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Feeling anxious? Or is it anxiety? Here’s how to find hope and help


Normally, Malaina Taufa was vivacious and full of life. But as the COVID-19 pandemic began, and lockdowns hit her country of New Zealand, Taufa felt overwhelmed by everything.

Her four children were all at home, and Tuafa felt scared to go out in public. She lost confidence as her anxiousness and worries grew. 

She didn’t realize she had anxiety until her ward self-reliance specialist encouraged her to try the Church’s emotional resilience program.

“It wasn’t until I had sat in our emotional resilience course that I listened in on the experience of others and also the teachings of the gospel, little by little the anxieties started to break down slowly,” Taufa said.

Read more: What is emotional resilience and how can I develop it? Learn about the Church’s new resource

More anxiety and anxiousness

Lauren Barnes, an associate professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life and a marriage and family therapist, said prevalence rates suggest that almost 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness.

“Young adults, aged 18-25, have the highest prevalence rates of other adult age groups, at just over 25%,” she said. “Assume you know somebody struggling with mental illness; this isn’t just affecting somebody somewhere out there. It’s likely impacting somebody you know.”

Roy Bean, a marriage and family therapist and a Brigham Young University associate professor of marriage and family therapy, said anxiety is the most diagnosed, most regularly presenting issue when it comes to mental health.

“COVID aside … I would say anxiety has increased over the last 20 to 50 years, mostly because we live in a more stressful environment,” he said. Many people live closer to other people and don’t access the protective factor of nature; they have more technology but also more choices than ever before; they are overscheduled and constantly connected to information and news about the scary things happening around the world; they see posts on social media with which to compare themselves.

“And you’re never completely removed from your email and your text messages, your boss, your most annoying neighbor — they can always reach you,” said Bean. “We tend to get bombarded by things that are risk factors for us that 20 years ago we just weren’t bombarded by.”

Barnes added: “Now there are so many more opportunities to be immersed in a wide variety of activities with a wide variety of expectations from people in all aspects of our lives. I wonder if the added pressures do contribute to more anxiety.”

Add in the pandemic, and the issue grew, while protective factors — like social support and access to friends, family, activities, school and so much more — were taken away. Bean said the rates of anxiety went from a general population estimate of around 4% up into the low 30s.

“That’s not us being weaker or less resilient as a people. That’s us being exposed to such a new mountain of stressors,” he said.

People are also much more aware of it. Hundreds, it not thousands, of online tests make some people anxious that they might have anxiety, said Bean.

Barnes said she has noticed more people talking about anxiety, likely because there is more information and access about mental health. She finds it comforting to see conversations about mental and physical health on the rise, but said it is important to examine resources well — and make sure information is from a reputable and credible source.

“More people are reporting experiencing anxiety than in previous years, and it seems to be more prevalent at a younger age,” she said.

What is it?

Bean and Barnes said there are differences between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. The most common is typically generalized anxiety disorder.

Worry about a specific thing could fall into a phobia, while general worries or nervousness that can be handled is a lot different than someone regularly being challenged by a neurochemical and behavioral response to something that isn’t an actual risk.

Clinical professionals assessing for general anxiety disorder look for the following:

  1. The presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events or activities. Worry occurs more often than not for at least six months and is clearly excessive.
  2. The worry is experienced as very challenging to control. The worry in both adults and children may easily shift from one topic to another.
  3. The anxiety and worry are accompanied by at least three of the following physical or cognitive symptoms (In children, only one of these symptoms is necessary for a diagnosis of general anxiety disorder):

  • Edginess or restlessness.
  • Tiring easily, more fatigued than usual.
  • Impaired concentration or feeling as though the mind goes blank.
  • Irritability (which may or may not be observable to others).
  • Increased muscle aches or soreness.
  • Difficulty sleeping (due to trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, restlessness at night or unsatisfying sleep).

Bean and Barnes said a lot of anxious people are able to handle it and function every day. Worry and stress are a part of being human. “In fact, anxiety can be quite helpful and motivating at times to help us accomplish daily tasks, perform well, and stay engaged in work and school and life,” said Barnes.

But if a person feels that anxiety is crippling or debilitating, or if someone presents at least three of the above physical or cognitive symptoms over a certain period of time, that person should seek counsel from a trained and licensed professional.

Solutions

Barnes said cognitive behavioral therapy techniques have been around for a long time and been proven to be quite effective when working to treat anxiety.

“As a marriage and family therapist, I believe it is really important to examine the system and context in which anxiety is occurring and then work with that system,” she said, meaning fostering connection within a family or between a parent and child, for example, in addition to working on individual coping techniques and skills.

Counseling and self-help can do wonders for someone with anxiety, said Bean. Mindfulness, deep breathing, mediation, journaling, exercise and thought-stopping are some of the ways to help cope. 

Taufa used mindfulness, a technique shared in the course she took from the Church’s emotional resilience program. She said she also had great support from her husband and the others taking the class. “It wasn’t a quick fix — it took time, self-mastery and trusting in the Lord,” said Taufa.

Barnes emphasized empathy. “The Savior Jesus Christ was truly with people. He was at their side, rarely above or hierarchical in any way. ‘Take my yoke upon you,’ He said. Be with rather than do for others. Be Christlike.”

Bean said many people start to feel better after their first therapy session, because they are able to shut out the outside world and work through what is happening to them. 

But others need more help: “The interesting thing about anxiety is that some of the very solutions to anxiety are hard to do when you’re anxious,” said Bean. “The need for professional assistance — either neurochemical in the form of medication and/or counseling — increases with the severity of symptoms.”

Barnes said people should seek medical advice about whether medication would be a good option. She pointed out most health insurance companies now cover mental health care and will have a list of providers, just as they would a medical doctor. 

Resources

Barnes said research shows a strong link between genetics and mental illness. Some people may be more predisposed to factors that lead to anxiety.

“If you struggle with anxiety, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. It doesn’t mean you haven’t been faithful. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you,” she said. “We live in a remarkable time with so much availability and access to help and support. Reach out to professionals. Reach out for social support. Get the help you need.”

Bean repeated: “Getting professional help is not a sign that you’re a failure or that God doesn’t love you. It’s because we have these tools. Let’s use them.”

Bean wants people to feel reassured there is a resource to help them, and that anxiety is responsive to treatment. He said there are many meditation apps to choose from, as well as lots of general advice for other coping techniques for situational or long-term concerns. And just about any clinician would be able to help right away, because they see anxiety so commonly.

“Anxious people are some of the best clients because they want to do their very best,” he said. “They are tired and desperate for help. And so when they come to therapy, almost everybody starts feeling better.”

Read more: What Church leaders and members are saying about the new emotional resilience course

Barnes said people are on earth to progress. “We need to be well-rounded,” she said. “Luke 2:52 says, ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.’ This is now the youth and children’s theme scripture and gives us so much guidance and opportunity to learn and grow.”

The Church has a list of mental health resources on its website, found at churchofjesuschrist.org/get-help/mentalhealth. It includes sections with help for individuals, parents and families, and leaders. “Mental health challenges can impact anyone, regardless of education, geography, faith, calling or family. They are nothing to be ashamed of and should be met with love,” says the site.

Taufa highly recommends the emotional resilience program, especially for youth and young single adults. “It creates awareness and support,” she said. 

“I really think we are blessed that our Church has brought this program out of obscurity as mental health is greatly frowned upon or taboo in other cultures,” she said. “Having the Church support this with doctrine and inspiring quotes from leaders is such an amazing tool, especially in this time of uncertainty.”

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