Education Week: Insights on anxiety disorders

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Genevieve Gantt mulls over the parts of her life that stress her out. BYU offers free resources to help combat stress levels.
While a certain amount of stress is healthy, some stress can lead into anxiety, which can prevent individuals from living their lives normally.

Helping others manage chronic anxiety and unwanted obsessive thoughts can be difficult. Often the symptoms that loved ones suffer are easy to overlook.

Dennis D. and Joyce M. Ashton, authors of ‘Jesus Wept: Understanding and Enduring Loss,’ told an Education Week audience about how to recognize potential symptoms of anxiety disorders and the “do’s” and “don’ts” of assisting those with mental disorders.

“Anxiety disorders can disrupt the ability to function at home, school and work,” said Dennis Ashton.

He added that missionaries in the Missionary Training Center and around the world are receiving more mental health support than ever before, but sometimes anxiety disorders can prevent otherwise worthy missionaries from serving.

For example, an anxiety disorder some missionaries have is scrupulosity, which is when people have pathological guilt about moral or religious issues that prevents them from functioning socially, he said.

This specific disorder may not manifest itself acutely until missionaries arrive at the MTC, where they are encouraged daily to repent of their sins and grow spiritually.

The increased emphasis on spiritual reflection often causes missionaries with the disorder to stress exponentially more about their thoughts and actions being considered as sins or violations of church doctrine — but most of the time, the young man or young woman is actually still worthy to serve, he said.

He also described how, in a sense, everybody can be placed on a scale of any anxiety disorder and may have tendencies that are higher on one disorder scale or another, but these symptoms only become a problem when they prevent someone from completing day-to-day activities.

The presenter described how some people could be obsessive-compulsive about certain aspects of their life, like organizing their day using a planner, but they probably don’t actually have obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Joyce Ashton taught about how people who deal with anxiety disorders often have less energy, since struggling with their emotions takes them away from other pursuits.

To help with this lack of energy, she suggested relaxation training, more sleep and even medication, when determined appropriate by licensed medical personnel.

“Change your thoughts and perspective as much as you can,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m struggling with an issue I’ll completely turn it around and look at it from the opposite view, which makes me feel better.”

“Don’ts” of supporting friends and families with anxiety disorders are: pressuring them to relax or calm down; staying away or avoiding the person; pressuring them to deny their feelings; assuming the problem will go away; assuming that you can make someone less anxious on your own or assuming the responsibility of the behaviors of those who are struggling with mental illness.

Some “do’s” of helping people who have an anxiety disorder maintain hope include: spending time talking about their experience; listening without judgment; highlighting the option of seeing a doctor or a professional licensed therapist; going with them to a health professional and asking them how the appointment went; helping them find information about anxiety and mental health; talking openly about feelings; encouraging sleep, nourishment and exercise; and calling a doctor or the police if the person may be at risk of endangering themselves or others.

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