Church Trauma Is BAD–But It’s Not ALL BAD!

I was sitting in Relief Society (a women’s meeting in the Mormon Church) almost a year ago listening to a discussion on fellowship.  It was all very encouraging and good.  And yet, I could not fully buy into what I was hearing as they spoke of their overwhelming success.  I wanted to—and I did to a point because I am aware of good that is happening in the Church.  But in the same breath, I knew it was a little off to think that all is well in Zion and that everyone was as happy and thriving as well as seemed to be claimed.  I mean, what about me?  Did anyone in the room even consider my story?  Did they even know it?  Did they even really know me, for that matter?   I was fairly new in the ward and had a rough start from the onset due to a highly visible calling and some intense gossip.  How did they factor in my story with their success?  Or maybe I wasn’t a concern because I showed up every week and maybe that was checked off as “good enough.”

I went home from that meeting in deep thought.  I knew I had an unpopular and even unrecognized condition in the church–church trauma–posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that I’d developed BECAUSE of my membership in the LDS Church due to some ecclesiastical abuse.  I was not the same and never would be because of that abuse.  I knew that.

Yet, curiously as I pondered my situation, my mind shifted from sadness to amazement as I began to recognize the blessings I have received because of this horrid church-trauma condition.  I started to list them: 1) I had increased understanding and empathy for the traumatized and was helping my family develop this also; 2) I had a deeper measure of cognitive flexibility–the rigid black and white thinking so prevalent in Mormonism had been banished from me; 3) I was slowly shedding the shackles of shame that I’d carried for years as a child and beyond, particularly after the traumas; 4) I was discovering great inner satisfaction in figuring my problem out–finally!… The list continued as I thought on this matter.  So amazed was I by these fruits of trauma, that I decided it needed an article!

Risk Factors for Developing PTSD

But before we get into a discussion of the positive sides of trauma, it’s important to note a few things:

  1. Because of the diversity of human beings, not everyone is equally susceptible to developing PTSD after a trauma.  So even if you have endured church trauma, it doesn’t mean it’s going to become a chronic problem for you.  The psychological response to a traumatic event is influenced by many factors such as preexisting temperament (guilt, self-reproach, and/or self-recrimination tendencies), personality traits (timidity, apprehension, and/or overly prone to interpret events negatively), an early history of separation anxiety, family history of depression or anxiety, neuroticism, parental psychopathology, the degree of life threat, or the experiencing of personal injury (Shaw, 2000).
  2. Psychological inflexibility also predicted a higher probability of a PTSD diagnosis as well as symptom severity (Brew, 2017), which is not good news for many Mormons!  Inflexible or rigid mental processes, sometimes described as acute stress reaction (CSR), increases emotional suffering, posttraumatic intrusion, and avoidance symptoms, which often crystallizes into a more chronic, long-lasting PTSD condition (Zerach, Solomon, Horesh, Ein-Dor, 2012).
  3. Females are twice as likely to develop PTSD.  Child-abuse exposed females particularly have an increased likelihood of having mental health difficulties (John, Cisler, Sigel, 2017).  However, sexual violence, in particular, is more closely associated with a higher risk for the development of PTSD in both men and women (Brew, 2017).  It is also well-established that war experiences increase emotional distress regardless of gender.
  4. The Conservation of Resources (COR) theory expresses the need that people have to “retain, protect, and build resources” (Smid, van der Velden, Lensvelt-Mulders, Knipscheer, Gersons, Kleber, 2011).  According to this theory, if there is a great loss of resources (as many church members experience with church trauma), those people are more susceptible to developing PTSD than those who do not feel a disproportionate loss.  Thus, for example, because young children do not have a great sense of fairness, they are less likely to experience posttraumatic stress symptomatology than an adult or older child (Shaw, 2000).
  5. Other important factors to consider are exposure intensity and frequency.  When someone is exposed to extreme stressors, it may enhance an individual’s reactivity to other stressors.  This process is termed sensitization to stress (Smid et al, 2011).  What this means for many is that the longer you go to a location that is traumatic, such as church, the more likely you are to develop PTSD.   Similarly, exposure to additional different types of trauma or situations that were previously neutral but now trigger reminders of trauma (maybe seeing ward members, for example) are also more likely to deepen trauma or cause hyper-arousal.  Further, the more times a traumatic event is experienced (i.e. continued bullying), the greater the impact it is likely to have on an individual (North & Kienow, 2011).
  6. The final factor I will address is a tendency toward scrupulosity and perfectionism, which is deeply embedded in Mormonism.  Those who expect and want to appear “neat and tidy” at all times are also more likely to be traumatized when they cannot–or told they do not–live up to expectations set upon them.

Research-Based Treatment for PTSD

Have I managed to depress you yet?  But wait!  There is good news in all this: PTSD is treatable and as the title of this article suggests, there are great gifts that can be found post-trauma!  But, like me, survivors need help in the healing process so the gifts of trauma can be discovered and enjoyed.  There’s no fast-track in this journey.  So let’s talk about some tools.

