Examining Anxiety, Spirituality, and Elevation (EASE)

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Purpose: The main purpose of this study is to improve our understanding of the antecedents and consequents of eliciting moral elevation in a convenience sample of undergraduate students by using videos that are targeted to demonstrate 3 specific virtues: spirituality, compassion, and courage.

Sub-aims include 1) examining differences between anxious and nonanxious students, 2) exploring the role of personal values in elevation responses, 3) assessing the role of religiosity/spirituality in mental health stigma and responses to relevant videos, 4) examining whether viewing specific videos elicit motiviations directly related to virtues displayed (e.g., compassion and courage).

Background: Previous studies have indicated that religiosity and spirituality were not protective factors for individuals with a low level of hope from anxiety. On the other hand, religious or spiritual individuals with low levels of hope appeared to experience a higher level of anxiety (DiPierro, Fite, & Johnson-Motoyama, 2018). Although in one study, the senior pastor of Baptist churches appeared to be supportive of the church members to seek out professional health, they referred the members to health care professionals who were Christians or who shared the same beliefs (Stanford, & Philpott, 2011). Furthermore, compared to non-Christians, Christians reported a significantly higher level of self-stigma of depression, especially Evangelical Christians. This suggested that Evangelical Christians were less likely to seek help from professionals or mental health clinics (McGuire, & Pace, 2018). This result was also supported in another study that religious individuals reported significant distrust toward mental health services mainly due to previous negative experiences. Moreover, religious individuals reported to a greater concern about the mental health stigma that they would face in the public (Nakash et al., 2019).

The result of the study suggested that Christians found to be morally elevated and more likely to engage in prosocial acts after hearing stories or seeing visual images of the sacrifices of saints that have been transmitted from one generation to the next generation (Palmer et al., 2013). However, the literature has not yet examined moral elevation and mental health stigma experienced in religious and spiritual individuals after watching uplifting videos. This study focuses on filling this literature gap. Understanding the nature of the influences could provide valuable information for mental health professionals and future studies on moral elevation.

Additionally, the literature has indicated a relationship between anxiety and high levels of self-focused attention (Ingram, 1990), illustrating a potential benefit of a moral elevation training. Witnessing virtuous acts by others has been established to elicit moral elevation in those observing these acts (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). Previous research has been limited with anxious populations; however, the information which has been gleaned indicates that those with clinical symptoms on high-elevation days reported lower dysphoria, anxiety, and hostility (Erickson & Abelson, 2012), further depicting the potential benefits of this study. To contribute to the current literature, this study aims to also investigate shared values that those with high levels of anxiety hold important, and whether these values will lead to a greater likelihood of experiencing moral elevation. Specifically, we predict that those who hold bravery and compassion as an important moral value will be more likely to experience moral elevation.

Bravery has been commonly studied in anxious children, and studies have pointed to the finding that encouraging children to approach anxiety-provoking situations was an important factor in the phenomenology and treatment of anxiety (Silk et. al., 2013). However, research has not directly targeted the experiencing of moral elevation of those with high levels of anxiety, specifically those that consider bravery to be an important moral value. In the same realm, this study seeks to investigate a similar result in those that value compassion. It is predicted that those who hold compassion as an important value will be more likely to experience moral elevation, in line with the idea that focusing attention outward, rather than toward the self, as typically seen in anxiety. Previous research has found that elevation triggers prosocial behavior, and furthermore contributes to well-being (Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). Therefore, potential benefits of the study may address treatment recommendations in a therapeutic context, and consider shifting the focus of therapy to reflect on moral values that an anxious client may hold important.

Adam P. McGuire
Adam P. McGuire
Assistant Professor of Psychology