The very spaces and that had brought her peace and comfort are now triggers of pain and anxiety
Spiritual abuse is actual abuse and causes real harm. It is a kind of trauma, and like all trauma, it can cause a host of negative symptoms (Marich, 2021). Like other forms of psychological abuse, spiritual abuse can cause as much or more harm to a person as physical abuse (O’Leary, 1999). Like other forms of trauma, spiritual abuse can overwhelm a person’s normal coping mechanisms and have long-term negative effects on someone’s brain and nervous system (Panchuk, 2020).
Even if someone’s trauma may not meet the full diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the effect of spiritual abuse can include PTSD symptoms like dissociative reactions, intrusive thoughts, sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, hyperarousal, and hypervigilance (Marich, 2021; Panchuk, 2020). These symptoms can impact a person’s quality of life and can lead to significant impairments. Further, places, rituals, and people that were once supportive to someone can become triggers of past traumatic experiences (Doyle, 2009).
Spiritual abuse also harms the spiritual dimension of an individual, including how they relate to others, how they relate to the Church, and how they relate to God (Fernández, 2022). Because of how spirituality is manipulated, and because of the ecclesial dimension of authority within the Catholic Church, spiritual abuse can cause an individual to believe that God and the Church condoned the abuse they suffered (Fernández, 2022).
Spiritual abuse can distort a person’s normal source of comfort and security into a source of harm. Depending on how much someone who has been abused believes that the person or group that abused them represented God, the person may believe that it was God who abused them (Panchuk, 2018). The places, communities, and symbols that once brought them support can become triggers of pain and anxiety (Doyle, 2009).
The layers of consequences from spiritual abuse are illustrated in the story of a young woman who experienced ongoing spiritual abuse after a confrontation with her employer, who was also her pastor, led to her termination.
For several weeks, the priest very publicly shared details and lies about the circumstances of her termination. As a result, she not only lost her employment and the related security of finances and health insurance, but also her church community and spiritual support system.
This woman tried to do everything “right” to get herself through the difficult situation, including continuing to attend Mass at a different parish and going to twice-weekly therapy. However, the spiritual abuse caused major blows to her psychological and spiritual health.
There were two levels to her trauma: the first was the spiritual abuse by the priest, and the second was the lack of intervention by Church authorities. That second aspect made the Church at large seem unsafe. It made her feel that any priest anywhere in her diocese could treat her that way, and that the bishop would not take action to protect her. This provoked severe anxiety during Mass in the form of spiraling thoughts, racing heart, tension, and hyper-vigilance. After several months of repeated negative experiences at Mass, she began to fear that forcing herself to go to Mass in the short -term would cause her to stop going in the long run.
Additionally, because she had always heard that the Catholic Church was established by God and is the Bride of Christ, the fact that those in “God’s institution” had perpetrated the abuse and allowed it to continue made this woman feel leery of God. Even though she knew God had not committed the abuse, God was so intimately tied up in Catholicism for her that she felt the same anxiety about God as she did about going to Mass. Whenever she tried to pray, she would often end up ruminating about her experiences and feel deep emotional distress.
Catholicism and her relationship with God had been central to this woman’s identity for her whole life, so when it was no longer a safe space for her, her sense of self was destabilized.
The very spaces and habits that had brought her peace and comfort for years now threatened her internal sense of safety.
An excerpt from my article, The Place Where You Stand is Holy Ground: Recognizing and Preventing Spiritual Abuse in the Catholic Church