Keeping Mentally Well


Following principles and practices based on gospel understanding can help us experience greater joy in this life.

Alison Cooke has been to see her bishop at least ten times in the past two years. She has served a mission and is now Relief Society president in her university singles ward. But somehow she can’t overcome an agonizing feeling deep in her heart that the Lord doesn’t really love her.

Life seems to be getting too fast and too complex for Bill Oatley. He has a calling in the elders quorum, a business of his own, a growing family, and a marriage that could use some attention. Each morning he carefully marks his planning calendar. But each night he lies in bed with a racing mind, a churning stomach, and the uncomfortable feeling that he isn’t quite making it.

When Marion Caulfield’s children were small, she felt fulfilled as a wife and mother. But now her oldest son has postponed his mission indefinitely. And her oldest daughter is getting more and more involved with a nonmember boyfriend. Heartsick, Marion alternately blames herself and lashes out at her children. She grieves over their choices and fears what the future may bring.

Where Is the Joy?

All of these people are trying to live the gospel. But where are the joy, the peace, the abundance of life the Savior promised his followers?

All of us have weaknesses that hinder our search for joy and peace. As Dr. Richard Ferre, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, explains, “We all have a certain biological heritage and an environmental heritage.” For example, our individual biology may include an inherited predisposition for depression or another mental disorder or a less-serious problem with our biochemistry. (For more information about serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, manic-depression, and major depression, see “Mental Illness: In Search of Understanding and Hope,” Ensign, Feb. 1989, p. 50.) Our environment may include life crises or severe family conflicts. But our psychology—which includes how we react to life events and our style of coping—is an area in which we can take some responsibility, says Dr. Ferre.

We cannot expect our lives to be free of struggle or pain. “It’s normal to have problems,” says Harold Brown, director of LDS Social Services at Church headquarters. “We have to learn to face and endure them.”

But we can learn some principles and practices—all of them rooted in gospel understandings—that can help us heal and allow us to experience greater joy, even as we encounter the difficulties of mortality.

Principle No. 1: Perfection is an eternal quest, not an immediate goal.

Perhaps no idea creates more emotional stress for some of us than the idea that we need to be perfect right now—or soon! Believing this, we compare ourselves with others who seem to be further along the path than we are. We drive ourselves to succeed. And when we fail to achieve perfection in some area, we criticize ourselves harshly, even to the point of despair.

But the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve, emphasized the eternal nature of the perfection process in several of his sermons:

“Nobody becomes perfect in this life. Only the Lord Jesus attained that state, and he had an advantage that none of us has. He was the Son of God, and he came into this life with a spiritual capacity and a talent and an inheritance that exceeded beyond all comprehension what any of the rest of us was born with. …

“He lived a perfect life, and he set an ideal example. This shows that we can strive and go forward toward that goal, but no other mortal—not the greatest prophets nor the mightiest apostles nor any of the righteous saints of any of the ages—has ever been perfect, but we must become perfect to gain a celestial inheritance. … Becoming perfect in Christ is a process. …

“As members of the Church, if we chart a course leading to eternal life; if we begin the processes of spiritual rebirth, and are going in the right direction; if we chart a course of sanctifying our souls, and degree by degree are going in that direction; … then it is absolutely guaranteed—there is no question whatever about it—we shall gain eternal life.” (1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, pp. 399–400.)

Sometimes even the way we interpret the concept of perfection causes problems. Looking to the dictionary, we find perfection defined as being completely without flaw or defect. But this is not what Matthew 5:48 seems to be advocating. [Matt. 5:48] After unfolding to his disciples his beautiful teachings about love, the Savior concluded, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” A footnote explains that the Greek word translated as perfect in our King James Version actually means “complete” and “fully developed.” Naturally, the ability to love is part of this completing or developing process.

When we see our mortal task as one of developing ourselves rather than one of not making any mistakes, we are less likely to give up hope when we confront our weaknesses. Further, knowing that the Lord has actually allowed us to have particular weaknesses so that we can be humbly open to his influence (see Ether 12:27) can free us of the need to appear perfect to others.

Dr. Brent Scharman, a therapist with LDS Social Services, describes a client who was a perfectionist but who learned to accept herself as a fallible human being. “Interestingly, as my client became more accepting of herself, she did not accomplish less, as she had feared. Rather, as she stopped comparing herself with others and living by ’shoulds,’ she became more relaxed and self-directed in her activities.”

Principle No. 2: Control—Less is more.

“One definition of good mental health is the ability to give up control—to trust God, ourselves, and others—and to know that things will work out,” observes Dr. Clyde Parker, clinical director of a counseling and therapy center at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah. Giving up control over other people may seem contrary to our responsibility to help others find salvation. But Dr. Parker explains that we need to see ourselves as being responsible to other people, not responsible for them. “Although we may be our brother’s keeper,” he says, “our brother still has responsibility for his own life.”

