What 3 mental health experts taught at BYU Education Week about anxiety, perfectionism, religious OCD and depression

PROVO, Utah — The Spirit of truth “does not bully us,” Debra Theobald McClendon, a licensed clinical psychologist, told BYU Education Week attendees. “The Spirit of truth does not use Satan’s tactics.”

In an Aug. 18 class on identifying the Spirit versus anxiety, toxic perfectionism and religious obsessive-compulsive disorder, McClendon testified that feelings of confusion, guilt and condemnation do not come from God. 

“It is only through our Savior Jesus Christ that we will be saved,” she said. “Our Father is not interested in finding some new reason to disqualify us from eternal salvation.”

She quoted Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “When our Father in Heaven said, ‘This is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,’ He was talking about all of His children — you in particular.”

These religious principles are helpful from a cognitive perspective, but ultimately, she said, it’s important to address anxiety and other mental health issues with treatment. 

McClendon was one of several Latter-day Saint professionals who taught about mental health from a variety of angles during BYU Education Week Aug. 16-20. 

Anxiety, toxic perfectionism and religious OCD

McClendon explained that those who suffer from generalized anxiety are “having a systematic distortion of the processes involved in gathering information, perception, storage and retrieval of information.” They end up remembering things differently than someone would without anxiety.

“People with generalized anxiety selectively allocate their attentional resources to threat-related information,” she said. Their nervous systems activate to anticipate possible threats and mobilize energy so they can act if necessary.

“They have the urge to escape. So what do they want to do? Cut and run. The problem is, is that escape reinforces the anxiety and it makes it more difficult to engage next time. And it grows unbearable from there.”

Instead, she said, “you want to lean into your anxiety. You want to engage with it, and learn that it’s not threatening.”

BYU Education Week attendees walk through the BYU Store on Aug. 17, 2021.
BYU Education Week attendees walk through the BYU Store on Aug. 17, 2021. Credit: Rebeca Fuentes, BYU Photo

Some with chronic anxiety may struggle with spiritual confusion. While feelings of anxiety are worried, unsettled and agitated, feelings of the Spirit are calm, “even with feelings of dissonance,” McClendon said. 

Anxiety is future-oriented and gets progressively more intense and confusing, but the Spirit diminishes discomfort with repentance and peace. (Read more in McClendon’s April 2019 Ensign article “Discerning Your Feelings: Anxiety or the Spirit?)

For many, toxic perfectionism or religious obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as scrupulosity, interrupt one’s ability to access and experience the Savior’s grace. Living the gospel is done out of fear or punishment and God is seen as a rigid dictator, she explained. (Read more in McClendon’s September 2019 Ensign article “Understanding Scrupulosity (Religious OCD)”)

She referenced President Russell M. Nelson’s October 1995 general conference talk “Perfection Pending,” in explaining that the term “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 does not imply “freedom from error” but rather “achieving a distant objective.” 

McClendon provided an overview of specific anxiety treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure-based treatments. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing the way one thinks while working to remove cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking, magnification or minimization, and personalization or blame. This can happen through dialogue and reflection. Exposure-based treatments use systematic and predictable confrontation of feared stimulus. In other words, “face the fear and you’ll defeat it.”

The key with treatment is finding what works best for the individual and their anxiety. “If you get the right treatment, you can make the progress you want to make,” she said.

4 tools for combating depression and anxiety

Steven Eastmond, a licensed clinical social worker, began his class titled “Freeing Yourself From Depression” by stating that approximately 17.3 million Americans in 2017 suffered from at least one major depressive episode lasting two weeks or longer, according to the National Institute of Mental Health

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. … Until that hour when Christ’s consummate gift is evident to us all, may we live by faith, hold fast to hope and show ‘compassion one of another.’”

“Today,” said Eastmond, “I hope to give you that hope.”

He presented four practical tools to help those with depression or anxiety. 

1. Balance your scales. 

While Laman and Lemuel dwelled on the negative, Nephi was a “realist,” Eastmond said. He acknowledged that they “wade through much affliction in the wilderness,” but also recognized “so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us” (1 Nephi 17:1-2). In other words, “he balanced his scales.”

