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Anxiety and Belief: Practical tips to manage anxiety and allow you to explore your faith without fear

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 final article in a series 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

Read Part Two: Are you experiencing a faith crisis? Here’s what may actually be playing a role

This is the final article in my recent series discussing anxiety’s role in faith crisis. In the previous articles I discussed principles of faith and shared how anxiety creates the crisis in a faith journey, creating a “faith crisis.” In this article, I will share specific interventions you can use to begin building a healthier relationship with anxiety.

Work to manage anxiety’s influence

Learn to soothe. One of the most powerful interventions against anxiety is to learn how to comfort yourself to bring the physiological stress reaction down. Soothing comes in many forms, such as caressing a soft blanket, listening to calming music, taking a hot shower, playing with kinetic sand, etc. However, one of the most powerful soothers is deep, diaphragmatic breathing. It can be done any place and at any time and is generally undetectable by those around you.

Deep breathing is commonly used in therapy to help people calm down, and many breathing patterns can be useful. One research study found that if you breathe for two minutes, inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for eight seconds (working to increase the length of the exhale), you engage the vagus nerve, increase heart rate variability, and improve decision making.1 I have done deep breathing for years, and have found this 4:8 ratio to be the most powerful at creating an almost instant sense of calm.

Work on mindfulness. Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion, so another very effective intervention is to bring yourself back from the future and engage more fully in the present moment. One writer suggested that when experiencing anxiety in the temple or at church, you can find something concrete to focus on, such as listening intently to the speaker, focusing on the music, noticing the colors or textures in the room, or paying attention to your feet grounded on the floor.2 She also suggested focusing on relationships and service by asking yourself: “Whom does the Lord need me to serve?” or “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” Additionally, you can identify and “hold” moments when you have felt the Spirit in the past and then focus on inviting the Spirit again into your life through scripture study, singing hymns, or listening to testimonies.3

Use cognitive-based skills to work through the anxiety. Cognitive strategies examine thoughts and try to remove any thinking errors or cognitive distortions. You can create flexibility by asking if what you are telling yourself is true or if you may be missing something. You can identify evidence that proves the anxiety is distorting your perception. For example, if you are afraid God will punish you for having doubts you can do a scripture search on the nature of God to read of his kind, good, merciful, or long-suffering nature. Renaming “faith crisis” into a descriptive term that omits the anxiety, such as “faith journey” (as discussed in the second article in this series), is a cognitive-based skill.

Musician Michael McClean shared his story of a 9-year “faith crisis,” and concluded by indicating that revelation was able to finally come because he made space to question his assumptions and create flexibility in his thinking:

And then I thought, “Why did this take nine years?” . . . . Were there times that Jesus was there and I didn’t see Him because I had decided in advance . . . this is how God answers prayers, like this . . . Well, what if He was answering me outside of the box? What if there were ways He was trying to give me hope and reassure me and talk to me and it just went over my head because I couldn’t see it . . . . And I listed 25 things that had happened where the Lord was reaching out to me. It was a discovery of the fact that for nine years, the Lord had not been punishing me by not talking to me. He was trying to teach me that even when I couldn’t see it, His grace was trying to save me.”

Learn to tolerate uncertainty. While working through faith questions, answers may be slow to come. Thus, it is not only imperative to learn to create greater cognitive flexibility to resist the pull of making decisions prematurely, but you need to learn to emotionally tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing everything right now. Again, faith says you don’t know everything right now, but you choose to believe (Mark 9:24).

Communicate to others. Communicate to others what you can and can’t do. Communicate to them about what they can expect from you. You can also communicate with others about how they can help you.

Seek professional mental health treatment. If working through anxiety on your own is not meeting your needs, please do not hesitate to seek the services of a trained mental health professional. Treatment for anxiety is effective and generally short-term (with longer treatment processes for more severe or complicated issues, such as scrupulosity). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught: “If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.”4

One client’s mother reflected on changes she observed in her college-age son after he worked through his anxiety: “His whole concept of Heavenly Father changed. Overall, a huge weight or burden has been lifted. He seems much more relaxed and at peace with the learning and growing process of life—much more able to be himself. He is openly grateful and joyous of . . . the tools and understanding he feels like he now has to recognize and navigate situations that would've previously brought anxiety and distress.”5

Summary

Religious or faith-based concerns create pain and heartache for the honest follower seeking truth. The search for truth can be stressful and exhausting. Yet, even with that strain, you do not have to be in “crisis.” You can have patience and even a sense of calm while working through the process as it honestly plays out. If you feel you are in “crisis,” seriously consider whether anxiety is playing a role in your faith journey. If you recognize the presence of anxiety, use self-help approaches or work with the assistance of a trained mental health professional to address your needs. You can find peace even while in the midst of your journey, recognizing that the definition of faith means you don’t know everything right now and yet you choose to believe.

In the meantime, the rest of us are here for you. We love you. I echo these words of artist J. Kirk Richards6 that when “we get to see each other at church again, if you have questions, concerns or doubts about faith, history, policies, or leaders—that’s cool. Come sit by me. I’ve gone through a lot of that stuff. We can talk about Zion in new ways, if you want to. Or we can just chill.” 

 Read the rest of the series about faith and anxiety here

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  • 1. De Couck et al., “How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases,” 2019.
  • 2–3. Madeleine Tolk, “4 tips for those who experience anxiety in the temple and at church," August 2017.
  • 4. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Like a Broken Vessel,” Ensign, November 2013.
  • 5. Story shared with permission.
  • 6. J. Kirk Richards Facebook post, August 4, 2020. Shared with permission


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