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    Discerning Your Feelings: Anxiety or the Spirit?

    Debra Theobald McClendon, PhD Psychologist

    Anxiety can make our thoughts and feelings jumbled. But here’s the difference between feelings from the Spirit and feelings from anxiety.

    Feelings, both positive and negative, serve a functional purpose and can bless your life. They can provide good information. Some feelings can also help you feel and 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.

    Helpful Anxiety

    There are mild or moderate levels of anxiety that may be helpful to you, such as feeling nervous before giving a talk in church, giving a presentation, or taking a test at school. Some pre-test anxiety can be a good thing! It can create 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.

    Harmful Anxiety

    However, high levels of anxiety impair performance. For example, if you have studied well and know the material, but your anxiety is too high, you may not be able to think clearly during a test.

    High levels of anxiety can cause spiritual impairment as well. When your anxiety is high, it may be difficult for you to discern the Spirit’s promptings.

    Did you know you can learn about helpful and harmful anxiety in the Book of Mormon? Here are a few examples of anxiety helping 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, anxiety could undermine a prophet’s ability to do what he needed to do.

    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).

    In a heightened state of anxiety, you may notice a sense of spiritual confusion or stupor. You may wonder if your anxious feelings are promptings of the Spirit.

    High anxiety can disrupt our ability to feel revelation 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.

    Anxiety or the Spirit?

    This chart contrasts the characteristics and feelings of the Spirit with anxiety.

    Reducing Anxiety

    How can you work with your anxiety—even high anxiety—to function well and discern the “gentle feeling” of the Spirit?

    1. First, you must cultivate awareness. If you realize you’re feeling anxiety, label it.

    2. Then you can proactively respond by choosing soothing behaviors to help your body’s stress response. These types of behaviors may include deep breathing, giving yourself a hand or foot massage, going for a walk, listening to calming music, or exercising.

    3. When 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?

    4. If you realize that your thoughts are distorted and making things worse for you, then change your thoughts! 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.

    What have you learned about calming your anxiety or discerning revelation? Share your experience below.

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