Accepting the Reality of Trauma
With so much pain to deal with in regards to church trauma, it often feels very overwhelming and discouraging as victims try to begin piecing their lives together again. It can seem nearly impossible to make sense of it all. Yet, if there is one essential truth that must be grasped in overcoming trauma, it is that in order to heal, one must feel. With that, research shows that there has to be a death of sorts—an acceptance, a letting go, and an invitation for the old life to dissolve and for a new life to form (Peck, 1993). Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross taught this idea in her classic book On Death and Dying though she spoke in terms of actual death (1969). Yet, her steps on death actually apply to the process of finding a new life post trauma. Indeed, following a trauma, many habits and beliefs must die. In most circumstances, old approaches no longer work, which can increase a sense of ongoing trauma as victims become uncertain of the outcomes (Strauss & Northcut, 2013). Thus, each stage of dying presented by Kubler-Ross will be examined here as well: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
As previously noted, trauma can leave people feeling nearly frozen with fear and uncertainty. The Conservation of Resources (COR) theory expresses the need that people have to “retain, protect, and build resources” (Smid et al, 2011). According to this theory, if there is a great loss of resources, traumatized people are more susceptible to employing denial as a way to protect what was lost but cannot be returned. This is why abuser loyalty and dissociation are so common. And perhaps there is a time for denial. Dr. Klagbrun contends: “I have always been a proponent of the benefits of denial, running away, escaping for short periods of time is healthy when being overwhelmed. Repression, up to a point, in a limited way, is good for you” (2010).
Yet, as Klagbrun points out, when denial is taken to the extreme, it can be very inhibiting to true growth. A definition of denial may help us begin to establish when denial becomes harmful. Sigmund Freud defined denial as “a form of disavowal of reality—a defense against external reality originating in painful stimuli” (as cited in Livneh, 2009). It is often interchangeably used with similar concepts such as “avoidance, disbelief, evasion, illusion, minimization, escape, repression, suppression, disavowal (of reality), unrealistic hope, dismissal, deferral, ignoring, defensiveness, wishful thinking, unrealistic optimism, negation, selective forgetting, delusional misinterpretation, and self-deception” (Livneh, 2009). Thus, denial becomes inhibiting if it is more than merely a means of temporary escape (Dryden, 2012). When reality becomes exaggerated hope, confidence, unrealistic optimism about the future, amplified self-image, overstated self-assurance about the accomplishments of future goals and plans, and the portrayal of a “business-as-usual” attitude, denial begins to threaten long-term problems as it only allows selective attention, thus narrowing one’s perceptual field (Livneh, 2009).
When trauma victims begin to realize they can no longer do the mental gymnastics of denial, according to Kubler-Ross, the response is anger (1969). Victims become angry that they have been robbed of their former life, and in this case, their religion. They are upset that they were not protected or that their reality is so unfair and damaging to their psyche. They are often angry at the intensity, frequency, and severity of their trauma. When the stressors are extreme, it usually enhances an individual’s reactivity to other stressors, thus causing them to become more and more sensitive and susceptible to anger (Smid et al, 2011). Similarly, exposure to additional types of trauma or situations (other roots found in the trauma tree) that were previously neutral, now trigger reminders of their trauma. These roots are also more likely to deepen trauma or cause hyper-arousal so trauma commonly then spreads from one root to more. Further, the more times a traumatic event is experienced, the greater the impact it is likely to have on an individual, thus the response of anger is often greater (Northcut & Kienow, 2014).
Anger is one of the most frequently felt emotions, averaging anywhere from several times a day to several times a week (Williams & Hinshaw, 2018). Perhaps this is because anger, like denial, is often used as a survival tool. People get angry when they perceive wrongdoing, disrespect, untrustworthiness, or unfairness. Thus, trauma victims are particularly susceptible to anger as they try to come to terms with the injustices and wrongs they have undergone or are still undergoing. Consequently, rather than “turning-off” thoughts—as denial does—anger, in turn, seems to “hijack” thoughts (William & Hinshaw, 2018). Whatever causes anger grabs and holds the attention of the trauma victims. Everything wrong seems amplified. The goal of anger is to motivate the body to stop further transgressions from occurring.
