“Discerning Your Feelings: Anxiety or the Spirit?” Ensign, April 2019
The scriptures teach us a pattern for spiritual communication: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance” (Galatians 5:22–23). These spiritual feelings and actions contribute to an overall sense of “goodness and righteousness and truth” (Ephesians 5:9). Understanding the nature of spiritual communication is vital as you seek to receive revelation, respond to spiritual promptings, and build spiritual power.
As the above scripture suggests, spiritual communication often comes to you through your feelings. Feelings, both positive and negative, serve a functional purpose and can bless your life as you learn from the information they provide. In addition, some feelings can help you discern spiritual promptings. For example, when you are calm and relaxed, you may find it easier to ponder on the things of God and receive spiritual promptings with clarity of mind. Yet sometimes your feelings can create challenges to discerning spiritual promptings. Anxiety is one such feeling.
There are mild or moderate levels of anxiety that may be helpful to you, such as nervousness before giving a talk in church, giving a presentation at work, or taking a university exam. If you had no nervousness before taking an exam, you probably would not feel a need to study, which would likely result in a low grade. Thus, pre-test anxiety can help you improve your grade by creating momentum to get you to study.
Likewise, this type of anxiety can help you spiritually by motivating you to more conscientiously study gospel doctrine, seek peace, and invite the Spirit into your heart. At this level, despite the anxiety you feel, you may be able to discern easily the presence of the Spirit.
However, very high levels of anxiety impair performance. In our test-taking example, this means that even if you have studied a lot and know the material, if your anxiety is too high, you may not be able to think clearly during the test and may end up performing poorly. High levels of anxiety can cause spiritual impairment as well. When your anxiety is out of control, it is difficult to discern the Spirit’s promptings.
Consider some Book of Mormon examples of moderate and high levels of anxiety. As you can see from the following scriptures, moderate levels of anxiety helped prophets work more diligently for the benefit of their people:
“Mine anxiety is great for you. … I have exhorted you with all diligence” (2 Nephi 6:3).
“I desire that ye should remember to observe the statutes and the judgments of the Lord; behold, this hath been the anxiety of my soul” (2 Nephi 1:16).
“Because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning our people” (Jacob 1:5).
On the other hand, higher levels of anxiety threatened to undermine a prophet’s ability to carry out the task before him. The prophet Jacob said, “Behold … I will unfold this mystery unto you; if I do not, by any means, get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit, and stumble because of my over anxiety for you” (Jacob 4:18; emphasis added). Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles clarified: “There is a difference, therefore, between being ‘anxiously engaged’ and being over-anxious.”1
If you become overanxious and are unable to manage the sensations of your anxiety in a healthy way, your anxiety will likely intensify and may include symptoms such as a pounding heart, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, and the like. If you have difficulty working in a healthy way to soothe overanxiety, you may find anxiety taking over your life. In a near-chronic state of anxiety, you may notice a sense of spiritual confusion or stupor, wondering if your anxious feelings are promptings of the Spirit.
President Boyd K. Packer (1924–2015), President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught that “our physical body is the instrument of our spirit” and that it houses “delicate physical senses which have to do with spiritual communication.”2 High levels of anxiety can disrupt these “delicate physical senses” because it causes our brains to release chemicals that create physiological responses that compete with the Spirit. It can be difficult to differentiate between what our body feels because of spiritual sensations and what it feels because of its release of various stress hormones.
In my work as a psychologist, I have worked with many clients who are members of the Church. Some clients struggling with spiritual confusion caused by chronic anxiety helped me create the chart below. This chart contrasts the characteristics and feelings of the Spirit with anxiety. Please note: when we do something wrong, we may have uncomfortable feelings from the Spirit prompting us to act, but those feelings are qualitatively different from the feelings of anxiety.
Indeed, President Packer taught:
“The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all. …
“Occasionally it will press just firmly enough for us to pay heed. But most of the time, if we do not heed the gentle feeling, the Spirit will withdraw and wait until we come seeking and listening.”3
Even in critically important moments (where it may be natural to feel anxiety), as you are careful to seek and listen, the Spirit’s power can be discerned. Elder Robert D. Hales (1932–2017) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught: “Each of us may feel the influence of the Holy Ghost differently. His promptings will be felt in different degrees of intensity according to our individual needs and circumstances.”4
Photo illustration by Judith Ann Beck
So how can you work with your anxiety, even high anxiety, to function well and discern the “gentle feeling” of the Spirit? First, you must cultivate awareness. If you realize you’re feeling anxiety, label it. Then you can proactively respond by choosing soothing behaviors to help your body’s stress response relax. These types of behaviors may include deep breathing, giving yourself a hand or foot massage, going for a walk, listening to calming music, exercising, and so on.
Once you feel calmer, another helpful step is to evaluate your thoughts. What are you telling yourself? Are your thoughts comforting, faithful, or reality-based? Or are they negative, condemning, and full of untruths or partial truths that are only escalating your anxiety? If you realize that your thoughts are distorted and making things worse for you, then clean them up! One way to do this is to write every piece of evidence you can think of to prove that the thought causing you distress is not 100-percent true. As you seek this evidence, in time the thought that is escalating your anxiety will lose power.
As you consider these ideas when seeking to discern your feelings, including the promptings of the Spirit, remember that anxiety distorts perceptions of reality. If you are unable to break through anxiety’s distortion through your own efforts, you may have an anxiety disorder and may benefit from consulting a licensed mental health professional.