Overspiritualizing invisible wounds?

When someone suffers an obvious injury to a leg it is clear to us that this injury limits prior capacities for walking, running, standing, and other things we do with our legs. If the injury is slow to heal, would we be likely to tell them to act as if the injury never happened? No. We can see the injury, its effects, and we recognize that recovery may be limited. We would be unlikely to judge the person for failing to run like they had prior to the accident. Of course, physical wounds will prompt spiritual concerns, from “where was God…?” to trusting God for the future even while continuing to experience pain symptoms and the inability to complete tasks that used to be easy.

But what about the wounds we can’t so easily see?

Sadly, I think we spiritualize¬†them and do judge others for having them. Take for example a victim of abuse or trauma that results in a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. We see no obvious wound. The body looks sound and fit. So, the anxiety we see, the hesitancy to trust others, the mental confusion, the inability to sleep well…these symptoms must be primarily evidence of a spiritual problem, right?

Wrong, at least in part. While we rarely see the damage done to victims of trauma, changes to the brain are nonetheless present. Here’s a couple of things we think we know about trauma and the brain:

  • The brain is an adaptable organ and use-dependent. Activity along neural pathways can become more efficient with practice (i.e., the more something happens, the easier it is for the brain to respond). So, certain pathways and structures in the brain become more easily activated
  • Observing activity brain scans in those who suffered severe traumas such as child abuse, we see evidence that the part of the brain that processes emotion seems to be routinely overactive. Likewise, the part of the brain that provides conscious analysis of where we are in time and space, seems underactive when emotional processing increases. This activity problem (too much in some areas, too little in others) appears to cause individuals to relive/re-experience trauma and have less capacity (in the moment of reliving) to talk back to their feelings (analyze what is happening) or explain it to others
  • Along with these structures, hormone feedback systems appear to produce fight/flight hormones in the presence of triggers

Simplistic as my points above are, I hope you can see that a person has little conscious control over these reactions in any given moment. Now, there are things that can be done to help the brain adapt and respond better, but the fact of being triggered is not the result of not trusting God.

So, consider the multiply-traumatized man in your church who reacts negatively to well-intentioned requests to join a small group or to be prayed over with the laying on of hands. Is this because they do not trust God, are sinfully fearful, or evidence of invisible wounds of PTSD? I suspect some would be inclined to assume this man had a spiritual problem. In fact he may, but the reaction he is having is most likely not that problem.

A Better Question

Recently I asked my students to consider this question: What does faithfulness look like for the Christian who is suffering pervasive panic? Does it mean an absence of fear? Forcing themselves into situations that will flood them with panic? How would you answer this question? Are the evidences of fear in your life a sign you do not trust God? Can you acknowledge fear and still trust God? What does that look like for you?


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

8 responses to “Overspiritualizing invisible wounds?

  1. Tina

    Very good article. As a survivor of trauma and abuse I have often wondered if I would be looked upon differently if my emotional wounds were seen as physical wounds are. There is no way to even begin to portray this as the physical body could not withstand the number of wounds . Another thing to consider, you talk about those who can no longer run or perform as they did before their injury, what about those who were abused from infancy all through their teen years, sexually and emotionally or such. I found that I didn’t even know what pieces were missing to have words to describe or ask. I had no concept of being able to process emotion etc. The result was years of having adults mad at me because I could not “act” or handle my pain acceptably. It took MANY long hard years to recover. I love the new discoveries about trauma, the brain and stress response system it really helps others to understand. The bottom line is that Love does overcome all fear. Our stress response systems teach us how healing can occur. So let us all practice loving ourselves and others until all fear is gone! Patience….

  2. Tom

    Hey Phil! Been awhile. Main point here is good. A couple questions on the research: 1) I was under the impression that is impossible to predict who will get PTSD, and also that generalizations and interpretations from scans is still a very dubious proposition. So I’m wondering about the interpretation here. Maybe, I guess. And 2) Got any references here? I’d be interested.

    • Tom, there are many references on this. Here’s two: Lobo, I., de Oliveira, L., David, I. A., Pereira, M. G., Volchan, E., Rocha-Rego, V., & … Mocaiber, I. (2011). The neurobiology of posttraumatic stress disorder: Dysfunction in the prefrontal-amygdala circuit?. Psychology & Neuroscience, 4(2), 191-203. doi:10.3922/j.psns.2011.2.004

      Shin, L. M., Rauch, S. L., & Pitman, R. K. (2006). Amygdala, Medial Prefrontal Cortex, and Hippocampal Function in PTSD. In R. Yehuda (Ed.) , Psychobiology of posttraumatic stress disorders: A decade of progress (Vol. 1071) (pp. 67-79). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

    • Also, this wasn’t about predicting who will get PTSD. There are risk factors that are in play (e.g., multiple trauma increase risk, greater affective ranger, more likely. But of course, as in even genetic predictions of future cancer, a risk factor doesn’t always lead to the disease state.

  3. Elizabeth Cruz

    Ahhhhh! how refreshing, I believe this thinking is called grace. The church could do with a new dose of this. I’m an educator, college educated, a woman of faith and intercessory prayer. I suffer with generalized anxiety and panic attacks. For years I kept silent due to horrible judgement. I sought professional help was told my diagnosis was due to hormonal imbalance and rapid losses in my life. Recently I have begun to be transparent and others have come out of the woodwork to ask for prayer by me. How ironic, how great is our God. Thank you for writing this. I concur. Elizabeth

  4. Something I wish was discussed in churches more. I think it would help curb some otherwise bad pastoral illustrations, and pat sermon applications.

  5. pastor mabonga Robert

    pastor Robert mabonga.
    This is very good i think it would help because there are some pastors or preacher with instructions.

  6. No doubt there is more than a kernel of truth in what you write, but it is complicated by the fact that mental health diagnoses are all-too-often used to help people dodge their responsibilities, and the disability system is a major factor in disincentivizing recovery. It is sad that people with legitimate wounds are viewed askance due to pervasive fraud, but such is the case.

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