How to Heal from Spiritual Trauma

Faith is an important element of many people’s story. Whether you were raised in attending church or in a home that was more secular, our histories often contain elements of faith or spirituality, even if those definitions vary wildly from family to family. For some, spirituality speaks to the sense that we are all connected and that there is an energy – some would say a divine energy – that flows through all of the natural world. For others, the idea of faith evokes images of an old man in the sky character who is wholly responsible for creation and punishes those that would defy him.

Being a part of a faith community can have many positive benefits. We are inherently social beings and joining with others who share our beliefs can be enriching. It can increase our social bonds. We form relationships with others who can come alongside us when we need help. Knowing that there are those who share a similar outlook on the world as our own can help to validate our experiences. Awe and wonder, as is experienced in the worship of God or when we engage in a set of contemplative practices, have been shown to make important contributions to our overall sense of well-being.

It’s important to know that not all communities are healthy, safe spaces. In their unhealthy state,  communities like these can become oppressive or damaging. Depending on how a community interprets and practices a particular set of beliefs, a person may be exposed to harmful guilt and shame. People may be told that they’re not good enough in their current state and need to repent or risk burning in hell. Research has shown that if we believe in a god that is angry and frightening, our stance toward the world will likely be one of anger and fear. In the unhealthiest of faith communities, those in power might even take advantage of others for their own gain, justifying the experience with belief or scripture.

In the clinical world, trauma is not a word that is used lightly. However, when it comes to experiences like these, we can certainly become traumatized. When painful or frightening situations are intense, and outside of our control, our bodies have evolved techniques essential to our survival. These are most widely known as our fight or flight responses, however, that doesn’t capture the whole story. Without our awareness, we go through a sequence of responses that increase in intensity. The first is a social response. In times of fear, maybe we scream or yell. We engage in some social interaction as our first attempt to stop the situation. If that doesn’t work, our bodies move into preparations for fighting or running away - this is the classic fight or flight that you may have heard of. Adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals are released and surge through our bodies. If we cannot fight or flee from the problem, our final response is to freeze. It is in this final phase that we often hear about people who dissociate from reality and have an experience of observing themselves and whatever is happening to them. At each level of response, our brains process information differently. We store memories in a way that is optimized for identifying potentially similar threats more quickly in the future. Sometimes, this even means that the memories are incomplete. The particular characteristics of these memories are often what we think about when we think about trauma. Smells, sounds, or objects associated with a traumatizing event can trigger our body’s response sequence as if we were experiencing the event all over again. In these situations, our brains have filed some component of the memory away as being a threat all on its own.

Our bodies are sensitive to threats of any form. This sort of survival response and the subsequent potential for trauma can result from a psychological threat or a threat to our membership in a community in the same way as it would for a physical threat. Trauma is the experience of being in danger and unable to get away.

Spiritual trauma occurs when we have one of these experiences within a spiritual community. One example is from members of the LGBTQ community who are raised in the church. Commonly, they are told that their attractions, their sexual identity, is wrong and sinful. They receive the messages that God must have made a mistake when God created them. Now,  in order to stay within a community that has been an important part of their lives, they have to displace a core part of who they are. When a person is constantly invalidated like this, it can become traumatizing.

Another unfortunate but common example is when people are the victims of physical abuse that becomes justified with beliefs and biblical references. Most often, this takes the form of a father or husband justifying his role as the head of the household and exerting power to ensure that all other family members are submissive to him.

These and dozens of other experiences can be traumatizing in and of themselves. However, many people add that their interior space often does not feel safe either. For those that believe in God, if God knows their heart and mind, then it might also be sinful to question the correctness of what is happening. There is always someone watching. Many people who experience this kind of spiritual trauma do not know what it means to have a place of safety, even in their internal world. When everything is judgment, it can feel like a part of you has to die in order to protect yourself as a whole.

It can feel cliché but healing begins with recognizing that you have experienced some sort of trauma. Ultimately, healing is about the integration of those internal parts of your that had to be exiled in order to keep you safe. It is about allowing the disintegrated memories to be relieved of their traumatizing power. So much of your story has to be deconstructed and reconstructed in a way that brings life rather than fear and anxiety.

As good as this might sound, it can feel disruptive. For many people, learning to see the world through a different faith-lens can feel scary, especially if you have been told that you must believe a certain way or risk eternal punishment. This is why safety is critical to this work. Finding a therapist who can help you hold your difficult questions and experiences in a way that allows you to grow is essential.  This person should help equip you with tools to manage the trauma response when you feel it arising as well as helping you to reprocess the experience. It might also mean evaluating what it means to leave a spiritual community and a therapist can help you navigate the anxiety that might arise when a decision like this is the right one to make.

Healing takes time and effort. But we can heal from traumatic wounds, even spiritual ones. We can learn to see the divine in an entirely new way.