Thus, we accomplish most in our relationships when we focus more on what we can control—our own attitudes and behavior—and less on what we can’t control—the attitudes and behavior of the other person. We do the most good for our friends, spouses, and children when we concentrate less on controlling them and more on being available to them.

Letting go of the belief that we can control another person’s behavior does not mean that we cease to care about that person. Instead, it means that we trust that the Lord loves that person and knows better than we do how to help him. Our task then becomes being open to the Spirit’s promptings in our relationships.

One father tells of a time when he was alarmed that his son did not seem to take his studies seriously enough. One day, while reading his son’s patriarchal blessing, he felt an impression from the Spirit: “It’s all right. Your fears about making your son a good student are getting in the way of your relationship with him and his progress. He was first my son; his heart is good. He is in my hands. Let go.”

“Since that experience,” says the father, “I have felt more interested in my son’s life and more available to him than I was before because I am not constantly worried, checking to see whether he is meeting some standard. I still set guidelines for him, but I also watch—amazed—to see the marvelous person he is becoming.”

We also have more energy for doing good when we spend less time worrying about circumstances we can’t control or fearing the difficulties of life. Trusting in the Lord and his purposes frees us of many of the anxieties that can depress and paralyze us.

As the Apostle Paul promises: “Be careful [in the Greek, this means, ‘Be unduly concerned’] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philip. 4:6–7.)

As we leave our burdens of worry and fear with a trusted Father, we can feel peace even in times of uncertainty.

Principle No. 3: We can be freed from the effects of sin.

The prophet Isaiah teaches, “The work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance forever.” (Isa. 32:17.) When we lack a feeling of quietness and assurance, we often need to examine our spiritual lives.

Elder F. Enzio Busche of the First Quorum of the Seventy notes:

“We all are prone, once in a while, to be in a state contrary to the nature of happiness, and not necessarily because we have pursued wickedness or iniquity to a full extent. But … we may have become a little careless. We may have neglected our relationships with those closest to us—those who are our first responsibility—our spouse, our children, or our parents. Perhaps we may have permitted small bad habits or attitudes to enter into our lives; or perhaps we have even lost to some degree an understanding of the importance of keeping a covenant with exactness. … We may observe that … we are not really happy, that we must constantly force ourselves to smile, or perhaps that we are in a state close to depression. …

“When the Spirit of the Lord is withdrawn even in part, we feel it. … Shadows of darkness will fall upon the soul.”

Leaving this darkness behind requires us to “sharpen our awareness,” says Elder Busche, to engage in a “continuous process of repentance.” (Ensign, May 1989, p. 72.)

But what of the burdens caused by the sins or imperfections of others? What of those we carry from childhood and from previous generations? Can we ever leave these behind?

To do so, we often have to first acknowledge the hurts we have experienced in the past. This is an important step because it helps us understand our feelings and puts the present in better perspective. A young woman who had struggled with feelings of depression for years was relieved when she was finally able to tell her bishop that she had been sexually abused as a child. Her problems did not immediately disappear, but she no longer despised herself for something she had not caused. Realizing that she had not sinned helped her give up her burden of unnecessary guilt and begin a process of healing.

In time, we can even forgive those who have harmed us—intentionally or unintentionally. Marian Bergin, program director for adult psychiatry at Provo’s Utah Valley Hospital, tells of a man who had never had a loving relationship with his alcoholic father. When he realized the hurt, sadness, and pain he had experienced in childhood, he was able to understand why he had always resented his father and had felt he could never earn his father’s approval. Once he acknowledged and discussed his sadness and anger, he began for the first time to feel some compassion and love for his father.

And finally, we can even change the meaning of our past, says Sister Bergin. One woman had struggled for years to overcome the effects of an emotionally abusive parent and unhealthy family relationships. “I first had to acknowledge what had happened to me as a child and how it had affected me,” she says. “Then followed a long period of feeling sad and angry about it and blaming my parents for my problems. But I have finally learned to see them as people who did their best, people who struggled with pain and problems of their own. As I have forgiven them, a great weight has been lifted from my heart. Now I feel more responsible for my own life, knowing that my life is the only one I have responsibility for. And I feel freer from a past that once haunted and imprisoned me.”

Freeing ourselves from the past can be difficult. Spiritual guidance is essential in this process. “The Lord, through his grace, can actually give us strength to overcome problems that we cannot overcome on our own,” says Harold Brown. A competent therapist can also aid us as we try to understand and overcome serious problems with roots in the past.

Principle No. 4: Changing thoughts can change feelings.