The goal of anger—to stop further harm—can help move trauma victims to the next step—bargaining—because anger activates a motivational system intended to overcome blocked goals, remove obstacles, and punish transgression (Williams & Hinshaw, 2018). Thus, motivated by self-protection, bargaining begins as an effort to promote settlement. When bargaining occurs, the parties “in negotiation” rarely have equivalent power. Many will start their bargaining with God. They will say, “I’ll be better; I’ll say my prayers more fervently; I’ll be even better at kindness and forgiveness or paying tithing—whatever—if you will please just remove this cup from me.”
Sufferers often even try bargaining with their abusers. They promise to be more obedient if they can just be left alone. They may offer cheap apologies, hoping that will make the problems go away. Bargaining is the Band-Aid attempt but trauma victims are grabbing at straws because they know from past experiences there is a slim chance they might be rewarded for good behavior and be granted a wish for special services. They just want to be rid of pain or discomfort and go to great measure to try all angles in an attempt to alleviate the suffering (Kubler-Ross, 1969). Thus, victims attempt a “trade-off” in an effort to resolve strong emotions (Williams & Hinshaw, 2018).
When trauma sufferers see a Band-Aid will not and cannot contain the wound, they move into what therapists call “the hard work of depression” (Peck, 1993) or “the dark night of the soul” (Christensen, 2013). Depression sweeps the amygdala as trauma sufferers see there is no way out; they feel so sad, so hopeless, so alone. They see their inevitable need for change, bringing about the onset of depression because when the problems are understood to be potentially unsolvable, depression is more likely to take hold (Rosales & Tan, 2017). The belief that God has allowed one’s trauma can be a great cause of depression as well (Buser, Buser, & Rutt, 2017).
With depression, rumination usually takes hold, which is one of the key dysfunctions underlying depression. Rumination does not cause depression in and of itself, but it does heighten vulnerability because it involves increased self-focused problem solving. Thus, rumination is a problematic cognitive obstacle, making depression a thinking disorder (Rosales & Tan, 2017). Depression becomes particularly addictive as the thinking patterns and negative, automatic thoughts focus mainly on three areas of experience: the self (me), the personal future, and the world (Bartczak & Bokus, 2017). As a result, several cognitive functions are disrupted, including those that are key in metaphorical processing. Thus, people with depression dedicate a lot of their cognitive resources to processing information related to mistakes.
Because of the intensity and difficulty of depression, many defense mechanisms accompany depression, including regression back to denial, anger, and bargaining (Peck, 1993). Negative stimuli—including verbal ones—attract the attention of the depressed in a particularly strong manner, which often leaves trauma victims feeling even more anger (Bartczak & Bokus, 2016). Thus, if it appears that overcoming the core problem is not a possibility, it may feel safer to regress back to former emotions that seem to allow more personal control.
If trauma sufferers do not become stagnant or regressive by pushing through the hard work of depression, they will finally break the cycle, and acceptance can begin its journey. There are many actions that can help one move toward this journey of acceptance. One is finding an internal space where sufferers can regain some degree of control in their recovery. Becoming open to internal experiences such as thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment or self-condemnation is vital in moving toward acceptance (Rosales & Tan, 2017). When trauma victims begin to feel an acceptance and awareness of their body and mind, a partnership with healing can become a promising future (Strauss & Northcut, 2013). Rather than feeling they are forever-victims of circumstance, sufferers can take a proactive position in which they recognize and accept their need to mentally heal and redefine reality. They begin to access a means that allows for healing on an emotional level of mindful awareness.
Research-Based Treatments for Trauma
Because new ways of thinking require skills, the dying process is often best or wisely assisted through other people. Thus, in the dying of beliefs post trauma, it may be wise to seek a professional as it is particularly easy to become stuck in the first four stages of dying. For although trauma or PTSD is well treatable, at least one study indicated that many sufferers do not seek medical attention and help due to stigma or lack of resources (Tielman, Neerinex, Bidarra, Kybartas, & Brinkman, 2017). In addition to these obstacles, trauma must be treated within the context of the hierarchical culture and structure in which it occurred (Northcut & Kienew, 2014). For example, a war veteran cannot be effectively treated in the context of a natural disaster. So we must keep in mind the types of traumas we are dealing with when trying to heal.
