He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears. ~Montaigne, Essays, 1512
Fear is a very primitive emotion, setting off a chain reaction of events that pumps our blood full of adrenaline, raises our heartbeat, tenses our muscles, expends our energy, and quickens our thoughts. This is the essence of the so called “fight or flight mode.” It is very necessary for our physical survival that we recognize danger and react to it. Its result is a complete shutting off of higher centers in the brain, in order to focus all our faculties on a threat.
While fear is good for survival, the behavior that results has led to some of the ugliest, most savage, animalistic atrocities that our race is capable of. Fear shuts off the human instinct of compassion and empathy. Fear is at the heart of war, the fight in fight or flight. It is at the heart of suspicion, prejudice, persecution, and genocide. Religion can take on a whole new character in the face of millennialism induced fear. There is something about seeing decay in society and impending cataclysm that causes us to withdraw, to see outsiders as heathens. Mormonism began as a very millenialist tradition. In many ways this is understandable. As a people we were the ones driven across the country from place to place into the wilderness of Utah to try and build a society from scratch. The early Mormons had real reasons to fear the rest of the world with the death of the prophet. This fear reached it’s ugliest, most tragic zenith with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It was fear that did the driving right into monstrous brutality perpetrated by our own. In turn, it is fear of these fear driven groups that leads the rest of society to fear the “extremists”, jihadists, cults, or whatever fear conjuring term we want to apply.
From the dawn of history, religion and anxiety have been intertwined. Animistic tribes and cultures developed complex rituals and rules to calm angered deities or ancestral spirits. People lived in fear of being curse, or worse, being accused as the source of misfortune, of having the infamous evil eye. Throughout history anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, obsessions and compulsions have all at one time or another been blamed on demonic possession or evil spirits. This is a lingering reason for the stigma that pervades mental illness to this day. Puritans recoiled in fear from sermons like this one-
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
The hysteria lay behind countless witch hunts and burnings in this country and Europe, actual murder to rid the world of evil. With this baggage is it any wonder that anxiety and religion are so often intertwined.
It seems the standard narrative for our spiritual journey that we must wade through darkness, fear, and worry before we reach “enlightenment.” Why is this? I believe that it is the natural path we progress in. We start at a point of fear and uncertainty. God in alien and unknown and therefore frightening. Nowhere in scripture does God appear angrier and more frightening than the Old Testament. God set apart to himself a people, Israel, with a destiny to heal the world. God took these people from the impoverished and enslaved of Egypt. His task appears to be building civilization from scratch. In the text I think it is clear he works with them appealing to their most basic instinct, fear. This is the lowest level upon which any of can relate to the divine and thus the necessary starting point. It is unflattering to us today but apparently worked at the time. Somewhere in time the early Israelites have moved to the complex and sophisticated culture that is the Judaism of today. Clearly, they have moved beyond the God of fear and threats. At some point, we learn the law, we keep it. We become more capable of living with each other and thus learning and functioning as a society.
There comes a point where we have to move from distrust to trust, from fear to faith. Only then can we grow and realize the designs God has for us. At some point we move from rebellion or obedience out of fear to a point where we strive to be better, become more. This is a positive and important step in spiritual growth. We learn to step up and do good out of obligation to God and one another. However, it is not without some very common pitfalls.
The danger is that of perfectionism, one to which I have certainly fallen prey to in the past. While the appearances, goals and directions have changed, perfectionism retains this same lower level of fear within it. Perfectionism is an inner belief that for anything to be worthwhile, it must be perfect. We want to jump to the finish line now that we have learned the goal. The problem with it is that progress isn’t enough. If we go part way, we failed. We can become fixated on details, perfect obedience, new rules. The perfectionist loves to measure everyone in the hierarchy of righteousness, weigh the big and the little sins. It is obsessed with judgement. We can even block change and repentance in some cases, procrastinating in the fear the change won’t stick. In the end, the perfectionist can never be good enough. Even when we excel, the joy is sucked out of it. We are merely “acceptable.” There is no rejoicing in accomplishment, just relief that we didn’t fall prey to failure, this time.
From my experience, I think the best thing that can ever happen to you in this state is to fail, and fail miserably, provided you don’t fall into a vicious depression cycle and become suicidal. Eighty percent of those with clinical depression also have generalized anxiety disorder. That is an astounding number and seems to indicate that one leads to the other. This is the path that perfectionism leads. Perfectionism and religion taken together can become a vicious circle. We are imperfect because we are unhappy, so we must be sinful or else we would be happy, so our worth goes down in a never ending spiral. We are caught in a religiously motivated vicious circle of self flagellation. Only when we learn to question the assumptions that lead us to fear failure and hold ourselves in low esteem can we move beyond perfectionism to a healthier striving for perfection. The first is maladaptive and harmful, the second healthy, yet both are steps in our spiritual progress.
