Simone Russell was born and raised in Mesa, Arizona. She graduated from BYU with a degree in family history, from the University of Massachusetts Boston with an MA in history, and from Columbia University with an MS in social work. She is currently a mental health therapist in Provo, Utah. Her focused interests are trauma, grief, relationships, and the intersection of spirituality and mental health. In her personal life, Simone enjoys running hills, reading, writing, listening to podcasts about mental health, and developing her relationships with her friends—especially Jesus Christ. She served in the Missouri Independence Mission from 1993 to 1995.
I came to better understand one aspect of God’s love for us in my graduate program when I worked as a crisis counselor. I would ask those suffering emotionally what support they had from family, friends, or faith, knowing those are the most powerful antidotes to depression and anxiety. But they were often reaching out because either they didn’t have support from any of those sources or they didn’t want to burden anyone. When that happened, I asked if they had a pet or a therapist. I came to see that God has given us a wide variety of things to benefit from, not just one or two, because it’s often our friends or family that are the source of our worst emotional traumas.
While some people find sufficient comfort in their faith, others require more specific support, guidance, or information than faith leaders are trained to offer. This is why I found it very disturbing when a client told me recently that her Relief Society president had convinced her bishop to stop paying for therapy services for ward members. I realize this article may be a bit scientific, but as you read, you will better understand and help shepherd those who struggle with mental health challenges.
More Than Physical Beings
Financing therapy services for those in need is one of the blessings of organized religion – it’s an efficient way to come together to serve one another. It’s great that we bring dinner to the sick and truck loads of supplies to survivors of natural disasters across the world, but our needs are more than just physical because we are more than just physical beings.
As we increase in light and knowledge, we learn how to better take care of ourselves and others, both mentally and physically. But unfortunately, some people fail to realize that our mental health needs should be taken just as seriously as our physical health.
Some people incorrectly still believe that mental suffering is a consequence of unrepented sin. They do not understand that the brain, like other organs, sometimes malfunctions. They forget Christ’s answer when his disciples asked,
“Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”
He answered that his affliction was not the result of sin, but it served a greater purpose. Some people seem to think that spirituality is the answer to all our problems, including mental health struggles.
For some people, to some degree, this is true. But if this was true all the time, then it would negate our need to exercise faith in Christ.
Mental Health is Unique to Each Person
What is mental health and where does it originate from? Mental health is a sense of well-being, mentally, socially, and emotionally, and it originates in our brains. This explains why a woman who has been gang raped multiple times may feel at peace while another woman, who has been raised by good parents in the Church, is dating a respectful young man, and is now teaching at a prestigious university, feels the need to take medication to calm her anxiety. We are each unique in our life experiences, metabolic makeup, and coping skills. Thus, we each have a unique response to daily stressors.
We know our brains are divided into left and right hemispheres. They are also divided into the downstairs and the upstairs brain. The downstairs brain contains our limbic region, or emotional brain. This instinctive part is responsible for breathing, digestion, feeding, defecating, and emotional responses. Our upstairs brain is our thinking brain. It is responsible for analyzing, decision-making, empathy, and self-awareness. While our downstairs brain is online at birth, our upstairs brain takes over two decades to fully develop.
The Amygdala Boundary
Deep within our limbic system is our amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter. Its main function is to quickly process and express our emotions and trigger stress responses. It’s the watchdog of the brain, staying alert for threats. The amygdala can block the stairway connecting the upstairs and downstairs brain when it fires, so the upstairs brain, with its ability to think and reason, becomes inaccessible in moments of high emotion or stress. Our amygdala allows us to act before we think.
Reminders of a trauma also activate the amygdala, which causes a cascade of nerve impulses and stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, that boost our blood pressure, heart rate, and rate of breathing. The amygdala gets feedback from the hippocampus nearby, which relates input to previous experiences. Its job is to integrate our implicit and explicit memories, so we can understand ourselves and the world more fully.
When images and sensations from experiences stay in implicit-only form, meaning in our unconscious, they exist in isolation as a jumbled mess in our brain. So instead of having a clear and whole picture, our implicit memories are scattered and we lack clarity about our story.
The Need to “Make Sense”
It is important for us to realize that when we don’t allow people to express their thoughts and feelings after emotional events, their implicit-only memories stay in disintegrated form and they have no way to make sense of what happened. According to neuroscientist Daniel Siegal, when we integrate our past into our present, we better understand what’s going on inside us and gain better control over our thoughts and behaviors. One of the most powerful ways to promote integration of implicit and explicit memories is to tell the story. Telling the story to a mental health professional who can guide us through that experience in a healthy way is essential to our “making sense” of difficult experiences.
Trauma also activates the right hemisphere of the brain and deactivates the left, thus you lose the ability to put your thoughts and feelings into coherent words. This explains why trauma causes people to feel so scatter-brained and often lack for words.