Thus, it is important to understand that in addition to church trauma being an attachment trauma, it is also a process trauma. That is, it occurred over continued and unrelenting exposure to an enduring stressor (Shaw, 2000). Process trauma is also sometimes referred to as complex trauma to describe multiple and/or prolonged experiences of adverse events usually occurring early in life (though with church trauma, one is often completely unaware of the harmful roots—the teachings and upbringing frequently feel harmless until much later in life). Thus, it is vital that when treating clients with PTSD, mental health professionals are sensitive, flexible, and knowledgeable about the diversity and complexity of the disorder. The newness, subtly, awareness, and acceptance of trauma within religion compounds the difficulty of finding quality help (Hartline, 2018c).
Still, there are treatments that have been found to be very helpful to trauma victims regardless of how the trauma occurred. All include an establishment of safety, healthy therapeutic relationships, and survivor empowerment. One of the most effective known ways to help patients move efficiently through the dying process is to focus on psychological strengths—mindfulness, psychological flexibility, resiliency, and posttraumatic growth (Brew, 2017). Each psychological factor will be examined.
Working with emotion regulation needs to be a primary focus for church trauma victims because, due to the anguishing affects of trauma, people with PTSD often spend astonishing amounts of time attempting to change and avoid their feelings, especially feelings connected to the traumatic events (Brew, 2017). Thus, mindfulness can be very helpful to trauma survivors. Avoidance or turning off bad feelings—refusing to think about the hurt or the disturbance—actually increases one’s desire to think about the trauma more and more (Bricker, 2014). The truth is we cannot turn bad feelings off and we do not have to. Rather, we have to recognize them and be willing to experience the discomfort of hard feelings.
Accepting emotions with nonreactive attention can reduce the power the emotions have to cause more distress (Corey, 2017). We can allow the emotions to pass through us, which actually requires only about eight seconds (Rosenberg, 2017). Such mindfulness has proven to be very effective. For example, it has been proven that those who are willing to feel their emotions are twice as likely to quit addictive behaviors (Bricker, 2014). Mindfulness has been shown to be especially effective with people who have PTSD because its aim is to combat experiential avoidance with real time consciousness and acceptance of circumstances or events that make them feel uncomfortable (Brew, 2017).
Mindfulness can be very difficult for trauma victims who have learned that they are not safe or “enough;” thus, they often try to control their minds from going into “danger zones.” But if trauma survivors are ever going to become trauma free, self-trust and self-respect must be learned. One must become comfortable in their own shoes, taking responsibility and representing themselves with dignity and respect (Saligari, 2017). This is best done with acceptance and compassion. According to the cognitive-behavioral models, it is about accepting “what is” and having realistic beliefs about self and life (Corey, 2017). If we harbor irrational beliefs, we become susceptible to developing distressing emotions and maladaptive behaviors. These irrational beliefs are developed in childhood and we continue to respond to those inaccurate assumptions (Corey, 2017).
For example, church trauma victims, who grew up thinking their church leaders were closer to God than all others, only to feel betrayed by them, can learn to accept their faulty thinking and childhood beliefs. Often this will require figuratively putting an arm around the wounded child self. We can learn to take ourselves out of our childish fears with self-love and complete acceptance (Saligari, 2017). Realizing we can accept our emotions without judgment and also labeling unwanted thoughts can be helpful as we learn to deal with such feelings as melancholy, anxiety, fears of recurrence, helplessness, insecurity, powerlessness, rage, anger, fantasies of payback, and regret for not having behaved differently (Shaw, 2000).
