There are several approaches to healing from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they may include finding comfort and support from faith communities. Yet, some doctrines do not foster self-care and recovery. If you have a faith community or consider yourself a member of an organized religion, you may develop beliefs that can stand in the way of your healing from PTSD. Here are some observations on faith systems and their impact on PTSD recovery.
In the first two posts in this series (see 1, 2), I have established that: With posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychotherapy’s goal is to reduce or remove symptoms needed to qualify one for the diagnosis. This is what “healing” means in this series. The core of this healing work is permanently reducing or eliminating the noxious feelings associated with memories of trauma. Without "triggered" intrusive memories, the other symptoms of PTSD do not appear. Both psychology and religion can make naturalistic proposals about PTSD; it is appropriate and necessary to evaluate such proposals by empirical research, which is how science creates reliable knowledge. Forgiveness has been proposed by both psychologists and religious figures as a potentially important intervention in psychotherapy, and in the therapy of PTSD in particular. It's reasonable to take this proposal seriously. “Unforgiveness” – the mental state for which forgiveness is proposed as the remedy, has two fundamental feelings associated with it: fear and anger. Fear is primary, and anger is an adaptive response to fear. Remove fear and anger goes with it. Let's now look at forgiveness as a deliberate intervention to promote physical health and recovery from psychological trauma.
In the first part of this post, we established three fundamental things: You are healed from PTSD if you no longer meet the criteria for the diagnosis. Psychology, as a science, proposes hypotheses which can be tested in the natural world. Religion also proposes hypotheses, but fundamentally about the supernatural world, where hypotheses cannot be tested. Let’s add one more fundamental idea: religious traditions can, and do, propose many things about the natural world. Some of their most notable propositions are ethical in nature, and in this context one finds the idea that forgiveness is a good thing. Forgiveness as a value has a long and honored tradition in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). If we consider that religion, like all traditional culture, functions in part as a kind of “memory” for a people – identifying and preserving important ideas, understandings, and directives, then a reasonable case can be made that we should seriously consider the idea of forgiveness.
People deeply involved in any way of looking at the human world tend to take that worldview with them wherever they go. So it is both with those committed to a religious tradition as well as those committed to evidence-based psychology and psychotherapy. Each of us will tend look at serious human problems from our respective viewpoints. This can get confusing. An excellent example of this came up recently with a question posted to Google+ for general comment by HealthyPlace.com: Is forgiveness an important component of healing from trauma? I suspect that individuals committed to both worldviews reacted to this question in fairly predictable ways. I know I did. My reaction was immediate: "Important? Absolutely not. Useful? It can be, but not in the way religious people tend to think." As I discussed the matter with a thoughtful and articulate individual, a richer picture emerged which is worth bringing to this venue, and elaborating on, for many reasons.