Religious Trauma Syndrome

Recently, I did an interview with an east coast journalist who’s researching Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS).

  • RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD.

Over the course of our hour long conversation, we discussed the latest research and questioned whether RTS is limited only to fundamentalism. I emphatically stated it is not, and that all genres of faith-practices which demean gender, sexuality and inclusion should be brought to task.

I wish I had confidence in the Church-at-large to police themselves, but I do not. Whether Catholic or Protestant, all too often, the standard SOP has been to cover-up abuse, silence traumatized victims and continue business as usual. Ironically, it has taken outside investigative reporting, such as recently done by the Houston Chronicle, to challenge the status quo. See Abuse of Faith.

Leading up to my recent interview, I’ve been exploring how religious, faith-base belief systems are woefully susceptible to becoming cultures of control, abuse and victimization. Within the context of my former evangelical experience, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of fear-based theology, which leads to splintered personalities, and stunted psychological development. See The Damn Dark Room.

Even though Dr. Marlene Winell, Ph.D. published her groundbreaking RTS research a few years ago, her findings still remain unknown to many. With this post, I hope to enlighten a few more.

The following are key RTS dysfunctions she identified:

  • COGNITIVE: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion
  • AFFECTIVE: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
  • FUNCTIONAL: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization
  • SOCIAL/CULTURAL: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction

I have plenty more to say on this topic, and will do so in posts to follow. For now, I’ll leave off with a few questions to ponder:

  • FEAR: How much of your faith practice is influenced by fear? Fear of God? Fear of hell? Fear of eternal loss? Fear of disapproval?
  • EXCLUSIVITY: Do you largely view others with a dualistic exclusivity? Insiders? Outsiders? Lost? Saved? Gay? Straight? Republican? Democrat? Do your faith-beliefs keep you from engaging others as simply human beings like yourself?
  • PARANOIA: Do you feel you’re always being watched, evaluated and graded? By God? By others in your faith community? If so, who do you go to, to be understood and listened to?
  • AVOIDANCE: Have you ever avoided relationships because you knew your “brothers & sisters” might disapprove? And/or, have you felt compelled to manipulate relationships with evangelistic maneuvers?
  • DISMISSAL: Do you tend to dismiss or ignore scriptural passages which offend basic, human sensibilities? Why?
  • EXCLUSION: Do you readily shun or passively exclude others who don’t share your faith or convictions? Friends? Co-workers? Family?

Answering the above questions with honesty, is the first step to addressing the lines between us, which traumatize many on both sides.
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Veggie-ligion

I was talking with a friend last night about an upcoming interview I’ll be doing. I’m no stranger to interviews, but this one will be different from those I’ve done in the past. It will be on camera. I’ve always stuck with print and audio only, affording me time to decide which side is my good side—right or left? I guess I’ll soon find out.

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As far as the interview content is concerned, I’m not lacking in confidence. It will focus on something I know a lot about: former clergy who’ve transitioned out of professional ministry, and the adversities they’ve faced in doing so. For many of my peers, the transition has proven extremely demanding and destructive on numerous levels. 

Fortunately, for me, with the support of my spouse, kids and dear friends, I was able to avoid many pitfalls. With that said, I still encountered adversity, setbacks and discouragement, but with each new day I was able to put it all in my past.

Perspective

Last night, I reached out to my friend for some perspective. Although she’s aware of my past, she’s only known me in my current role as a project manager, never as a minister. As we talked, I asked her what she thought about former clergy wanting to leave the ministry? Her response was intriguing:

First, she referenced the few ministers she knew besides me (neighbors) and talked about how nice and capable they were in their roles. Although she herself does not attend their churches or any church, her general attitude was positive towards active clergy.

Secondly, the thought of active clergy desiring to leave the ministry for good had never crossed her mind. And honestly, why would it? But, as a business manager who hires qualified people for high level positions, she felt strongly that ministers offer a wealth of experience for the job market—management, sales & marketing. Her actual comment was, “Why wouldn’t I want to hire a former minister?”

Thirdly, when I asked how she felt about a minister who actually stopped believing in the supernatural, she wrestled with wrapping her head around that idea. Even though she has no desire to actively practice her former Catholic faith, she feels belief in some kind of a higher power helps cope with stress. Tongue in cheek, she suggested a “head of lettuce” might be a sufficient god of sorts.

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Ancient Egyptian ceremony depicting lettuces offerings to Min god in the temple of Kalabsha, aka the Temple of Mandulis.

We laughed and agreed that a vegetable would not be the best choice. In talking further, it became clear that religious faith and coping skills are two very different things. To contrast, I can think of a few examples:

The Babble Method

I once worked with someone who, every time she got stressed or mad, started babbling loudly in tongues. When she did so, it was always quite uncomfortable; especially, since we worked together in retail. I remember thinking at the time, this must be her religious form of cussing!?

The Retreat Method

Another friend of mine, when stressed, would retreat to his “secret place” with a jug of water to fast and pray for hours, sometimes for days. I never saw an improvement in his communication skills or marriage. However, upon his return he always had interesting “visions” to share, none of which pertained to his day-to-day life.

The Lecture Method

As a former minister, I often sat in services where peers delivered messages, which were not applicable for the majority of the listeners. Clearly, he/she had issues with one or two in attendance, and had chosen to vent from the platform. This approach is not all that surprising when you consider ministers are primarily trained to lecture.

The Avoidance Method

Other peers of mine often used their “busy schedule” to avoid dealing with challenges and conflict. For many, the avoidance lasted only until things either exploded or they “felt called” to a new position elsewhere. Others used their “busy schedule” to hide the pursuit of unhealthy habits—addictions, affairs, etc. In hindsight. I think their blind reliance on the supernatural and their lack of coping skills drove them to self-sabotage, i.e. implosion.

Think About It

Obviously, avoiding, retreating, lecturing and babbling solve absolutely nothing. Sadly though, religion often not only strengthens these methods, it encourages them. Think about it: 

  • If you’re a stressed out charismatic, you’re told to speak in tongues. 
  • If you’re a stressed out mystic, you’re told to retreat and pray. 
  • If you’re a stressed out leader, you’re told to call sinners to repentance. 
  • And if you’re one of the nameless faces who once attended church, you’re still inclined to seek divine help, maybe even from a… head of lettuce?

Hey, perhaps being a vegetarian is far more than just a lifestyle or diet choice?

#Veggie-ligion


If you’re interested in getting “down to earth” with acquiring legit coping skills, check out these links:

Centre for Studies on Human Stress
Psychology Today
VeryWellMind
Eliminate Stress at Work
Anxiety & Depression Association of America