Meditation and yoga are specific strategies that have been found to be helpful in increasing mindfulness. Each is discussed below:
Meditation. Finding self-acceptance by quieting the mind through meditation has been found to be one of the most helpful ways to improve mindfulness (Strauss & Northcut, 2013). The goal of meditation is to become aware of one’s thoughts or worries as they enter the mind, and learn to move through them without getting stuck. This mindful awareness allows one to harness distractions, without judgment, and bring attention back to the here and now. The inward concentration of meditation trains the mind to focus on the present moment. In doing so, meditation may help one develop greater capacity to accept, rather than be consumed by their trauma (Strauss & Northcut, 2013).
It is surprising that interventions such as meditation, which seem so simple, can have a profound effect on helping our brains heal from trauma (Allen, 2004). With repeated “activations” of the limbic system (i.e. amygdala), this part of the brain becomes more “dense” with gray matter, meaning that it has more ability to powerfully function. Along with this, over time, the cortex (where our “intelligent” function resides) can become less effective as the amygdala gains density. We have now learned that meditation and mindfulness, because they require “dual awareness” (being aware of yourself and surroundings in a non-reactive, non-judgmental way), build grey matter in the cortex. This is useful because it helps trauma victims build the capacity to use the part of their brains that help them be more effective, despite the limbic systems sensitivity (Allen, 2004).
Yoga. Yoga is also a powerful form of mindfulness. Yoga is an ancient practice that encompasses various domains of physical and mindful experiences. The practice of yoga includes ethical and moral disciplines, physical postures, breathing techniques, meditation, and the emphasis of uniting the mind and body for health and a more profound awareness of self (Strauss & Northcut, 2013). Interventions such as yoga help to build a different relationship with our bodies—a relationship based on observation and curiosity and awareness, in place of a relationship based on fear, shame, and disgust. While we do not know exactly why, yoga actually lowers blood pressure, reduces pain, lessens anxiety and depression (Allen, 2004), increases the quality of life, has a positive effect on sleep, and alters stress hormone levels (Strauss & Northcut, 2013). Perhaps yoga’s effectiveness is due to the fact that when one integrates yoga movement with the breath, the mind stops its obsessive thinking and begins to slow down. It is an ideal way to preserve health and longevity in the body, regulate the nervous system, and allow the mind to withdraw inward towards relaxation (Strauss & Northcut, 2013).
A regular yoga practice does not free a person from stress, but it may train the body to respond to stress differently. Hence the goal of mindfulness, yoga, and meditation is not to feel something; the only goal is to see things as they truly are at the moment without attachment to the outcome (Shapiro, 2017). It is to accept, appreciate, and fully experience the present moment.
Psychological flexibility is defined as “contacting the present moment as a conscious human being, fully and without needing defense—as it is and not as what it says it is—persisting with or changing a behavior in the service of chosen values” (Brew, 2017). Trauma victims often face the shattering of cherished beliefs after a trauma (e.g. I thought good triumphed over evil; I thought people were inherently good; I thought I was invulnerable to injury because I kept the commandments) (Shaw, 2000). Rigid church doctrine such as the prosperity gospel makes one particularly susceptible to trauma as black-and-white dogma have been deeply embedded in the psyche (Bowler, 2019). Thus, it is important for church trauma victims to realize that religious factors do not fully cushion individuals from the effects of trauma (Abu-Raiya et al, 2016). Such a realization can be principally distressing initially for victims to grasp on the onset of trauma. Many of them held firmly to the belief that if they were intrinsically religious (deeply devoted, faithful, and converted), they would experience greater mental, spiritual, and emotional health, and in essence, be shielded from negative circumstances (You & Lim, 2019). Intrinsic conversion is strongly encouraged and upheld within most religions, including Mormonism. However, let’s look at the effects intrinsic teachings can have individuals and how they actually promote psychological inflexibility, thus increasing the likelihood of religious trauma.
The truth is those who are intrinsically religious (deeply devoted) often feel a great deal of intolerance and self-righteousness. Conversely, extrinsically religious people (those who go primarily for social status) tend to be more self-accepting and tolerant of the differences of others because they do not take the religion as seriously and literally (Aten et al, 2012). Curiously, they are more cognitively flexible and less likely to be traumatized when “bad things” happen at church. Further, intrinsically motivated individuals are more prone to feel religious pressure to be or appear perfect and to then feel ashamed due to the gap between who they actually are versus who they really want to be (Batson, Eidelman, Higley, & Russell, 2001). This discrepancy may be particularly distressing because of the lack of psychological flexibility of the intrinsically religious as they are more likely prone to guilt- or shame-based reactions (e.g., depressive personality structure) and to struggle with self-esteem (Aten et al, 2012).
