It’s Called Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, and Yes It’s Real

It’s Called Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, and Yes It’s Real March 5, 2014

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By Reba Riley

If there’s one thing I know the power of, it’s a name.

For the better part of a decade I suffered from a chronic mystery illness that was attacking me from the inside out. Countless doctors and specialists couldn’t diagnose me, couldn’t give me a name for what was happening. They told me it was all in my head — that I could pull myself out of it if I just tried harder.

I believed them.

Debilitating fatigue and pain became a way of life. My physical distress was second only to the mental torture that went like this, “I am doing this to myself. I do not have an actual medical condition. These symptoms are not real. There is nothing wrong with me.”

But there was something wrong with me. After eight years of sickness, a doctor handed me a slip of paper. On the paper was the name of the disease I had been fighting; the disease that had been fighting me.

I wept with joy. (Which confused my poor doctor more than a little bit.)

I had a name. The symptoms were real. I did have a medical condition. I was not doing it to myself.

Because of the name, I found out I was not alone; there were thousands of other people dealing with the very same condition. Because of the name, I discovered community, support, resources, and treatment. Because of the name, I recovered.

Because of the name, fatigue and pain are no longer a way of life for me.

Which is why I am giving a name to a spiritual condition that is even more real and more dangerous than the disease that robbed me of my physical health for many years:

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.

PTCS presents as a severe, negative — almost allergic — reaction to inflexible doctrine, outright abuse of spiritual power, dogma and (often) praise bands and preachers. Internal symptoms include but are not limited to: withdrawal from all things religious, failure to believe in anything, depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loss of identity, despair, moral confusion, and, most notably, the loss of desire/inability to darken the door of a place of worship.

The physical symptoms of PTCS — which may or may not be present — include: cold sweats, hives, nausea, vomiting, sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbance, rashes, heart palpitations, increased blood pressure — oh, to heck with it. The symptoms are as varied as the people who suffer them.

There are degrees of PTCS — maybe you can still walk into a church, maybe you can’t, maybe you take the long way on the highway to avoid the sight of a steeple, maybe you’re even standing in the pulpit. But the one thing we all have in common is that we crash into religion when we go looking for God.

And the crashing has left us with spiritual whiplash, broken bones, bruises, welts and lacerations. It has left us feeling alone and scared and suffering. It has left us with a boatload of internal and external symptoms the persons of spiritual authority tell us are all in our heads and would go away if we just had more faith.

Don’t believe them.

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is not in your head, and you are not alone.

When I tackled my own case of PTCS and blogged about it (, I received story after story — in person and via email and snail mail—from people who were suffering from PTCS. Our stories may be different, but the result is the same: we yearn for God without being bound by dogma and subject to spiritual abuse.

Though I wish I could give you an answer of how to recover from PTCS in 800 words or less, I can’t. (It took me a year and a crazy journey through thirty religions to recover from my own case of PTCS.) Each journey back to spiritual health is as unique as the person taking it.

But what I can do is hand you this virtual slip of paper stating the condition you’ve been fighting — the condition that’s been fighting you. I can tell you there are thousands, maybe even millions of us. I can tell you that I recovered, that healing is available, that God will meet you wherever you are or aren’t.

But most of all, I can tell you a name. Sometimes a name is halfway to healing.

Reba Riley is the author of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Humorous Memoir of Healing, Hope, and 30 Religions Before 30 (Chalice Press, Fall/Winter 2014). She may be reached for comment at Join the PTCS group on Facebook:


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210 responses to “It’s Called Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, and Yes It’s Real”

  1. I had years of atheism and hatred of religion. Then I became a Buddhist. I still have PTCS, but see it for what it is and know where it came from. A friend of mine, who is now in a leadership position in a large protestant denomination, has known my religious history since the abuse phase. Years ago, he told me he was not at all surprised by my atheism because I had been “religiously abused” (his words).

