Monday, May 21, 2012

PTSD and Religious Trauma

So… I want to talk about PTSD.
Especially the kind of PTSD that comes when a person has been raised and marinated in severe and strict fundamental Christianity.
I would really love to open up a conversation with anybody that would like to share on this.
I know some of my sweet blog friends just turned their head and raised an eyebrow after reading that sentence…. so it’s YOU that I would love to hear from. :)

Here is a list of PTSD symptoms.
Some new terms for this when religion is involved are Religious Trauma Syndrome or RTS.

I will share some of my own experience that has gotten my gears churning and gotten me wondering about this phenomenon.

It seems every time I start to step into a groove of living in peace and freedom in my journey with God,  I will have some kind of trigger bring a rush of fear, utter terror and doubt…

Whether it be I bump into a Christian friend who will start spouting off Christianize and all the "law" teachings of today's Christianity, or I go check out a church with my hubby, and the pastor starts spouting off law, law, law from the pulpit… or even if I just happen upon a article and read a article that has the same verbiage as I heard growing up in the church... whatever it may be!
You get the picture. It IS going to happen.. it’s life. And Christianity IS every were… I mean, I am a Christian for goodness sakes.
Just not THAT kind of Christianity!

These events seem to trigger some sort of "old thinking" in me.
And a voice inside my head that is critical and religious.
I am flooded with fear, doubt, and total terror that I am official on my way to hell.
That I have got God ALL wrong, and that He really is like what this passionate preacher is telling me He is like.
That I am just one, and look at aaaaaall of these people sitting here, believing what this pastor is preaching... they are so many, and therefor must know something I don't...
I must have it all wrong. I must have GOD all wrong.

And on and on and on the voice goes…

I call these times "hauntings"... and that is exactly what they feel like... being haunted!

My upbringing for my formative years was very religious…

I remember as a little girl wanting to please God so much. I would pray in fear every night and confess every sin I could think of so that if I died in my sleep, I would go to heaven.
My dad was a pastor, and for the sake of the ministry, my family had to keep quiet and keep secrets as to not upset the reputation of my family. Devastating secrets like molestation, incest and adultery.

And if we even dared talking about any of the family secrets we were shamed.
I was raised to distrust people. They couldn't handle any kind of personal information... never have "sheep" as friends. They will only hurt you and use the information against you.... you won't be a strong leader in their eyes if they know your struggles.

The teachings my heart took in were teachings of an angry God that could not look on me because of my grotesque sinful state. It was only through His Son Jesus’ blood covering me that He could glance my way. I was so dirty and ugly in my human weakness and sin, that God could not even look at me. He detested me, and was so offended at my sin.

I learned reeeeally fast that God was scary and completely off the charts a rage-a-holic.
Jesus quickly became my friend. Jesus was gentle and kind. He could look at me and He loved me so much. I used to sing to Jesus all the time as a little girl. I knew Jesus DID indeed love me.
It was His Father that freaked the hell out of me.

There was so much fear and shame attached to my view of God.
Intense terror of Him really.

All these views have been a true unraveling process for me over the past 5 years or so.
I see pictures a lot... and I have seen over and over again a picture of God on His knees in construction attire. He is knelt down on the foundation of a house.
And intensely looking over each and every brick that makes up the foundation of this house.
Tossing some into a pile, and replacing it, and keeping others.
It's a picture of me, and this journey I have been on with Him.

I have found that God is kind, and good, and unimaginably loving. His love is so great there isn't even a definition to define it.
I have found that He adores me, just the way I am, and He sees the good in me. I can come close to Him, and He lavishes His thoughts of love on me. Telling me how beautiful I am... how my light shines, that He is so proud of the person I am. He loves me, but he really likes me too.

So to hear these very religious and critical voices in my head about this God that I have come to know, is so devastating to my heart.
Because this loving God that I have experienced has truly set me free... and brought me into life like I have never ever known.
To lose this revelation of His heart, would mean going back into chains and bondage. I think I might actually die...first inside and then out.
His love has been the greatest gift I have ever known.. it is my greatest treasure.


I found this lady… Marlene Winell. through an acquaintance's blog… and was floored at what this Dr. shared about children that have been raised in intense religious environments, never being able to question or ask why, and how damaging it is to these children and their psychological growth.
Jaw dropping!
Here are some of the excerpts from her research….

Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home. This results in:

• Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested
• Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned
• External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source
• Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline
Cycle of Abuse
The doctrine of Original Sin and Eternal Damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.

You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven.
Salvation is not a free gift after all.
For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief. It is a cycle of abuse.”
I would love to hear your thoughts on this… it is very interesting to me.
I am still really grappling with this whole theory.. wondering if it’s really valid or just some silly made up wishy washy syndrome.
But, see! Even that statement right there shows that there is still that critical and cynical religious voice inside… that haunting voice of my father and mother is who that is. ugh.