Thus, perhaps the most important question when looking at if a religion is helpful and healthy to an individual is not if they are intrinsic or extrinsic—as is commonly taught in religions—but how the religion is affecting them. Indeed, if a religion is interpreted to be strict and impermeable—with good-or-bad, all-or-none schemas—the risks for mental struggles are actually greatly increased. Simply stated, if one holds rigidly to religious beliefs, they are much more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, guilt, and lower self-esteem than if they did not engage religiously at all (Hartz & Everett, 1989). This teaches a great need for psychological flexibility, particularly post-trauma. We need to step out of black-and-white, all-or-none, one-and-only, good-or-bad thinking. Such thinking creates mental illness, smugness, and prejudices. It separates and divides people!
Undeniably, people who hold religious beliefs unyieldingly often also possess the following traits/beliefs as well: (1) conventionalism, self-righteousness, feelings of superiority, and unquestioning obedience to authority; (2) intolerance for non-fundamentalist views (racial/ethnics, gay/lesbian, women, religious out-groups); (3) a sense that moral violators (those who break the law of chastity, for example) should be left to help themselves if in need; (4) a need to seek confirmation for their intolerant views, discounting discrepant information in the process, thus being less open to information that contradicts their established schemas; (5) suspicion of professionals and large social systems; (6) use of scripture and leaders as sole informants of all absolute truths, which regulates all beliefs; (7) continuous defensive posture, decreasing cognitive flexibility of thought and experience, thus elevating anxiety; (8) a resistance to confront existential realities; (9) a demonstration of strong in-group bias; (10) a strong need for certainty (black-and-white thinking) and an avoidance of religious doubt; and (11) resistance to change (Aten et al, 2012).
These beliefs and behaviors can be particularly harmful to Church members who interpret Mormonism rigidly and feel that they must be “right” or appear to be “perfect.” Missionaries, for example, who feel pressured to conform and “make the cut,” have higher levels of depression, stress levels, and neurotic thinking and behavior than those who accept their humanity and do not demand perfection of themselves and others (Navara & James, 2005). To overcome “better than,” rigid tendencies, we need to ask ourselves: “Is one way truly better than another?” We need to realize that thinking “yes, my way is best” traps us. It causes us to feel we know God’s will for others better than those who choose to walk a different way.
Individuals who struggle with psychological inflexibility, might benefit by practicing the following ideas:
Connect with idealized or historical figures. Relating with a respected or older friend or associate who will “be real” and get on the same level can help one not feel the need for such perfection by talking about their own humanity (Abu-Raiya et al, 2015). Looking into historical figures can also be helpful as flaws and mistakes are discerned. In doing so, one can consider how that person might have handled a difficult situation and worked with cognitive flexibility (Aten et al, 2012). In short, realness is needed! Life is complex. It is imperative to face that reality and realize no one has all the answers.
Question the need for social approval. It can be helpful to ask: “Why is it so important to receive validation from others in (or out of) the Mormon Church?” “Is it really a big deal to miss scripture study one day? (Or fill in the blank.) What’s the worst that can happen? Do I really think God will punish me for setbacks?” Delving into cognitive flexibility, God’s mercy, and considering the need for managing social impressions can go a long way (Corey, 2017).
Work on empathy. Empathy has been linked to a number of positive psychological factors, such as greater interpersonal functioning, frequency in pro-social behaviors or altruistic acts, and likelihood of forgiving others (Milburn, 2015). When we consider God’s empathy, it can also help us be gentle and loving with ourselves and others as well. It is important to always remember there are good (and bad) people on all sides of the equation (O’Brien, 2017). We should not mass lump people. We should look at individuals and treat all with dignity.