  2. You’re kidding me, right? I don’t judge people….we all have our battles. But what on earth causes post traumatic CHURCH disorder?!? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is real. And not just for our Vets. Anyone who has had to go through or witness a major trauma can suffer this. A wide variety of symptoms may be signs you are experiencing PTSD: Feeling upset by things that remind you of what happened, Having nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event that make you feel like it’s happening all over again, Feeling emotionally cut off from others ( family, friends, CHURCH), Feeling numb or losing interest in things you used to care about, Becoming depressed, Thinking that you are always in danger, Feeling anxious, jittery, or irritated, Experiencing a sense of panic that something bad is about to happen, Having difficulty sleeping, Having trouble keeping your mind on one thing, Having a hard time relating to and getting along with your spouse, family, or friends (INCLUSIVE OF CLUBS, GROUPS, CHURCH)
    From what I’m reading, you just needed an answer. That’s understandable. Who wouldn’t want to know what was wrong?!? But you’re doctor is a religious quack, and you clung to the 1st answer given. If you can explain to me how Church is involved, please do! Otherwise, you mentioned a battle on the physical health plane. Umm….that can cause PTSD! Again, I’m not judging you, just the diagnosis.

  3. PTSD can be experienced through any long term experience which actively denies the humanity of the individual, whether war, or rape, or abuse, or organizations, such as church.

    When you’re told constantly that avoiding hell excuses any diminishing of your character or denial of your personality or humanity, it will cause damage.

  4. You’re kidding me, right? Churches and church leaders can be some of the most abusive people on the planet! Imagine a place where individualism is discouraged, free thinking is frowned upon, blind obedience is demanded, questioning doctrine is all but forbidden… That is what church has been for many of us.

  5. PTSD can also cause health issues. Stress and anxiety are very hard on the body, especially when prolonged.

    Your entire post was very offensive and dismissive. Be thankful, very, very thankful, that you don’t understand how this can come from church. It most certainly can, and there are lots of us out there suffering.

  6. Crystal, many people share your same view, that church or religion can only be beneficial or benign. It is not an instrument of harm and cannot cause psychological damage because it is meant to help you spiritually. However, the truth is that the church can oftentimes cause people to feel ashamed. If you’ve grown up in evangelicalism or fundamentalism, you are often told that you are a dirty rotten sinner in need of Jesus. That you are SO EVIL that Christ had to die a horrific death in order to save you from the eternal torment of hell, which you rightly deserve. This message is oftentimes told to young children in bible school, beginning at 5 years old. You grow up with feelings of shame and self hate as a result of this brainwashing.

    And don’t even get me started on the purity movement. The shame women have felt as a result of purity doctrine has been likened to the shame felt by sexual abuse victims. I can direct you to this article for more information:

    I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of how the church can damage someone psychologically and emotionally. It is difficult to understand if you have not gone through this. But I assure you, PTCS is real. I myself have had to deal with the effects of the church’s brainwashing and negation of my sexuality. I have an aversion to anything religious, and often experience shame and guilt when reading scripture. I want to find God, and I know that Jesus is good and kind, but I can’t get over the negative feelings I associate with them. I can’t get myself to approach religion without feeling awful. I am working through it, though.

    I hope this makes sense to you. It is much more complex than this, but I don’t want to bore you with a longer response lol.

  7. I suffer from PTSD due to a UCC church. No praise bands, but lots of inflexibility and abuse of power. And stalking, and sexual harassment, and scapegoating. I doubt I’ll ever fully recover.

  8. But for myself, and many people I know, stepping away from the church, and religion in general, has been the most liberating experience of my life. Nobody telling me I’m an unworthy sinner who must be “saved” from — whatever. Nobody having to die for my unnamed and pretty negligible sins. No hope of harps and wings; no fear of eternal torture (which I could have been spared by a wave of the hand of an eternal grandpa who wouldn’t bother?). Praise be, I’m free of it all.

  9. I hope that you come to terms. I have found that finding God and Jesus SPIRITUALLY, not RELIGIOUSLY, has helped a lot. Included in it is a simple silent meditation, a prayer or praise, an affirmation, and a simple closing with gratitude, and letting God take care of it. No dogma, no religion, no pastor telling you that what you are doing is wrong. Just you and God and no middle man! Good luck to you.

  10. You’ve obviously never stepped foot in a church…. Any genuine bible
    believing church does not demand obedience, frown upon individuality. It
    encourages free thinking and questioning in order to understand life. The
    church you’ve been to is a cult. This is such a blind, stereotypical
    attack on believers/church. Such a generalisation and demonisation of
    church which is unfair since for many church is a positive thing.

  11. Obviously by your description, you’ve been exposed to so-called Christian congregations – ones I view as not fully in sync with the true teachings of Christ. I too have experienced mild but temporary cases of “PTSD”, never knew there was a name for it but knew what caused it and never went back to that particular church again. If your church experience doesn’t feel right change faiths, denominations or congregations. Nobody is holding a gun to your head making you stay in that particular church.

