviews, I compared their feelings with what they perceive is expected of them as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Of course, the perception about what “good members” do is completely inaccurate. Everyone has difficulties and challenges, whether socially anxious or not. Each and every member has limitations, temptations, sins to repent of, family challenges, personal weaknesses, etc. Social anxiety blurs this reality, which is where professionals can help. It was good to read that missionaries who return from missions early because of anxiety are receiving help and gaining strength from each other. (See “Called to Serve but not to Suffer.”) I have wondered if social anxiety is a reason members leave the Church.
I have a friend who had a very public panic attack in Relief Society. Ward members responded with sensitivity. When I took her a card the next day, she told me I was the eighth sister to contact her in some way. There was no gossip only tolerance, understanding, and kindness. She became dearer to us. We loved her more. Her Relief Society sisters did as the Lord commanded: “Let every [woman] esteem [her sister] as [herself]” (D&C 38:24). “Love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34). “Love thy [Relief Society sister] as thyself” (Matthew 22:39).
The word anxiety is found in The Book of Mormon eight times. Six are about this same timeless issue: Lehi had anxiety about his children observing the commandments (2 Nephi 1:16). Jacob had anxiety about the righteousness of the people (2 Nephi 6:3). He had “great anxiety” about the future of his people (Jacob 1:5), and said he was “weighed down” with anxiety for the welfare of his people’s souls (Jacob 2:3). Later he said he had “over anxiety” about his people remaining faithful (Jacob 4:18). Alma said he had “great anxiety even unto pain” that his people would procrastinate the day of their repentance (Alma 13:27).
In section thirty-eight of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord made Joseph Smith aware of bad things coming in the future, things that could generate anxiety. He gave Joseph two specific admonitions: “I tell you… treasure up wisdom… [and] if ye are prepared ye shall not fear” (D&C 38:30). Certainly planning and preparation are useful principles in eliminating fear that accompanies anxiety. Treasuring up wisdom helped me get through a hard bout of anxiety.
When I realized I was going to have chemotherapy for the second time, I knew the sickness ahead of me. Anxiety became a medical problem and I wondered what I could possibly do to survive those long, sicker-than-sick months. Soon after treatment had been decided, my son, Dan, said he had an idea for a new book I should write. I thought, “Really, Dan? Is it possible you have forgotten that I’m doing chemo again”? But I politely asked him about his idea. When he told me, my interest was instant. Over the next six month, I did the research and worked on the book when I could, lying in bed or on a couch with my laptop on my bent knees and thighs. “Treasuring up wisdom” greatly reduced my anxiety because I was doing something I considered useful. It was intellectually challenging, which was a wonderful distraction. Anti-anxiety medication helped too.
I do not know for sure if Jesus experienced anxiety. He is the Savior and Prince of Peace, but since He had a mortal mother, He probably felt all human emotion. His example in handling interpersonal relationships, whether one-on-one or one-to-thousands, is an example of how to reduce anxiety in others. He communicated with openness and forthrightness. His words were perfectly consistent with His feelings. He said it like it was: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye” (Matthew 7:5). “Thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (John 5:14). He even expressed vulnerability and asked for help: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38).
I like the way He responded to difficult situations in positive ways. When challenges came, His responses were creative, direct, and simple. He was aware of needs, spoken and unspoken. He fed thousands rather than sending them away hungry. He blessed little children rather than being annoyed by them. He silently wrote on the ground with his finger and let time and conscience teach rather than condemning. He could sleep through an intense storm one minute and speak majestically to His creations the next. By the seaside, He prepared bread and fish for His apostles over hot coals, feeding them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I especially like that He had a place to go to get away from the crowds. One example tells of a garden where “Jesus ofttimes resorted thither” (John 18:2). On the night of the Atonement, did He randomly stop by the Garden of Gethsemane? No, He knew the place well. It was a place of quiet retreat, peace, and prayer. I, too, have created a garden place in my mind where I can go during stressful, anxious, fearful times. Like the Savior’s garden, mine is a solitary sanctuary where I go to pray and to be “at one” with my Heavenly Father.
When I do this, my anxieties dissipate and my soul is refreshed. Individually and collectively we can reduce the suffering social anxiety causes. Individuals can seek professional help. Parents can work on their own anxieties so as not to model how to be anxious for their children. Mothers and fathers can learn about social anxiety in children, teens, and even in adult children, watch for symptoms, and get appropriate help as warranted. Perhaps bishops could educate their ward councils and Sunday School presidencies alert their teachers on ways to help the socially anxious.
One of my young interviewees said: “When Church leaders are sensitive to the possibility that I have social anxiety, I notice. When teachers don’t expect me to read in front of the class, give a prayer, or answer questions, I feel less anxious.” We have a profound opportunity to bless lives. Every member can be more aware that social anxiety could be the reason for unexplained behaviors.