Our faith — whether a religious conviction, a commitment to human rights, or another set of deeply-held beliefs — informs many of our life choices. So what happens when we lose these guiding principles?

Although the number of people with a conventional religious faith is falling, most of us have a faith in something, be it a higher power, or a belief system based in politics or psychology. These give a powerful narrative to our lives and a sense of our place and significance in the world. They define who we are and influence our goals and motivations. But even the strongest faith can be a fragile thing. If our belief system comes under attack, our core identity can be annihilated.

For example, severe illness can halt our participation in shared activities and trigger a reassessment of the nature of the world. Other events can produce a similar reassessment, such as bereavement or being the victim of a violent crime. Even a long-standing faith may no longer bring comfort. This is more likely if the faith is based on self-esteem, status or a sense of belonging, whereas a more intrinsic faith based on well thought-out ideas will be more enduring.

Either way, the experience of losing our faith is likely to be extremely difficult, leading to depression, loneliness or anger. Our whole system of experiencing and interpreting life comes under threat. It may lead to the loss of friends, a social life, even create distance in our closest relationships and raise questions about our identity. The loss is compounded if other areas of life, such as work, are not able to compensate. This feeling of having the rug pulled out from under our feet is frightening, isolating and confusing. How can we measure and trust other people now? Who could understand what we’re going through?

When this happens, we feel we have been let down by our belief system, that it has failed to prevent something bad happening to us or those we love. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile a belief in an all-powerful, loving God with the unfairness and injustice in the world.

But disillusionment need not always lead to the rejection of a faith, just a mature reappraisal. As we get older, we often develop more realistic standards and expectations, so our goals and aspirations alter as well. These changes can happen suddenly or they may occur gradually, almost without us realising it. And they are more likely if we arrived at the belief system ourselves, rather than having it handed down from our families at an early age, such as a belief in alternative therapies.

Once a person has gone through a loss of faith, the personality that emerges can be capable of building stronger foundations on which to live the rest of their life. People with a need to be deeply engaged, and express their beliefs passionately, will always find meaning and a way forwards that they can rely on.

Coping with a Loss of Faith

The most important thing at this time is to be kind to yourself and avoid getting tied up in knots trying to work out what you “really” believe. If it’s unclear for a while, try to be patient and go with the uncertainly, and the answer may become clearer.

Realize that what you’re experiencing is similar to bereavement, so allow yourself to grieve for what you’ve lost. Even if you’re thinking “how could I have been so blind?”, remember that it is something that previously meant a lot to you and provided stability. Bear in mind the major stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Share your feelings with a compassionate and trustworthy person who will understand your disillusionment and doubts and not impose their own beliefs on you.

Try not to “rebound” towards an alternative belief system straight away, to fill the gap. Give yourself time to re-evaluate your needs. You are now open to thinking new thoughts and doing new things. This can feel very liberating.

You are not alone in your struggle. Thousands of others have felt the same way as you. Experiencing periods of doubt is actually a healthy process and much better than avoiding the issue or pushing it down. And ultimately, you will be better equipped to help someone else going through the same process.