  12. Re-read this sentence: “Which is why I am giving a name to a spiritual condition that is even more real and more dangerous than the disease that robbed me of my physical health for many years…”

    The physical illness the author refers to in the intro isn’t Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. She doesn’t tell us what it was, probably because she has a completely obvious right to keep that personal information to herself.

    She used the example of a time when she had a physical illness finally diagnosed, and the relief she experienced as a result of diagnosis, to lead into talking about a SEPARATE ISSUE that she has labeled Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.

    From what I can tell, you’re responding as if a medical doctor handed her a slip of paper that said “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome” on it, but that’s not what the article says happened. Hopefully that clears things up for you and allows you to respond to the article’s subject without worrying about “religious quack” doctors.

  13. One of my symptoms. A high school classmate became one of those christian entertainers, sang backup for Benny Hinn, ect, ect. And constantly complained about immigrants ruining the country, welfare fraud, disability fraud, lazy freeloaders, ect, ect. And it pissed me off so badly i thought i would have an aueurism. For some reason, religious con people make me nuts. I realize the world is full of con artists, but its the ones who say they are awesome christians as they bilk the poor out of money by promising miracles, and then complain about the poor, that make me angry. More angry, I think, than the situation really warrents. I’ve come to the conclusion that is is my church induced trauma kicking in. Makes me nutty.

  14. I stepped away from the church almost 7 years ago, and, while liberating to be free from such dogma, the residual effects are still there. I suppose it depends upon a number of things: the type of church and how deeply involved, as well as the relationships involved.

  15. I was raised in a very strange and cultish religion. My upbringing was punitive and cruel. The doctrine I was taught was obvious rubbish, and I would get punished for questioning it. The religion is authoritarian and forces members to grovel in private worthiness interviews with untrained men who ask children probing questions about their genitals. I suffer from anxiety and depression to this day. I’m not gonna tell you it was the Mormon church, as you probably know by now.

  16. Oh, Jesus Christ… just take TWO SECONDS and ask yourself WHO those vets have PTSD from fighting for the last decade? Come on. You can do it. 2 whole seconds. WHO were they fighting?

    Religion can be as bad as it can be good, depending on whether it’s a religion focused on self control or controlling others. People who are subject to being controlled by other people DO suffer very real trauma. Just ask every wife of a controlling husband.

    I had a friend who broke up with her fiance just before their wedding and someone from the church let her stay with them while she got back on her feet. She had a friend that the church didn’t approve of, so, the church told her that if she didn’t stop being friends with the person that she would be kicked out of the home of the people in the church. They followed through with their threat. Then they kicked her out of the church. When your community kicks you out for not submitting to their control over your personal life, you can be damned sure that it’s traumatic.

  17. My guess is that you weren’t an atheist. That is just the label you have to your reactive feelings.

  18. Are you serious? I would LOVE to find a church like you just described. I am not doubting that they exist, but they are definitely the minority.

  19. I’ve stepped foot in many churches, was raised in a variety of small, Baptist churches. My family was devoutly religious and God was the center of our lives. I lived with unbelievable terror through my childhood. The rules were impossible. Questioning was forbidden. Being a woman was instantly a mark of shame. And the emphasis was always on punishment, judgment, the end of the world and eternity in hell. We hated everybody. We gave thanks when the Pope died. We gave thanks when we heard of Catholic babies dying because that meant they got to heaven before they were corrupted and doomed to hell by worshiping in the wrong church. When I told my parents that I thought God wanted me to be a minister, I was slapped and told to repent, to pray and ask forgiveness. Because (wait for it) God would never want a woman to be a minister and I must be hearing the Devil and mistaking him for God. What a sinner I must be. I was 9. I tried so hard to make myself conform. I wanted to be good and be saved and go to heaven. But I finally just left the church entirely and resigned myself to a future in hell. Things got better. I found God, and was entirely surprised to find the Creator to be nurturing and loving and a constant source of grace. I still don’t do church. I’ve tried several times as an adult. The old feelings of horror and the nightmares come back. It’s not good. Genuine Bible believing churches? God help me if I ever try one again.

  20. I grew up a pastors kid and have been in multiple churches over the course of my 44 years. My trauma dates back to childhood with specific situations and carries through to just the last few years.

    Tell me again how I’ve never stepped foot in a church.

  21. I just went to vote. All of the polling places here in Grapevine, TX are in churches except for the main one which is at a rec center. It seems that regardless of how this is labelled, that a segment of the population is limited in their voting choices if they can’t walk into a church. Sure, you could do early voting, but the reality is that some number of people simply avoid the process completely because voting day creeps up on them and they don’t want to even go into the lobby of a church.