So how on Earth can failure in these circumstances be good? It forces a change in perspective. Failure forces us to a tipping point. It is there that we just might surprise ourselves and find courage. I think courage is the determination to look fear in the eye, without blinking and reengaging the rational mind that was shut off by fear and automatic physiologic responses previously. I wish we all could respond to our fears in this fashion. I am much more of a flight person myself. In my experience, courage response to anxiety is the road less traveled. In my case, the familiar path is better described by Arthur Somers Roche, “Anxiety is a thin stream of fear running through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”
Combating this fear once it has carved a raging channel can be extremely difficult. Worry triggers adrenaline, strengthens fear circuit response, and can make us tense to the point we are always exhausted, and make thoughts race to the point we cannot concentrate on the present moment. In short, we spend so much time worrying about tomorrow, it robs us of the present. It can steal our life away. This is just another example of how the brain can cause the mind to go haywire. This fear and worry is the phenomenon we know as generalized anxiety disorder, or when focused, as phobia or traumatic stress disorder. The flood of adrenaline and body revving up can become detached from thought, creating panic disorder. When we fear this fear itself we can develop full blown agoraphobia, paralyzed by a fear of having a panic attack in public, leaving one imprisoned within their own home. In some cases, medication may be necessary to slow the flow through the channel while learning to manage thoughts. This allows us to start the real work in resculpting the bank to reduce the stream once again. It means learning to question our fears and place them in context. We can use reason to stem their tide, and then use it to plan action to deal with what remains. In truth, the monsters are almost never quite as big in life as they are in the mind.
While reason can be a very powerful tool in curbing anxiety, in my life I have found even more power in faith, though it is fascinating to me that both can work to the exact same end. This leads me to one of the greatest scripture in the entirety of our cannon, IMHO.
2 Tim. 1:7
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
The key to transitioning is from perfectionism to striving for perfection is love. In my life I have experienced that love directly as a gift from God at the lowest of moments. Perfectionism is done out of duty, with an underlying belief we can never be good enough unless we dot every I and cross every T. Striving for perfection is motivated by love and a profound personal change. Every religion I know of describes this point of growth. It is the point of epiphany, nirvana, inner peace, enlightenment, being spiritually born of God, to sing the song of redeeming love, to be filled with his love to the consuming of our flesh. It is a point where we come to see the divinity within ourselves and the wonder of creation. It is the point where our actions flow out of our hearts rather than cover the wounds within. It is as real as anything I have ever experienced. There were moments in my life when I was locked away in the lowest depths of depression that it felt anything but real. This is a consequence of the bad wiring and faulty brain function that is part of a real physical condition. Mysteriously, this revelation of power, love and a sound mind so often seems to come in the moments of our greatest pain. This process is what God is referring to when he asks us to come unto him and be converted and healed. This is what the Savior meant when he said his yoke was easy and his burden light.
Power, love, and a sound mind are all gifts that flow from the spirit of God. The times in my life I have felt closest to God, fear has been totally incompatible. It melts away in a very real sense. I really don’t understand those who denigrate faith as “just an emotion.” I believe it is critical to recovering our humanity in the face of fear. It is what religion typically lacks when it exhibits its worst flaws. It is an absolute key to our own happiness. Maintaining it can be a struggle. Losing faith can leave some very deep and painful scars. In these situations, I still think regaining faith can be done, even though it may change it’s curve and shape radically from what it was before. I believe its power will remain, maybe even grow into something more beautiful than before. I maintain this is a struggle worth fighting.
Is religion the cause of anxiety? In far too many cases, yes. Can religion cure anxiety? The wonder and miracle of it all is yes. In fact, there are actual studies have shown that anxiety levels are in fact lower among the actively church going. While it is very easy to criticize religion in general, or specific belief systems (Mormonism anyone?) as toxic, perfectionist and anxiety producing, the fact is when this shift is made, it is not the doctrine that has changed. Our personal perspective has changed. God didn’t change, but our relationship with and understanding of him did. I believe most of us will get it eventually, some faster than others. We are all on this journey and if we can just keep moving forward we will change. As I look at history, I think society itself is moving along this path. Our understanding as humanity is growing as we develop the concepts of dignity and human rights, as we abolish slavery and try to shine a bright light on the injustices and suffering of others. As we slowly fight off the prejudices that so easily beset us. This is the great secret. Darkness, obstacles, fear, uncertainty, guilt, self loathing can be and often are merely stops along the journey to a higher, healthier, and happier state of being. Wherever you may be on this path I wish you good luck in your journey.
I love this! I have thought about these exact ideas so many times but you put it into works perfectly. Well done. I have realized for some time now that love is the opposite of fear. I have also considered that religion is both the cause of fear, and the [cure?] for it. But I like the way you phrased it in your last paragraph. It can be hard to find the balance, but I think it’s an important journey for everyone to go on. Awareness, I think, is key in understanding it all. But again, excellent essay!
Um, I might steal this for a talk
I’d be interested to know if the study finding lower levels of anxiety among active church goers (or related studies) give any evidence of what things contribute to the lower anxiety? Is it simply that anxious people are less likely to attend church, or can church really help? And if it can really help, how does it help? These seem like important questions for those of us with moderate amounts of anxiety. How do I maximize what church can do for me?