Louisville Medicine Volume 69, Issue 2 - Page 21

rishioner from volunteer work based on baptismal status . Overt bullying from the pulpit and even direct words of shame thrown at individual parishioners brought in front of a congregation are both well documented . Religious fixation on purity culture highlights the conflict between the orthodoxy and the orthopraxy , i . e ., the everyday realities . The orthopraxy can have an uneven effect , often more profound for females , resulting in shame and confusion inflicted on the young , who are simply progressing through normal sexual development . Psychotherapist Hillary McBride , PhD , in her interview with The Liturgists podcast “ Spiritual Trauma ” captures the concept effectively . She notes that if a faith structure does not validate people where they are , however , it is that the individual arrived there , then they are left feeling like they are “ the bad thing .” All of these examples may have traditionally been dismissed in circles of polite conversation as “ sore spots ” or “ difficult ” moments . Now we recognize that harming the deeply held sanctity of spiritual and religious belonging can induce psychological trauma .
Theological trauma , likely a new construct to some , is relevant in the clinical setting . Understanding this type of trauma allows us to know our patients in a deeper way and to recognize the shame and guilt they so often bring to the clinic . We can know that a choice , an event , or an accident in a patient ’ s life may be amplified by factors other than the sheer facts of the occurrence . This awareness allows us to counsel patients that practitioners of all walks can meet them where they are with their trauma and integrate their religious and theological beliefs into their treatment , as opposed to using those beliefs as a point of moral certitude . Moreover , this knowledge allows us to understand patient ’ s responses to events outside of themselves .
A poignant recent example , too obvious and omnipresent in the clinic to omit ( but so predictable it may seem trite ) is the overwhelming number of American political characters who extol their religious virtuosity despite highly publicized foibles . In my 10 years of practice I have never had a more consistent patient-driven topic of conversation and consternation . Patients have routinely recounted to me their trouble sleeping , general anxiety , anger and sense of loneliness enduring and growing with each witnessed step toward political dereliction . These patients feel abandoned by their peers , neighbors and clergy , those whom they felt had shared their moral compass . They describe , unable to integrate what was happening around them , a sense of trauma and crisis of identity and belief . While I won ’ t demand a banner of trauma for my experience , I empathized with these patients . As the US pursued an immigration policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border , inducing psychological trauma on children as a means to an end , the silence from many religious groups was befuddling and disorienting . My childhood church , which had publicly stepped into the political arena in the past , responded with an effective shrug of the shoulders . Facing the reality that those who sang “ Jesus loves the little children , all the children of the world ” to me as a child may have forgotten the words to the song - jarring at best , traumatizing at worst . Silence , or an absence of action , from religious figures can be a source of trauma as well .
The American Psychological Association ( APA ) defines trauma as an “ emotional response to a terrible event ” that can lead to shock and denial and long-term reactions like unpredictable emotions , flashbacks , strained relationships and even physical symptoms . Dr . McBride defines trauma in a simpler way as a “ negative and unexpected experience that leaves the individual confused , overwhelmed , and powerless .” The long-lasting effects of trauma are increasingly understood within the concept of PTSD . The National Center for PTSD , under the umbrella of Veterans Affairs , concisely states what is generally being applied in clinical settings , that PTSD is now understood to be “ a manifestation of cause and effect rather a personal weakness in a patient .” Since the American Civil War , much of the formal understanding of human trauma and lasting effects was developed from studying war veterans , according to the VA . However , the concept of psychological trauma was first noted by psychoanalysts at the end of the 19th century . Through the work of many , including well known examples of Judith Herman ’ s Trauma and Recovery , George Engel ’ s Biopsychosocial approach , and Bessel Van der Kolk ’ s The Body Keeps the Score , trauma is now understood as an overwhelming experience that induces a biopsychosocial response wherever integration of the trauma event is blocked . This type of inclusion and construct , allows broader horizons of understanding of not only the effects of trauma but also the sources , which we now recognize do not come only from combat warfare or overt physical violence .
Psychologist Marlene Winell , PhD coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome in a series of three essays in 2011 , and wrote Leaving the Fold as a guide to “ recovery from Christian fundamentalism .” Dr . Winell reported survivors fulfill the criteria for trauma as they report feelings of terror , helplessness and horror in facing death and injury along with the “ the terror of hell for oneself and everyone else , and the helplessness of being a frail human in a wicked world .” While she approaches the concept of religious trauma from a fundamentalist point of view , many others approach both understanding and managing theological trauma differently , taking in those who retain their faith .
Many churches define themselves as open and accepting or healing communities , recognizing that many have been wounded by theology itself and offer a place for spiritual fulfillment and exploration . Rev . Dr . Carol Harston , in her thesis work Traumatizing Theology and the Healing Church , garners the concept noting that traumatizing theology is “ the image of a perpetrating god who is overly interested in observing behavior and thoughts with a readiness to separate the individual from the community , remove their dignity , and mark them as worthy of eternal punishment .” The victims are often at the mercy of the church leaders who offer belonging and community based on their own or their denominations ’ interpretations . The potential for trauma in the individual exists simply by understanding how high the stakes are ( eternal damnation ) if ( continued on page 20 )
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