Preventing the Overwhelm
According to renowned psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, the ability to protect oneself and receive social support plays a critical role in determining if a trauma will leave long-lasting scars. Social support is the most powerful protective factor against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma.
Trauma reorganizes our nervous systems, so we experience the world in a different way afterwards. Thus, trauma treatments need to engage our whole selves – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Trauma increases our risk of misinterpreting whether a situation is safe or dangerous. Faulty alarm systems cause blowups and shutdowns.
Brain Calming Resources
Meditation and yoga strengthen the capacity of the prefrontal cortex to supervise our body sensations. Breathing, movement, and touch recalibrate our autonomic nervous system. Meditation also calms down our sympathetic nervous system so we’re less likely to find ourselves in fight or flight mode.
Neuroscience shows that few psychological problems are the consequence of poor understanding. Most mental issues originate when pressures deep in our brain drive our attention and perception. When our amygdala alarm bell in our emotional brain fires off that we’re in imminent danger, no amount of insight or truth or common sense can silence it.
Moving From Isolation to Peace
For our physiology to combat and counter the threat of danger, to calm down, heal, and move on, we need to feel safe, and that is often difficult to do in isolation. Feeling safe requires trusting others, and this is often destroyed when the trauma is both relational and repeated.
When our brain fires repeatedly that we’re not in a safe situation, this feeling can become our default setting. So, if a child regularly feels unsafe or unwanted at home, that feeling is likely to be transferred to church and school and their brain will learn to specialize in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.
Feeling Safe in Relationships is Key
Humans are mammals, creatures that best survive and thrive in groups. When important relationships become turbulent or unsupportive, psychological problems are a consequence. According to van der Kolk, most mental suffering involves trouble in creating or maintaining meaningful relationships.
Feeling safe in relationships is the most important ingredient in our mental health. Think about what it does to a person when they don’t feel safe with God. Safe connections are crucial to our well-being. Polyvagal theory explains the healing that results from supportive relationships. It refers to the many branches of the vagus nerve which connects organs like our brain and heart. It is the main nerve of our parasympathetic nervous system and controls body functions like our immune system and digestion.
Polyvagal theory offers a more sophisticated understanding of the biology of safety and danger. For example, knowing that we are seen and heard by the significant people in our lives can make us feel safe and calm, while being ignored or dismissed can result in mental collapse or rage. Focused attunement with another person can shift us out of fearful and disorganized states. When we feel threatened, the natural response is to reach out for social support from loved ones. If nobody is there, our sympathetic nervous system takes over and we digress to a more primitive survival method – fight or flight. If this fails, we disengage, shut down, or freeze.
The Healing Balm of Social Support
According to Harvard Medical School professors and the authors of The Science of Stress, Greg Fricchione, Ana Ivkovic, and Albert Yeung, stress is often associated with threats of separation from social supports. Maintaining a vigilant state of readiness amidst stress takes up a great deal of energy.
On the other hand, when we feel securely attached to a safe person, our brain makes a calm state available to us. When stress becomes chronic or overwhelming, our hippocampus may become overly activated, leading to structural damage. Neuroimaging shows the hippocampus shrinks in people with PTSD, impairing memory. Meanwhile, the amygdala grows larger and forms more connections to other neurons, becoming hyperresponsive and inflating the fear response.
Knowledge Invites Understanding
When we have a better understanding of how the brain works during times of stress, we can become less judgmental of others’ behavior and more compassionate. When we become less judgmental and more compassionate, we become more like Christ. When we become more like Christ, we can better hear Him. We better know the significance of being “willing to bear one another’s burdens” and mourning with those that mourn and comforting those who need it. When the Pharisees asked Christ’s disciples in Matthew 9, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” Jesus answered, “They that be whole [or live in the calm, light-filled upstairs brain] need not a physician, but they that are sick [or live in the stress-inducing downstairs brain].” He continues, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy…”
The Hallowed Ground of Suffering
David Holland, the son of Elder Jeffery R. Holland, has shared that his father was preparing to address students and BYU and received counsel from Elder Neal A. Maxwell,
“You must tread with caution on the hallowed ground of another’s suffering.”
When I sit in my office with my clients who are sharing their painful stories, I feel the hallowed ground that I am on. Their trust is sacred. Their healing is sacred. They are sacred. An article in the Journal of Religion and Health by a Yale University graduate pleads,
“Faith communities desperately need to awaken their commitment to providing mental health support to . . . their congregation. Due to their unique position as relationship building entities and millennia of practice promoting children’s development of awareness and empathy, congregations should be more involved in the process of healing. If congregations become better prepared to assist survivors with the development of positive religious coping strategies, they could possibly save the spiritual faith of many of their constituents…”
My hope is that church leaders will better understand how gospel principles like kindness, compassion, and empathy double as strategies in supporting those who struggle with their brain functioning and mental health. When they do, they will better honor the hallowed ground they stand on.