How to Recognize and Cope with Debilitating Anxiety

Contributed By Kaitlyn Bancroft, Church News contributor

  • 18 September 2018

Melissa Tapia and other BYU Education Week attendees heard presentations on a variety of topics, including overcoming debilitating anxiety.  Photo courtesy of Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • Anxiety is normal, but debilitating anxiety can be a serious problem.
  • The Spirit can help bring peace when anxiety causes stress and guilt.
  • Exposure therapy, staying in the present, and positive self-talk may also help.

“When we let our anxiety get out of control, it starts to control us.” —Debra Theobald McClendon, licensed psychologist

If you know someone with anxiety and think they blow it out of proportion, try hyperventilating.

Stand in front of a clock and breath in and out, as hard and as quick as you can, for one minute. Your throat will go dry, you’ll feel ready to pass out, and you might gain some sympathy for people who experience these symptoms as part of anxiety.

“Anxiety can be exceedingly, exceedingly uncomfortable,” said licensed psychologist Debra Theobald McClendon.

However, “When you feel anxious, it’s OK because it’s normative. The question is what you do with it that can be helpful or not,” she said.

McClendon explored the differences between healthy and debilitating anxiety during an August 22 BYU Education Week presentation titled “Anxious, Anyone? The Adaptive and Maladaptive Power of Anxiety: Anxiety vs. the Spirit, and Theoretical Approaches to Treatment.”

McClendon explained that anxiety is normal and protective; it helps people anticipate future danger, and in moderate doses, it improves performance. Lower anxiety produces lower proficiency. For example, an Olympic gold medal winner isn’t necessarily the best athlete, but they’re probably the person who manages their anxiety most effectively.

“If I didn’t have any anxiety about performing in front of all of you, I wouldn’t prepare,” McClendon said. “Think about how your anxiety has helped you in the past—giving a talk in church, giving a presentation at work, [or] taking an exam. … If you can manage your anxiety, you will perform better.”

Anxiety becomes a problem, however, when it becomes so high that a person is unable to cope. This can look like a number of things such as severe shyness, panic attacks, or agoraphobia, which means “fear of the marketplace” and describes when a person becomes essentially homebound because they’re so afraid of being in crowded places.

“Anxiety gets progressively more intense as it goes along if you don’t intervene,” McClendon said. “When we let our anxiety get out of control, it starts to control us.”

Anxiety can also cause scrupulosity, which McClendon described as “basically someone’s anxiety hijacks their religion.” This means simple things like scripture study or praying can cause tremendous guilt.

For example, scrupulosity may make a person unsure if the Spirit is telling them to confess something to their bishop, with the intense guilt making promptings difficult to discern.

However, McClendon compared the Spirit and anxiety, pointing out that if someone truly needed to confess, they would have a sense of peace and comfort even though they’d naturally be uncomfortable going to the bishop.

“If we make an action [based] on what the Spirit is telling us … then discomfort diminishes,” she said. “Whereas anxiety continues to grow … worry, panic, [and a] sense of crisis.”

In addition, the Spirit is encouraging and helps people act with intent, whereas anxiety is condemning and urgent; the Spirit gives clarity and hope and allows people time and space to ponder, while anxiety is confusing, impulsive, and creates despair and less stability.

McClendon also addressed anxiety management techniques, citing a theory that says, “You feel the way you think.”

“Anxiety comes from distorted, illogical thoughts or self-talk,” she said. “You’re telling yourself things that aren’t true, but you’re buying it because these physical sensations … are so powerful.”

Some of these distorted thoughts include assuming people are reacting negatively to them (“mindreading”), assuming the worst possible outcome (“fortune telling”), or “should” and “could” statements (“I should’ve done this better”).

These thoughts can be overcome, however, through exposure to the fear, either with “in vivo” techniques, where a person faces a real-life situation, or imaginal techniques, where a person works mentally through a situation. Exposure eventually leads to habituation, the state where a person feels comfortable with what previously made them anxious.

Exposure therapy can be difficult because the discomfort creates a strong desire to avoid the situation; however, “Just remember, anxiety does not last forever,” McClendon said, adding that repeated thoughts over time lose power.

“Confront the fear and you’ll defeat it,” she said.

She also cited the mantra “If you won’t have it, you will,” meaning when someone is determined not to become worked up over something, they tend to actually get worked up over it.

“I think we fight a lot in life,” she said. “We don’t like what’s happening. We fight against it, we push against it. And I think the fighting … intensifies a lot of our own anxiety, a lot of our own stress.”

In addition, “anxiety is future-oriented,” she said. “When you find yourself feeling anxious … one of the biggest interventions is simply to remember that and pull yourself back into the present moment.”

She also reminded listeners, “Normal is not symptom-free.” This means people should accept the nature and reality of where they’re presently at.

“Acceptance does not mean that we don’t work to improve our situation,” she said. “But what it does means is we accept where we are … [and then] you’re free to say, ‘Well what can we do about it?’”

Linda and Eve Crawford, a mother and daughter from Colorado, attended the session together. Linda said the more she helps her son through anxiety, the more she realizes she has the same issues.

“There weren’t terms for that when I was growing up,” she said. “You just muddled through.”

Linda Crawford said her biggest takeaway was the breakdown of coping mechanisms, particularly avoidance.

“You don’t ever let anyone know … just how sophisticated your coping mechanisms can get,” she said. “I could see that with myself just over and over again, just with people and the dance we do to make sure everyone else thinks we’re fine.”

Eve Crawford said she’s known for a while she has anxiety, and she’s trying to get better at developing coping mechanisms before she leaves on a mission to Barcelona, Spain. She hopes people with anxiety don’t “bottle it up” but seek help and become comfortable with having anxiety. It’s also important that those with anxiety accept they may be judged for having it.

“Don't think it’s just going to pass over, because I did that for so many years,” she said. “You don’t need to keep it to yourself. … It’s just another trial that you are put on this earth to deal with, and it will make you stronger eventually.”