Friday, May 11, 2012

Strategies for Handling Church-Induced Anxiety

In my previous post, I wrote about how I was experiencing anxiety attacks whenever I had to discuss church-related topics with my family or ward members. I went to a therapist yesterday to get some advice about how to handle an attack when it occurs and also some long-term solutions for dealing with family members. The session was helpful, so I thought I'd pass on some of the guidance here.

How to Handle Anxiety Attacks

The first key is to recognize when an anxiety attack is occurring. As you pay better attention to your body, you'll start to see patterns in the situations that cause the anxiety to occur. You'll also begin to notice which symptoms you first experience when the anxiety attack is setting in. For me, it's a rapid heartbeat and I start to feel the first sensations of stress hormones.

When you start to feel the anxiety attack beginning, you need to take steps to resolve it as soon as possible. The longer an anxiety attack keeps going, the more it will spiral further downward into negativity---kind of like the snowball effect.

The first thing you need to do to resolve the anxiety attack is to consciously breathe in and out and slow your breathing down. You need to remind your body what relaxation feels like. Breathing is a cue to your body to cool down and not get upset. It helps your body's rhythms slow down and not get caught up in an intense rhythm. (It's harder for adrenaline to spread through your body when your heartbeat is down, for example.) Closing your eyes could also help.

The second thing is to get your mind focused on the present by noticing your environment. Anxiety attacks are basically caused by fears about the future that gradually crescendo and build until they become more and more extreme. So, by distracting yourself and thinking about the present, you don't allow your mind to develop fears that are centered in the future. So, look around your environment and pay attention to the tiny details of the room. Focus on the colors of the leaves of your houseplant or the patterns on the fabric of the chair you're sitting in or things like that. Live in the present. Another thing you can do is squeeze your fingers. Hold your thumb with your opposite hand and count to 5 or 10 and do that with all your other fingers until you feel better. (This works great for kids who have woken up from a nightmare too.) Take as much time as you need to be in this state.

After you've calmed down, take some time to reflect on the root cause of the anxiety. You don't have to do this right away. You can wait a few days. But when you are ready, ask yourself: what are you really afraid of? Is it based on a rational fear or an irrational fear? Think about it in terms of probabilities. For example, is it fairly probable that my father is going to disown me and never speak to me again. (No.) Is it fairly probable that he won't love me any more? (No.) And just keep talking yourself down from there until you find the border between your rational fears and your irrational ones. We spent a lot of the session talking about my irrational vs. rational fears.

Long-Term Solutions for Dealing With Family Members

I felt kind of proud of myself for realizing I needed to set boundaries before coming to the therapy session, but it was helpful to talk with the therapist about how to actually do it anyway.

The basic principle to keep in mind is to set a firm boundary but to show kindness and love at the same time. Decide what that boundary is and express it without any equivocation. Then follow it up with an expression of love. She also recommended writing this down in a letter since that is an easier way to communicate bad news to family members.

So, for example, my panic attack earlier this week was prompted by a phone call from my dad setting up a lunch appointment, which almost always means he wants to lecture me about the church. This has happened somewhat frequently since I announced to him I was having problems with the church. I need these anxiety-inducing discussions to stop.

The basic idea I need to communicate to him is: I am inactive from the church and that is non-negotiable; I don't want to discuss it. But I still love you and I want a relationship with you. (That way I have set a clear, firm boundary but am expressing kindness and empathy at the same time.)

That being said, you need to be cautious about over-empathizing with your parents. My therapist said that you shouldn't let their anxieties cause you to surrender your boundaries. You need to still protect your own sense of self.

She said that I need to be aware that when people hear bad news like this, they will likely go through 2 or more of the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief. You may not always see them experiencing these stages, but it is likely to happen. (On the bright side, I can totally empathize with them since I experienced a lot of the stages of grief when I was going through my faith crisis.)

It's painful to know that you will disappoint someone, to know that you will cause them grief. But is it more important to make your parents happy or to do what you need to do in order to be happy? Obviously, you need to do what is best for your own mental health and well-being. You can't remain in a state of stress and anxiety just to please other people. And that might mean that you will cause some pain for the people you care about. But eventually, both you and they will reach a state of acceptance.


  1. Thank you for writing this post. I have felt so alone in dealing with this exact thing, my husband whom I love so dearly was diagnosed with an illness and he has become extremely religious in just a few month, it is as if I don't know him yet I love him and am trying to understand that this helps him to cope with his illness and life. But it is physically & emotionally destroying me, I feel like I'm in a never ending tunnel spiraling out of my control and this flys in the face of all reason to me. It is very challenging for me to accompany him every week and I too have begun on Saturdays to start having panic attacks that I indure silently. Thank you again

  2. That's really rough, Olivia. It sounds like you're doing a good job of being understanding and empathetic to your husband's need to find comfort in religion (and to go through the stages of grief as he gradually learns to cope with it). And that's very noble of you. But it sounds like it's hurting you a lot---which doesn't seem healthy. Maybe you and your husband can work out some ground rules/boundaries together? For example, would he possibly be willing go to church without you? Maybe you could attend every other week? Or perhaps there is a way to reduce the amount of time you spend at church---such as only attending sacrament meeting or having some "you time" roaming the halls a bit when things get too much? Just some ideas... Feel free to disregard them if they don't feel right. It's a tricky road to navigate, as you and I both know.