Please feel free to share and converse.. I am so interested in hearing what your own heart thoughts are on this issue.
Is there such a thing as PTSD and religion?
Or is it just a bunch of BS?
xo Amy


  1. Amy.... Not sure about the whole PTSD thing and religion either. Does raise an interesting question for sure.
    I remember growing up in the Lutheran church and being so frightened of the pastor and his preaching. I remember my best friend and I saying to each other... we can never be that good we are going to go to hell! Those were our exact words! I like you tried to remember every single sin and confess it every night before bed. I even remember being afraid to go to sleep just in case I missed a sin and I would die and go to hell.
    We as you were raised in a strict religious home and I have always found it interesting that my sisters and I all got pregnant before we were married even though we were raise in a strict religious environment. Hmm....
    Then as an adult to have to face the judgement of others in the church where our family thought we were accepted and safe and then to have those same people not even apologize for their treatment after they knew they were wrong really added to the distress of my thoughts about God and religion.
    I can tell you that I cannot sit comfortably in a church. I feel that I don't belong there... I actually start to feel anxious if I do attend. So I wonder about this issue as well...Does this really exist.. I don't know, but it is a very interesting theory for certain. As always love... thanks for sharing your heart and thoughts and for listening to the ramblings of my heart.

    1. Di, thankyou so much for sharing... I am so sorry you experienced such hurt from the church. As a community, it is supposed to be love and grace filled, but unfortunately we eat our own :(

  2. Have you come across Kathy Escobar's blog? She recently did a whole series on deconstruction. Here is a link to the articles:

    I also love to listen to "The God journey"-podcasts, They too know the God you are talking about.



    1. Antoinette! so wonderful to meet you! I am going to check out Kathy's blog! Thankyou for the reference! I am familiar with The God Journey :) Brad and Wayne are so cool! Listening to them has been part of my journey.. haven't listened in a long time now tho. But they have really great things to say!

  3. amy. great post. i just recently realized that I had so much baggage wrapped up with christianity. so much so that certain language makes me cringe.. i used to think in my pre teen years that if i was cringing because of the lingo it had to be the devil making me cringe. i was obsessed with good and evil. it has been a long long long journey of letting that go. my dad was a pastor too but he wasn't a hell and brimstone kind. still, there were some expectations that seeped into me and didn't let go. I had a talk about all this yesterday with my 22 yr old son and i apologized for not raising him in any church. he thanked me for not doing that. he said it made him open minded and tolerant. i told him even though i had been pressured to put him in church and sunday school etc.. i didn't do it because i didnt want him to feel the same guilt i always struggle with. as i was talking to him, i realized that i still had the same level of guilt and that i need to work on that. this post really helped. i don't feel alone in this. thank you for that xoxoox

    1. Glynis.. I wondered if you had worked through this as well. How do you feel NOW? Have you found peace?

    2. I think I'm on my way to peace but I have a lot to move past, I think. I'm going to write a blog post on where I am on this subject now in my life so that it might bring some clarity. This post definitely got some wheels clicking :)

  4. I can relate to all of those feelings. Pretty much the only way that resolved the crippling fear that I was "making god in my own image" was when I just stopped trying to believe it all. I finally felt peace about who I was and the choices I have and the life I am living. It was a massive relief for me to let it all go. I'm glad that there are people who are able to hold onto their faith and fight for changes in the church, but I really needed a break from it all.

    1. Melissa... I know we were raised in like situations, and your words mean so much. I can feel that desire to let it all go, but the hauntings keep me stuck at times. I am finding more and more release..but and finding I have to stay away from it all. My hubby had a very different experience and has positive things to say about the church... and so when I share, he gets that "tilt" look in his eyes. And he still very much wants to go to church and maybe one day minister again. And here I am freaking out everytime someone mentions words like " sin" or "the blood of Jesus" or a "holy and consuming fire" or.. you get the idea. lol! sigh.

  5. This is real. Even if the syndrome is newly made up - if people are suffering from those very real statements- it is a REAL description of straits. You know I grew up that way too but my dad made me question everything. Thank God. Otherwise I would be messed or massively naive with brainwash. It's sad to see in so many friends. The taste of freedom is sweet and heady. God is everything beautiful. My what a journey I have been on. I too am pressured to put my kids in church and sometimes wonder if I am doing the right thing by not...but then I see how they behave compared to other children in the church and I see the difference. The difference called CHOICE and critical thinking and non judgement. They have freedom.
    Oh gosh I could write a few books on all my experiences and how I became grace. By God, The Divine, mystical spirit...whatever you want to call it. Books and movies and people were all key...and an openness of my mind. I was at that place where the words sin and hell freaked me out. No longer. mostly I laugh. Or cry or vent later but feel a misture of pity and compassion on the person and humour at the words coming out of their mouths. They do not even see the irony. Nor do they really truly see all that is grace. That is something to hurt for them...not to be mad at. But there is a legitimate stage of anger and of sadness at the injustice. This stage can last years...but then freedom comes...and while anger and sadness at injustice is still there at times it is no longer prominent.
    All of you are LEGITIMATE and real in your perceptions. ALL of you will find more ways of freedom. ALL of you are cherished, supported and loved by more grace than is imaginable. It was a great injustice done unto you in the name of god...but really it was power...the power of people..the power of religulous. ( yes, a mix of religion and ridiculousness.) Find humour where you can. Find grace everywhere...and extend loving understanding even though it is very unlikely you will get any back the same way. I don't often. But I choose to still open myself up again and again:) with boundaries of course and a strong support system of those who "get it":)