Be honest on what is really wanted in life. Too often humans sabotage change. We are afraid to become what we want to become because in order to do so, we have to go through the dying process and that takes a lot of cognitive flexibility. But the dreams of change will keep coming back. Our minds will spin during these moments: “Will these changes cause me to lose my friends, my job security, my status? Will everyone tell me how selfish and crazy I am? Will I have to deal with judgment or criticism at the same time I am dealing with all my own fears of what I am trying to do?” (Silber, 2015). But being honest about what we want to do—or need to do—must become greater than our fears and doubts of the unknown. If we do not challenge ourselves—our thoughts, our personality, our beliefs—we are never going to step out into the learning zone of life (Greer, 2015). Hence, we must find the courage to leap, even if there is no perceived security in our jump. We must realize old ways can no longer satisfy because our minds and circumstances have indeed changed so our actions need to follow. Acknowledging this growth will encourage us to courageously accept there is no turning back.
Resiliency generally refers to the ability to recover from stressful or challenging circumstances (Corey, 2017) and psychological flexibility puts us well on the path for achieving such a goal. Resiliency is particularly vital because it enhances and uses our strengths as we rely on positive support within our environment. Doing such decreases our likelihood of developing mental disorders; and if we are already coping with a mental-health condition, as church trauma victims are, resiliency is a protective factor that will help decrease the duration or severity of symptoms. Two resiliency factors have already been addressed—mindfulness, including exercise and dietary needs (Owen & Celik, 2018), and psychological flexibility including active optimism and adaptability (Lekan, Hoover, & Abrams, 2018). Now we will focus on two other important factors that influence resiliency from a multipath perspective: social influences and sociocultural influences:
Social influences. Social support can play a vital role in increasing our resiliency. Group therapy has proven to be an excellent way for trauma victims to get helpful feedback and develop supportive relationships (Allen, 2004). It can be difficult for church trauma victims to find this type of support due to the newness of the research and therefore training.
Many Mormons are turning to social media for social support. Additionally, in Utah and in a few other areas, some support groups have been organized to meet this need. These groups can have great value as they potentially create a feeling of universality—recognizing that others have related experiences, reducing solitude (Allen, 2004).
Combining both psychological and social factors have been found to be particularly helpful as it broadens and builds positive emotions as our engagement with the world—those who understand—increases. We all need to know we matter, that we are loved, that we do not stand alone. As we find this commonality and support, it enhances our resiliency by building our coping skills and interpersonal resources (Corey, 2017).
Sociocultural influences. True healing is very difficult to secure without the establishment of safety (Tanner, 2015). Thus, cultural and community support can be crucial in our ability to deal with church trauma. This can perhaps be the greatest challenge as church trauma victims feel rejected or betrayed by the very community they so loved, honored, and needed (Speight & Speight, 2017). They feel pushed out—in essence—from the very place that had always served as a buffer to adverse situations—one in which they looked to for love and support—only to find that the community no longer serves or reveres them. This message of rejection often is not just from the organization but also from their own kin who have also been taught that those who walked away from Mormonism are under the influence of Satan and must be kept at arm’s length, lest he grabs them by his awful chains as well (2 Nephi 28:22).
All of this plays on one’s resiliency and many find themselves emotionally, mentally, and spiritually suffering. Thankfully, there are some bridge-building efforts being made within Mormonism, which usually occurs in families and within local communities rather than from institutions themselves who usually seek to self-protect. Grass root articles on how to treat straying family members are being well received. These article suggest ideas that include not worrying about empty chairs in heaven but rather empty chairs at family picnics (Ostler, 2019) and trusting that God still participates in the lives of non-believers (Miller, 2018). As these efforts are felt by church trauma victims, bridges can indeed be built, and resiliency and subsequent healing can increase.