There are a few needed items for sustainable recovery.   They include: 1) an establishment of safety, 2) healthy therapeutic relationships, and 3) survivor empowerment.  In meeting these needs, one of the most effective known ways to treat PTSD is to focus on psychological strengths—mindfulness, resilience, and psychological flexibility (Brew, 2017).  Each psychological factor is examined below:

Mindfulness.  Working with emotion regulation needs to be a primary focus for church trauma victims because due to the anguishing effects of trauma, people with PTSD often spend astonishing amounts of time attempting to change and avoid their feelings, especially feelings connected to the traumatic event.  Thus, mindfulness can be very helpful to church trauma survivors.  Begin by recognizing your emotions and that they can be accepted without judgment. Labeling unwanted thoughts can be helpful as you deal with such feelings as melancholy, anxiety, fears of recurrence, helplessness, insecurity, powerlessness, anger, rage, fantasies of payback, and regret for not having behaved differently.  Mindfulness has been shown to be especially effective with people who have PTSD because its aim is to combat our experiential avoidance with real time consciousness and acceptance of circumstances or events that make us feel uncomfortable (Brew, 2017).  Mindfulness also prevents depression-fueling rumination by helping an individual stay focused on current rather than past experiences (The Mindful Way through Depression, Mark Williams).

Resiliency. Resiliency generally refers to “a class of phenomena characterized by patterns of positive adaptation in the context of significant adversity or risk” (Brew, 2017). The overall strategy for developing resiliency is to “facilitate emergent adaptive and coping strategies” and to effectively use the family and psychosocial system (Shaw, 2000).  Many researchers believe that true healing cannot occur unless a safe place is established.  Boundaries are important.   If you have a supportive social group or a family who sustains you, these are most helpful while developing resiliency.  Once safety is established, as a trauma sufferer, you must begin to face your internal experiences directly instead of avoiding them.  This does not mean you have to go into locations that are harmful to you!  Note that I said “internal” experiences!  There is a need for mind-body connections in order to be effectively resilient and for adaptation to occur after traumatic events have been experienced (Brew, 2017).  Meditation and yoga have been proven to be great venues for connecting mind and body.  The fact that they are not inherently connected to the practices of the LDS faith make these activities particularly beneficial for church trauma survivors, as my friend Gerry Baird once pointed out!

Psychological flexibility. 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).  Church trauma victims often face the shattering of cherished beliefs after a trauma (e.g. I thought church was a safe place; I thought good triumphed over evil; I thought I could trust my church leaders) (Shaw, 2000).  Thus, in order to become flexible in our cognitive-thought processes, we have to be willing to “feel” again, to climb out of our emotional numbness, and to face the realities of life—despite how harsh and difficult they may be (Brew, 2017).

Discovering the Gifts of Trauma

Once we begin to utilize the tools of mindfulness, resilience, and psychological flexibility, we can begin to experience posttraumatic growth (PTG). True PTG cannot occur without these three tools.  PTG has been defined as “positive psychological change that occurs due to the struggle with exceedingly difficult life events.  PTG includes the 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 trauma experience a shattering of self-image and belief systems, PTG is a necessary response for true post-trauma living that eventually leads to self-control once again.

We must understand that PTG is not an “I have arrived” experience.  Time, patience, and regular practice is needed.  During this “rediscovery and recovery” process, we need to be willing to draw on existing “tools” and borrow strength and comfort of trusted friends and family until we can reconnect with the world fully again—both physically and mentally (Northcut & Kienow, 2014).  As we do so, PTG can be an exciting process, when, as church trauma survivors, we find renewed meaning and purpose; and to our surprise, that meaning and purpose often comes through the very means of our suffering and pain.

Conclusion

As my mind caught hold many Sundays ago of the gifts I so enjoyed because of church trauma, I reflected on the long and lonely journey.  I realized anew that the impact of church trauma had been a devastating experience for not only me but for all involved in my life, particularly my family.  Yet, through the means of mindfulness, increased resiliency, psychological flexibility, and posttraumatic growth, my family and I are becoming thriving survivors!   We may be RATS (Religious Abuse and Trauma Survivors) but we are not determined–we get to decide our future!  In doing so, we are learning to label and acknowledge our emotions, adapt to our changed world, accept life as it is without judgment, and discover beauties and possibilities that sometimes come through the very depths of our painful and difficult experiences.  Life is good!  Our future is bright!  We are strong!  As deeply painful as it has been, I have to say that I am grateful for the journey my family and I have walked with church trauma!

**Danna Hartline is the founder and creator of The Mormon Trauma Mama.  She is actively involved in advocating for those suffering from church trauma.  She has spoken at many events on the very real issue  of church trauma in the LDS Church including the ADAM Conference, Sunstone Symposium, and the When Church Hurts summit.   For more information on church trauma,  find an overview on the MTM  homepage which includes a presentation she did at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.  You can follow Danna on her Facebook page The Mormon Trauma Mama.

3 thoughts on “Church Trauma Is BAD–But It’s Not ALL BAD!

  1. Barb W. says:

    I love the power of this post! It offers so much encouragement and hope. Trauma has all but wiped me out but this helps me see that there has been so much I have learned and gained through it all. I also am grateful for the summary of risk factors involving trauma. The Church sure set me up–or my parents–or both! 🙁

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