  6. Oh my goodness, thank you Antoinette for the links you posted, especially
    Kathy Escobar put words to the journey and my process. A must-read for anyone in deconstruction of faith.

    During my journey to wholeness, I was fortunate to have a therapist who trusted God to be able to both defend Himself and to save me. He was the first Christian authority figure in my experience who lived like God was real and alive. I am so grateful for his faith. During my process, I had to avoid everything remotely Christian: the Bible, prayer, worship, christian friends, church attendance. It was all toxic to me. Instead, I found I could connect with Beauty (God's creation): nature, art, music and the innocence of children.

    My toxic faith prolonged my journey of healing. Replacing lies with Truth is beginning to free me. I am a different person today and would not go back for anything. Hold fast to the love and rebuilding of God, dear Amy.

    You are on the right path, girl.

    Love you bunches,

  7. oh you know how I love it when you serve the meat!!!

    is it a syndrome??? don't know and really don't care
    is it truth? yes
    I have been walking through this specifically this last little while
    and every time I feel the religious pressure I go back to my heart and relationship with the Source from which I came
    and there I find peace
    because truth is
    i am not out to denounce the church either for it hold good people
    but I do not believe in the man made institution of church...I believe in the spiritual institution of fellowship, community and connection
    I do not believe in dealing with poison with poison so I am careful of my won emotions with church and religion and focus on keeping it real and walking with my heart before my head
    this post is awesome friend

    it is time to set ourselves free capture our thoughts of fear
    hold them
    love them
    embrace them
    thank them
    and let them go
    it is time to take control of our own beliefs
    ones that were given to us when we were created
    stitched into us by that which made us....

    love and light♥

  8. Amy says, As a lover of God and people . . . this is my messy journey out of religion and into life and freedom.
    I am 76 and I have twice been forced to reconsider just about everything I had ever been taught. I came to the conclusion several years ago that there is an enormous difference between the Christian RELIGION and the Christian FAITH. My journey has been messy in a very different way.
    I have a bit of a reputation for asking awkward questions to which there are no easy answers. One problem I have is in trying to avoid asking questions that people are not yet ready to consider, but I've read enough of Amy's blog to sense that it's okay to encourage her friends to look at the first couple of entries on my blog.
    Like Amy I have been influenced over the years by Wayne Jacobsen starting with 'So you don't want to go to church anymore' when the authors had only written the first three chapters.
    Over the last several years I seem to have been learning so much about why people believe what they believe. Amy's story is so similar to that of many other PK's.
    There is also a link to Aspergers Syndrome on the blog.
    It really is only in the last few days that I have 'almost' finished updating my blog.

  9. Amy, this is fantastic. I am so happy to see people are talking about this. Thank you to all those who shared their journeys. I am a doctoral student in clinical psychology who is interested in doing his dissertation on the topic. I have a strong desire to explore whether or not there is evidence of a religious subtype of PTSD. Some might say that it doesn't matter, it's just a label, but in mental health the diagnosis is very important to determining the proper approach to treatment. The Religious Trauma Syndrome is a good start, but I think it's not specific enough in its criterion. PTSD on the other hand is well researched along with trauma more generally. I think there is good reason to hope that this will continue to garner increased attention in the mental health field. I, too, am a survivor. I think the more all of us tell our stories, the more people will see the damage that fundamentalism does to so many people. I'm glad I came across your blog and will check back often. Yours, Thomas :)

    1. Thomas - for more than 20 years I was a member of people sometimes described as both a Christian cult and a sect. I have had many discussions with PK's (preachers kids) over the years. There's a fine dividing line between the survivors and those who become atheists. If you would like some input feel free to get in touch.

    2. I just wanted to say that I am a veteran so I get my healthcare from the VA. I was having a lot of physical issues. They immediately sent me to the mental health specialist. I was suffering from PTSD. It wasn't because of a physical war but mental "church" abuse. I was suprised but that is what the specialist said. Some of the symptoms, migraines, chest pain, unrealistic fears like leaving house, depression, emotional, and loss of hope... just waiting for next "valley" and then death. Counseling and journaling is a must

    3. Anonymous.. thankyou so much for sharing your journey here... wholeness and freedom to you!