A real life example is a parent struggling with a teenager. One side of the scale could be “he blames me for everything,” “he says he hates me” and “he doesn’t respect what I have taught him.” The other side of the scale could be “he does a lot of things correctly,” “he’s still a teen” and “I still have time to raise him.”

2. Reframing. 

Reframing means to look at a situation differently from what is obvious and in a way that embraces the positive alternatives. One question to ask is, “Is this a problem I’m facing or is it an opportunity?” It necessitates a change in perspective, Eastmond said.  

The idea “be happy where you are but don’t be content to stay there” is another example of a reframe. 

3. ‘What else is true?’

The oft-quoted question “Is the glass half full or half empty?” can be misleading. Since the glass is half water and half air, someone could say it’s always full. “Sometimes we want to look at it like it’s either this or that. But there’s always another way. There’s always more than we can consider,” Eastmond said. 

Avoid “should have” thinking. It can lead to depression. “The only thing you can do with the past is learn from it, but that’s a present behavior,” Eastmond said. Avoid “what if” thinking. It can lead to anxiety. “The only thing you can do with the future is prepare for it, but that’s a present behavior.” 

Instead ask, “What is true now?” Focus on the present. The adversary does not want people to use their present effectively and efficiently. 

4. Take life in stride. 

Don’t take life too seriously, he said. Have a sense of humor and learn how to laugh. “And don’t choose to take offense easily.”

What the people of Alma and the story of the First Vision teach about anxiety management

David T. Morgan, a licensed psychologist, emphasized the principle found in Doctrine and Covenants 88:63: “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

In other words, when it comes to dealing with mental health challenges, “We act first and He acts second. … Blessings come from moving forward in faith and not just waiting for something to happen,” Morgan said. 

He used the stories of the people of Alma in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s First Vision to illustrate this principle and other anxiety management lessons. 

BYU Education Week attendees talk as they walk to their next class on Aug. 16, 2021. The conference was held on Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah, Aug. 16-20.
BYU Education Week attendees talk as they walk to their next class on Aug. 16, 2021. The conference was held on Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah, Aug. 16-20. Credit: Rebeca Fuentes, BYU Photo

The people of Alma “walked uprightly before God” and lived in love, harmony and peace (see Mosiah 18). They were prosperous; nevertheless, the Lord saw fit to “chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and faith” (Mosiah 23:21).  

An army of Lamanites came and they were afraid. After Alma encouraged them to remember God and His promise to deliver them, “they hushed their fears” (Mosiah 23:27). 

As they were put into bondage by Amulon and suffered greatly, the Lord came to them in their afflictions and strengthened them so they could bear their burdens (Mosiah 24:10-16). He then helped them out of bondage. 

The experience of the people of Alma can teach the following lessons about managing anxiety, Morgan said:

  • “Righteousness does not necessarily prevent temporal suffering.”
  • “Relief from distress involves action on our part.” 
  • “Some burdens persist but all will be lifted in time.”

When 14-year-old Joseph Smith knelt in a grove of trees to pray, he was immediately “seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me.” Thick darkness gathered. He could not speak.

Then, Joseph said, in his history, “exerting all my powers to call upon God” and “at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair,” he saw a pillar of light (Joseph Smith—History 1:15-16).  

Morgan said: “Once he had had that terrible situation come upon him, he says, ‘I’m going to do everything I can, everything I know, to get out of this’ … . And sometimes the Lord takes us to the very brink before He delivers.” 

Morgan referenced the man who asked Jesus to cast an evil spirit out of his son. “Lord, I believe,” the man said, “help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). In the words of Elder Holland, “be true to the faith you do have.”

The story of the First Vision can teach the following lessons about managing anxiety, Morgan said:

  • “We must exert as much effort as we can.”
  • “Sometimes heavenly help takes time, but we should persist.”
  • “All weakness can be eliminated through the Savior’s power.”

“The ‘can’ is important,” he said, referring to the last bullet. “Don’t buy the lie that it’s beyond His power. Nothing is beyond His power. He knows that. You should know that as well. I testify these things are true.”