Many people raised in hardline churches suffer from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome:
1. nightmares about church or family members,
2. avoidance of church or religious or family activities,
3. over reacting to stressful situations that remind them of the controlling attitude of the hardline church.

This is understandable. I remember hearing that the most threatened primitive tribes have the most dangerous and traumatic initiation ceremonies. This ensures that the group remains tight and exclusive, and guarantees the survival of the group even in a surrounding society that is hostile to the group’s identity.

When I was a schoolchild I was encouraged to have confrontations with teachers about singing religious music with instruments of music instead of a capella as my church understood the New Testament to teach. We also had confrontations about dancing or swimming in gym class, the celebration of Christmas as a religious holiday, not attending extracurricular activities on Wednesday night and Sundays, the teaching of evolution in biology class, etc. These humiliating confrontations served as initiation rituals that helped to solidify the child’s identity with the hardline church. They proved to the child and to the congregation that the child was truly a member of the group, willing to sacrifice.

Other traumatizing events in a hardline church upbringing are disciplinary rituals that the church uses to keep the members committed and in line. Withdrawal from the unfaithful, not eating a meal with a member who has left the church, public rebukes from the pulpit, all serve to both traumatize and to keep members in line.

Besides the actual items the church does, there is also the home life of the child growing up in a hardline church: from the pulpit the discipline of spanking is emphasized over every other form of child discipline. But any parent who attends a hardline church is functioning at a primitive level: perhaps age ten to twelve years old. They want simple answers to complex problems, and they want problems to go away quickly, so screaming, threatening, yanking and shaking are quick ways to get a child to obey and get the problem out of the way. All of these can help add up to Post Traumatic Stress symptoms.

Curing PTSD: talk about the trauma–some research indicates that if you can zero in on the worst story and tell it 20 times, then that can relieve the PTSD symptoms in seventy percent of cases. But if the trauma was pounded in early and long term, then it is probably going to be a long term cure. It is better to have realistic expectations of yourself as you recover. You may not be able to handle family visits very well at first, or at all. Don’t judge yourself for this. You may not be able to handle people judging you morally or religiously. This is normal for what you have been through. Just keep talking about it.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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8 Responses to PTSD

  1. Shelly says:

    Thank you for this article. It is all true.
    I grew up in the hardline Church of Christ in West Texas. I am not able to see anyone in my family anymore. Fortunately, I married an extremely sweet atheist man and we have a much more serene life.

    But I have anxiety and difficulty in situations where I feel trapped. And I can get so nervous when one of my old family tries to contact me.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this post. I left the ICOC several years ago and just recently got diagnosd with PTSD. This post and the one about the inevitible train wreck have helped me a bit to know i am not crazy.

    • Hi Stephanie,

      You’re not crazy! People who have left hardline churches sometimes break out in a sweat, shaking, when they encounter, or think they are about to encounter, church members. (It is difficult, in the moment, to remember what you are supposed to say and do to shaming, controlling people: “I’m not comfortable talking to you right now. I’m not interested in going to your church.” And if they continue: “I’m not going to have a discussion with you right now.” And if they continue: “You’re the most unpleasant, rudest, least Christian people I know. Why would I want to have a discussion about God with you?” “There are people I respect that I go to for discussions about how to live my life. You’re not one of those people.”)

      The ICOC is so controlling that people who were raised with parents who have healthy boundaries, are usually put off by the ICOC’s dishonest tactics, before they get to the conversion stage of the game. Those who are not put off, have had parents who were narcissistic, workaholic or alcoholic, and have difficulty recognizing when someone is being manipulative and shaming, because it reminds them of home. This makes leaving the group doubly difficult, and makes encounters with group members later traumatic.

      Keep telling your story, Stephanie. It gets better!

  3. Abnaxus says:

    Great post! This looks like the place to offer a site where exes can talk about the trauma of being controlled and shamed in the name of religion. I just stumbled across ex church of christ dot Com recently. Click on the ‘Personalities’ and ‘Spiritual Abuse’ tabs and usually stuff starts to click! You recognize a lot of Narcisistic and Obsessive Personality Disorders among members, preachers, staff, etc. (People who were abused and break free often have traits under the Avoidant personality disorder, interestingly enough). On the Spiritual Abuse page, you can look at the few links on the right side and find the forum link. You can look at the Doctrine & Culture category without joining. It’s amazing thinking you’re the only one who got red flags and had to leave. Some of these people have some true horror stories of being shunned/ex-communicated or stalked by phone or threatened for visiting other churches or dating a non member. General madness. Good luck to all and peace!

  4. Good article. My husband and I were converts to the COC, left many years ago; we are graduates of ACU. I can relate to the PTSD you speak of, nightmares, etc. After I was the victim of a violent crime, the COC suddenly had no answers for me. My husband and I experienced a true salvation experience after reading Pat Boone’s book, left the COC, and were disfellowshipped a year later. Unfortunately, being in one cult opens you up to others, and we were in all sorts of cult and cult-like churches for many years. We have finally been set free, and I enjoy reading ex-cult blogs and FB pages. I’ve signed up to follow.

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