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Anxiety and belief: Are you experiencing a faith crisis? Here’s what may actually be playing a role

Editor’s note: Dr. Debra Theobald McClendon is a clinical psychologist who specializes in scrupulosity, a religiously themed subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is the second in a series of three articles discussing McClendon’s thoughts on how anxiety impacts a personal faith crisis and how individuals can navigate their anxiety with faith. McClendon was recently a guest on LDS Living’s All In podcast. You can listen to the podcast and find more resources on the topic here

Read Part One: 5 principles of faith to help you prevent your doubts from becoming a faith crisis

Concerns about faith can be very painful, at times rocking the core of one’s belief system. Anxiety can further complicate one’s emotional landscape and add panic and desperation to the faith journey, creating a “faith crisis.”  In this article, I will explain how anxiety may play a role in an individual’s faith journey. I’ll also discuss how to recognize anxiety when questions of faith arise.

Anxiety Creates the Crisis

As mortals, our knowledge and understanding of eternity are limited and we generally accept that premise without anxiety (Mosiah 4:9). We understand that faith bridges many of our knowledge gaps. So, what changes in a “faith crisis”? Why the crisis about not knowing everything right now?

The content of crises can include a wide variety of intellectual, emotional, or social concerns.1 So it is not the content, per se, but likely the perceived discrepancy between what one thought they knew—what they think should be real, or what they want to be real—and what they actually know. The discrepancy creates a sense of cognitive dissonance, having two or more contradictory beliefs and feeling stress because of it. 

Dissonance can be difficult to manage emotionally and can lead to anxiety about the possibility of ever finding a peaceful resolution to their faith concerns. In addition, anxiety can create intensely disturbing feelings that cause a sense of desperation or panic, making it difficult to discern the promptings of the Spirit.This can make finding answers to faith concerns even more complicated.

A common theme in many definitions of the word “crisis” is a single, significant moment that dramatically redefines everything;3 it is life-altering, and for believers, it is seen as eternity-changing. Believing one single decision or one single moment of mortality will determine the ultimate fate of one’s eternal salvation (thus feeling you’d better get it right!) can create intense, paralyzing anxiety and it’s emotionally traumatic. 

The fact is, the Atonement of Jesus Christ provides the time necessary for many moments and many chances—a lifetime of them—to learn without a perfect knowledge. The impulsive nature of anxiety,4 on the other hand, leads you to feel when you have questions or concerns about your religious belief that faith by itself is not acceptable—you must have knowledge to make a final decision about your faith right now

Recognize the Presence of Any Anxiety

It is natural to explore questions about one’s faith—Church leaders have expressed that questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice are to be expected. However, it is important how this search for answers is labeled.  

Labeling theory suggests that self-identity and behavior may be determined by the label used to describe them—and it is powerful. Using a label limits the ability to be much more than the label itself. Therefore, if we tell ourselves we are in a “faith crisis” we will, indeed, be in crisis.

If you describe faith concerns as a “crisis,” rather than conceptualizing them as naturally occurring explorations of faith, it reveals that anxiety may be contributing to your sense of upheaval. Additionally, you may inadvertently be causing more anxiety by conceptualizing your concerns as such.

If anxiety is removed from the process, then one may experience gospel questions or faith-based concerns—even painful, deeply troubling concerns that weigh heavily on the heart over long periods of time—without being in “crisis.” In that state, different labels describe a different emotional state. “Faith crisis” can instead be described as “faith questions,” “faith concerns,” “faith journey,” “trial of faith”,5 “religious explorations,” and the like—and in an instant the whole emotional experience shifts away from the focus on panic and anxiety. 

For example, during the time that I explored my religious concerns, I was in tremendous, soul-wrenching pain—but there was no anxiety. As such, I created the space for a faith journey. I was not compelled to make a hasty decision about what I thought I knew. In fact, I never even thought of myself as having a “faith crisis.” The presence or absence of anxiety makes all the difference.

If you recognize that there is an anxious flavor to your faith questions, you will need to work through the process that you are going through with anxiety before you will likely make any meaningful progress on the content of your concern. Anxiety demands an answer now, but leaves you unable to identify the right solution because it causes confusion. Worry about one thing can then be overgeneralized to other areas, leading to despair.6 

 And yet, the Spirit will help you feel calm, even when there is a feeling of uncertainty or dissonance. The Spirit will allow you the emotional space to be thoughtful and ponder and explore your questions. One writer counseled: “There is no deadline to figure things out. You are allowed to change your mind at any time. It is okay to say: “I don’t know.”Indeed, if you feel the pressure of a deadline, anxiety may likely be part of your experience. 

Anxiety Provokes the Desire to Avoid or Escape

Anxiety releases stress hormones that are very uncomfortable.8 You may feel uptight and nervous, with a rapid heartbeat and a churning stomach. You may feel a sense of dread that you just can’t shake. These compelling feelings are so miserable that they frequently provoke a desire to avoid or escape the anxiety. Instinctively, you may attempt to do this by avoiding or escaping what you think is triggering the anxiety. For example, if going to church triggers anxiety, then you may stop going. However, avoidance tends to only decrease anxiety temporarily and increase anxiety in the long run. It also diminishes your sense of confidence that you can cope with your anxiety in future situations.

By avoiding church or other personal or public religious worship, individuals abandon a resource that can be helpful to them. Studies of religion and mental health show positive associations between religious commitment and overall well-being, and negative associations between religious commitment and psychopathology. Individuals using positive religious coping techniques also reported improved health and mental health outcomes.9 Instead of avoiding an anxiety trigger, such as the temple, scriptures, church attendance, and the like, it would be more effective to address the anxiety in order to be able to gain the full benefits of your church activity.  

When I work with therapy clients, the presence of anxiety becomes quite noticeable when someone speaks in a pressured or chaotic way, can’t articulate their thoughts clearly, and vacillates repeatedly while trying to make decisions. For example, they may make a decision in peace and calm only to later have anxiety kick in and push them into confusion and panic. I often say things like: “Don’t obey anxiety,” or “Don’t let anxiety bully you.” When people do what anxiety compels them to do, their world begins to shut down, becoming smaller and smaller while anxiety continues to grow. Freedom comes from learning how to manage anxiety in adaptive ways. 

Up Next 

If you missed the first article in this series, read about the five principles of faith to prevent doubts from becoming a faith crisis here. On Saturday, September 19, I will explain how to create a healthier relationship with anxiety so you can take your journey through faith without fear.

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