In my last post, I mentioned five lessons I learned from spiritual abuse survivors in the writing of my new book, Broken Trust. One of the lessons is that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more prevalent than you might realize among survivors of spiritual abuse.
In writing Broken Trust, I purposefully sought out input from survivors of spiritual abuse. As I heard back from these people, they shared a common experience. Many of them were easily triggered by words and experiences that the average believer finds normal.
For example, singing a popular worship song in church, hearing a particular Bible verse quoted, or even being introduced to a pastor might trigger a “fight or flight” response: a sudden panic attack or intense anger. Possibly both.
What I find troubling is the guilt that often accompanies this experience. People often conclude that their negative response to these spiritual inputs mean that something is wrong with them. They must be defective to have such an adverse reaction to a spiritual experience. It makes them question if the accusations from their abusive congregation were right.
Maybe they are the problem.
PTSD doesn’t have to come from one powerfully traumatic experience. It can come from the slow drip of the stripping of your dignity that happens with spiritual abuse.
Maybe they were wrong to leave.
Maybe they are hypersensitive and unreasonable.
It reminds me of my experience after leaving a spiritually abusive church. I was unable to attend worship services any place for five years, even though I tried many times to return. I didn’t have panic attacks, but the services seemed superficial and inauthentic. I left the services more irritated than inspired.
I don’t think I suffered from PTSD, but my experience helped me relate to what I was hearing from others. My bad church experience deeply affected me. It changed me. It wasn’t something I could just “get over.”
Spiritual Abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Stephen A. Smith blogs about spiritual abuse at libertyforcaptives.com. He wrote an article called, “Crock Pot Trauma” that I recommend you take the time to read. Here is an excerpt from his article:
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) classifies and describes various anxiety disorders, one of which is post traumatic stress. Part of the classification of post traumatic stress is the reaction to the traumatic event:
- Triggered panic attacks
- Agoraphobia (fear of being trapped, or loss of control around people)
- Avoidance of places or people which remind us of the traumatic event or situation
- Restricted expression of affect (difficulty feeling happy or loved)
- Trouble with nightmares or lack of sleep
- Exaggerated startle response
- Inability to function in relationships
- Sense of a foreshortened future
- Feeling trapped, detached or estranged from other people.
While not every spiritual abuse victim suffers these symptoms, some do. I have experienced all of these symptoms during the past five years—and I know folks from my former church and other cult-like groups who have experienced similar symptoms. Indeed, the church consulting agency that helped our church disband recommended that the church be shut down entirely. They did this because almost every member of the congregation was traumatized when they entered the church building. In a manner of speaking, we were all spiritual POWs now set free. Yet many of us still carry psychological chains.
Sometimes it takes very little to rattle those chains. Situations which trigger my feelings of panic include: seeing a police car turn on its lights behind me; reading the same translation of the Bible that my former pastor favored; being late to an event by even one minute; encountering an authority figure; hearing the old hymns that my former church used to play; walking into a congregation of less than 100 people; participating in an event which has a formalized dress code; grocery shopping; and flossing my teeth. Yes, in my former church we even had a theology of flossing. Our pastor equated flossing with spiritual maturity.
What I’m hoping you’ll see is that PTSD doesn’t have to come from one powerfully traumatic experience. It can come from the slow drip of the stripping of your dignity that happens with spiritual abuse. If you have experienced this kind of abuse, you are not defective. You don’t need fixing. You need healing. Your soul has been ravaged. It’s not your fault, no matter what others say or what you might feel.
If you have experienced some kind of spiritual abuse, please consider that you might be suffering from PTSD. It’s a very serious condition that requires outside help from a professional.
In Broken Trust I wrote:
Spiritual abuse will convince you that it is selfish to think of yourself. You are conditioned to feel guilt whenever you put your needs before the needs of the organization. Seeking help might even imply that your spiritual leaders are wrong, and you don’t want to make that accusation. But if you want to regain wholeness, it’s imperative that you get very “selfish” right now and seek the healing you need. Chapter Fourteen: How to Recover From Spiritual Abuse, Broken Trust
The impact of spiritual abuse won’t just go away on its own. I hope you care for yourself enough to seek help.