Tag Archives: ptsd

Spiritual Abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Spiritual abuse and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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.

Here is a brief video that discusses this phenomenon. 

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)
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Trouble with nightmares or lack of sleep
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Flashbacks
  • 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.

 

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Five Things I Learned from Spiritual Abuse Survivors

I finally finished editing my latest book, Broken Trust...a practical guide to identify and recover from toxic faith, toxic church, and spiritual abuse.  I learned a lot from the spiritual abuse survivors who helped me write the book. I want to share a few of these lessons here.

This is my sixth book, and by far, Broken Trust is the most collaborative effort. I have my own spiritual abuse story, but everyone’s story is different. To help broaden my frame of reference, I sent out over a hundred copies of the book, at various stages along the way, to get people’s feedback. I didn’t want to give a slanted view of the topic and my only hope in avoiding that was to get regular feedback from spiritual abuse survivors. Spiritual abuse is a sensitive topic. I didn’t want to mishandle it.

I am grateful for the advice I got from so many people. I included survivor input throughout the book so my readers would get a broader view of the problem.

What I Learned from Spiritual Abuse Survivors

As I think back on the writing process, here are a few of the more important lessons I learned from the spiritual abuse survivors who helped me with the book.

  1. Words matter. When talking about spiritual abuse, you are speaking about something that has torn people apart on the inside. I have a direct approach in my speaking and writing. Most people appreciate this, but I didn’t want to be reckless or sloppy with my word choice. It’s easy to misinterpret the intention of words on a page. I had to change my approach with this book, softening my words and explaining my intent with greater care.

    When talking about spiritual abuse, you are speaking about something that has torn people apart on the inside.

  2. Tone matters. The concerns of spiritual abuse survivors are typically marginalized and dismissed. They are used to people trying to get them back “in line” with trite quotes from the Bible or cliché spiritual answers. This shuts them down because they don’t feel heard. I went out of my way to see things from the perspective of the survivor and speak to them, and for them, with empathy. I wanted them to know that I was on their side and not out to “fix” them.
  3. PTSD is common among spiritual abuse survivors. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is something we often think of in terms of war veterans. That was my first exposure to it. But it was clear to me that spiritual abuse survivors suffer from this too. I’ll write another post on this soon to say more about this important topic. I think this is one of the biggest reasons survivors of spiritual abuse have difficulty returning to church or relating to pastors. There are just too many triggers that take them back to a dark place.
  4. Spiritual abuse is broader than the church. At the end of my editing, I had a former Jehovah’s Witness tell me that she loved the book, but it was hard to read it at times because of how often I referred to the “church” or to “pastors.” She said that those are two words that JW’s rarely use and it was a bit of a stumbling block. She requested that I use words that encompass a greater number of people who might suffer from spiritual abuse than just those in a Christian church. I would have never thought of that on my own. I went through the entire book and did as she asked. It now is much more inclusive of all people who have suffered spiritual abuse.
  5. Spiritual abuse is more common than we realize. People often lament that fewer and fewer people attend church. They assume that people are increasingly choosing to not believe in God. I disagree. I think church attendance has dropped, not because people have quit believing in God but because church leaders are often condescending, close-minded, and heavy-handed in their approach. There was a day when people would put up with that. No more.

The Generosity of Spiritual Abuse Survivors

I’m surprised by the number of people who wanted to help me with my book. They were grateful that someone wanted to help people in their situation heal. Many people were willing to freely give me their input and advice. It was a true team effort. It gives me great confidence, in releasing this book, that people will find it helpful because it’s filled with wisdom from a variety of spiritual abuse survivors.

Broken Trust is available for pre-sale now and will release on September 18th in paperback and on Kindle. If you read the book, I’d appreciate your reviewing it on the Amazon page. If you are a blogger, I hope you will review Broken Trust. If you have a podcast or radio show, I’d love to speak with you and your audience. Thanks for considering these options. Spiritual abuse is not a pretty topic, but it needs discussing. You can help with that!

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