Some of our emotional distress originates in negative thinking habits. “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7.) Larry Crenshaw, manager of special services for LDS Social Services at Church headquarters, explains: “If we are thinking unwholesome or negative thoughts, it’s going to show up in our emotions and eventually in our behavior.” Negative thinking patterns cause negative emotions; they can even trigger depression. And medical researchers are finding that some kinds of negative thinking can also make us more vulnerable to physical illnesses, including heart disease. (See Redford Williams, The Trusting Heart: Great News about Type A Behavior, New York City: Random House, 1989.)

Dr. Ken Tuttle, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Utah Valley Hospital, explains that having a negative style of perceiving reality is “like trying to watch general conference on a television set that has a fuzzy picture. The good is there, but we can’t perceive it very well.”

Negative thinking comes in many forms. We may magnify the negative aspects of a situation and minimize the positive. We may see every negative event as proving our unworthiness. We may think only in black-and-white extremes. Or we may use the words always and never in evaluating our failures and successes.

The first step in changing our negative thought patterns is monitoring our thoughts. “When I began to listen to my thoughts, I realized that I was often thinking illogically,” said one man. “If someone cut in front of me on the freeway, I would think, ‘That stupid teenager. He just has to show how smart he is by cutting me off.’ When I heard such thinking, I would remind myself, ‘That teenager wasn’t trying to cut me off—he was probably in a hurry and didn’t realize how close his turn was.’”

Because negative thoughts “feel” so right to the person who is thinking them, they can be difficult to turn off. Some therapists recommend mentally yelling “Stop!” to banish a negative thought and then applying reason to reevaluate the situation. One doctor suggests lifting the emotions by completing the sentence “I am thankful for …” with as many answers as possible.

This does not mean that we refuse to allow negative emotions or experiences. But it does mean that we do not ruminate about them and draw negative conclusions about our own worth. The rewards for redirecting thoughts in a more positive direction are great. Depression can subside, anxiety can diminish, and physical health can improve.

Self-help books can help us learn to change negative thinking patterns, as can therapists specializing in cognitive therapy.

Principle No. 5: Wellness is balance.

The Word of Wisdom reminds us that the way we treat our bodies also affects our minds and spirits, for along with the physical blessings of a strong body, the Lord promises “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” to those who eat properly and abstain from harmful substances. (D&C 89:19.) “Good nutrition raises resistance to stress, while poor nutrition is a stressor,” explains Dr. Glenn Schiraldi. (Facts to Relax By, Provo, Utah: Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, 1987, p. 56.) A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in meat, processed foods, salt, and sugar is generally recognized as best for our physical and mental well-being.

Rest and exercise are also necessary for emotional health, as are social support and activities that we find enjoyable. Doing something for someone else can also lift our spirits. Harold Brown tells of a woman he assigned to do something kind for someone else each week. As she lost herself in serving those around her, her own problems visibly diminished. “Some people think mental wellness is the absence of struggle or pain,” says Brother Brown. “Actually, wellness is being in balance.”

Principle No. 6: The Atonement brings healing.

The ultimate source of healing is spiritual. Breaking the word atonement into three parts—at-one-ment—suggests the truth that only divine love can finally make us whole—emotionally and spiritually. As Mormon explains, the power to become like the Savior—whole, fully developed—comes from being filled with charity, or “the pure love of Christ”: “Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him.” (Moro. 7:47–48.)

Alma describes the transforming effect of experiencing the Lord’s atoning love. Struck down for trying to destroy the Church, Alma was racked in his soul “with eternal torment.” Then, as he remembered his father’s prophecies of the Savior’s atoning love, he pleaded for mercy and was filled with an exquisite peace and joy. (See Alma 36:6–21.)

Healing comes when we, too, not only know—but also feel—that the Savior loves us, even in our weakness. Dr. Dean Byrd, field manager for LDS Social Services, suggests that we can feel this love by reading the scriptures in a personalized way. For example, we could read John 3:16–17, “For God so loved [me], that he gave his only begotten Son, that [believing in him, I] should not perish, but have everlasting life.

“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn [me]; but that [I] through him might be saved.”

Dr. Byrd also tells of people who have received healing and comfort by envisioning the Savior reaching out to them.

The atoning love of the Savior includes his willingness to bear not only the burden of our sins—which would separate us forever from our Father—but also our day-to-day burdens of fear and anxiety—which would deprive us of peace and joy. As Sister Patricia Holland explains, giving our burdens to the Lord sometimes requires us “to make that leap of faith toward His embrace when we are least certain of His presence. … When we hand our fears and frustrations to Him in absolute confidence that He will help us resolve them, when in this way we free our heart and mind and soul of all anxiety, we find in a rather miraculous way that He can instill within us a whole new perspective—He can fill us with ‘that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.’ (Hel. 5:44.)” (Unpublished talk given at the Exemplary Womanhood Fireside, Brigham Young University, 27 Mar. 1988.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Jan Underwood Pinborough serves as newsletter editor in the Edgehill Second Ward, Salt Lake Hillside Stake.