Still, if the Mormon Church wants to really build community by retaining or regaining those who have been traumatized, the leaders would be wise to realize the effects of sociocultural influences on not just those departing but on those still within the system. No man stands alone or is unaffected by what is around him. Hence the Church cannot cast people out or turn a deaf ear on the hurting and marginalized and think it is of no consequence. If Church leaders really want to save the lost sheep and make true their gospel claims, they would be wise to follow the example of the Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who distanced themselves from their origin in 2001 (Faith and Beliefs, 2012). The Community of Christ Church has been progressive in their leadership by putting women in position and giving the LGBTQ equal rights—although it cost them dearly, losing nearly 25% of their membership (www.religiousmovement.lib.virginia.edu). But they showed a willingness and desire in putting the people first as Jesus did. They have apologized, admitted past wrongs, and repented. By so doing, the leaders of the organization showed they cared more about the people than about their church’s image and reputation. And now curiously, this is the church that many post Mormons are running to because they are finding community there. They are finding people who understand their past, their people, their pain. They are building bridges; they are building hope; they are building resiliency.
Posttraumatic Growth (PTG)
Without mindfulness, psychological flexibility, and resiliency, one cannot experience PTG. PTG has been defined as “positive psychological change that occurs due to the struggle with exceedingly difficult life events. PTG includes awareness of increased interpersonal relations, new goals, increased personal potential, and an increase in gratitude for life and spiritual growth” (Brew, 2017). Because most people who experience church-related PTSD experience a crushing of self-image and beliefs, PTG is a necessary response for true post-trauma living that eventually leads to self-control once again. During this “rediscovery and recovery” process, survivors have to become very clear on what they really want. They have to not just talk about change but name it, define it, and get moving (Zlupko, 2014). “Get moving” in essence means to activate the willingness for change on the inside. It means to be able to see what is really wanted and to act on it. That requires repurposing one’s life—dreaming, desiring, believing, and acting on true hopes and wishes (Greer, 2015).
Skilled clinicians must be ready with many “tools in their therapeutic toolbox” as they help trauma clients draw on existing strengths and “borrow strengths and comforts” from their therapists until they can reconnect fully with the world again—both physically and mentally (Northcut and Kienow, 2014). Therapies such as exposure therapy, Eye Movement Desensitivation and Reprocessing (EMDR), group therapy, and cognitive restructuring are often crucial elements in the PTG recovery process. Whatever the specific technique, the crucial elements are (1) bringing the memories to mind; (2) talking about them in a trusting relationship; (3) developing the capacities for containment that supports the process; (4) recognizing that others have experienced church trauma and clients are not alone; and (5) creating a game plan for successful navigation (Allen, 2004). Eventually, with enough persistence, the light will begin to seep in and hope of a bright future can be felt for the first time post trauma. PTG is thus an exciting process where PTSD survivors find renewed meaning and purpose, and to their surprise, that meaning and purpose often comes through the very means of their suffering and pain.
The causes and effects of church trauma are undeniably devastating. They have the potential to extinguish the vitality of a soul, causing psychological death. And although death is traumatic, it does not have to be the end; albeit, there is no doubt—dying is hard work. It is pure anguish to recognize and address the root causes of church trauma within the Mormon Church and to work through all of the consequences caused by them. But it can be done. When trauma victims try all the tactics of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, only to find that the reality is still beating at the door, acceptance seems nearly impossible to achieve (Rosales & Tan, 2017). Sufferers often feel like they have just stepped into active battle without any basic training—or they have stepped out of a battlefield only to find they have really just stepped into another one. Uncertainty is at every bend, increasing a feeling of helplessness and despair. Yet, when sufferers learn to surrender, they emerge into the most beautiful step of all: acceptance (Strauss & Northcut, 2013). Through it, they find the beauty and awe of rebirth. In doing so, suddenly the prospects of the future can seem endless as a new heart is cracked opened and discovered. Because dying requires much courage and strength, higher vision than ever before is often required. The former life must be examined while taking charge of what time is left. The support and vision of professionals is frequently vital in this process (Brew, 2017). They can teach trauma sufferers how to rest their former beliefs in life with dignity—allowing their traumatic past its proper place and giving beautiful possibilities to the future. Mindfulness, resiliency, and cognitive flexibility will initiate posttraumatic growth, allowing the trauma victim to discover a kind of beauty that can only be found after death.
****There will be one more chapter in this series. It will include more on research-based suggestions for healing.