  22. Yep: That’s about the whole of it!

    But I cringe at the term. Mainly because it includes I word which our Lord and Savior designated especially for those that had given up the past work of vieing for God’s attention and now were joined to the body of God’s affection. Is it not idolatry, establishing obsessive-compulsive behaviors about one’s inability to satisfy a corporately agreed-upon image of God? This is the basis of religion, not Church, even though they are practiced held in meetings subjectively called ‘church’ in buildings erroneously called ‘church’ by organisations deceptively called ‘church’. The only thing God calls ‘Church’ is that unbound group of individuals that are so committed to Him alone that they will do what He asks them to do whether it be gall bladder, tricep, or tongue, whatever HE needs for HIS Body to be complete.

    So, PTCS could, without changing the acronym, actually deal with, in calling a spade a spade, Cult symptoms. I am extremely hesitant in naming what God has called good, bad. If friends and family are offended by hearing the truth about their preferred religion, maybe they seek to find God instead. But then again, I …

    Trust God.

  23. Ugh. Give me a good traditional service any day over praise worship. Most praise songs are like amateur hour. Poorly written in both words and music, often full of repeats because the person who wrote them can’t even think of more than a line or two. It is the traditions in church that keep me going. Gives me a foundation and a rock to cling to and boost me up in today’s all over the place society.

  24. At one of the churches I attended (Anglican) the minister was very kind, gentle, humble, giving and caring. When he moved away, the situation with the interim minister felt abusive. We left that church very quickly. I have often reflected back on the situation over the last several years. It seems to me that the new minister wanted to set himself up as an authority, and he did this by cutting other people down – the people in the congregation, the volunteers and other workers in the church. He was an asshole. But more than that, he was abusing power. And more than that he was abusing his power in a religious institution. I haven’t had any PTSD over this, but my wife was very wary the next time our NEW church had an interim. She even made a Freudian slip when she was upset and referred to him by the name of the abusive minister. She had a really hard time trusting his leadership the next time we had an interim.

    Edit to say: I meant to reply to the whole thread, not any individual comment.

  25. I feel for all of you that have had bad experiences in church. There’s a lot of things I could say, but the most important is I’m sorry it happened. I’ve given my life to the goal of making the church the kind of group that God intended it to be, and I have to say my success has been mixed. I’m going to keep trying.

  26. So… maybe this is why I’m an ordained minister who won’t go to church. I’m not a heretic, I’m an acronym!

  27. I feel for ya. Really, I do. Especially since I used to be the guy singing in churches. 😉 (Not THAT guy, just A guy…)But as one who has an actual aortic aneurysm, and spends most days wondering when it will pop…. I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t minimize it to the point of making it sound like a bad headache. 😉 In spite of my smiley face, which is there to show no hard feelings of any kind, I’m sorta serious. Thanks.

  28. Depending on your level of connection with a religious community, stepping away from church can create a tremendous psychological response, with physical symptoms. It’s a huge loss of tribe — sometimes even isolating people from their family of origin in addition to their community. And then there’s the reconstruction of beliefs, values, and practices that has to happen as formerly-churched people re-invent their worldview. I don’t think a diagnosis of PTSD would be too far off, depending on the level of control and involvement. I’m a former pastor, and I know that now, in my practice as a life coach/spiritual director, I help people heal around this all the time. I’m not writing directly about post-church transitions right now on line, but I’m happy to email and/or set up coaching with anyone who is reading this article and going, “Yes! That’s me!”

  29. I’m sorry – thoughtless of me. I have health problems myself, and hate it when people do that.

  30. The difference for me was when i moved into leadership positions within churches. Not paid – just leading small groups and so forth. I became privy to the misery and fights that were going on behind the smiley faces. I left our last church b/c I couldn’t take the tension and craziness – I was literally getting ill from stress. I didn’t want to talk about my issues with people who were happy with the church, so i just kept my mouth shut, but at one point a friend asked and I said that the internal disagreements had just become too much for me. She looked completely blank and said, “But all I see is love.” I realized that plenty of people do just see the surface. IfI hadn’t been in leaadership meetings, I might not have seen anything else either. And it sn’t a case of every group needing to work out issues – this stuff was way over the line.

  31. I think this traumatic disorder might be less acute and intense than what you get from soldiering. But it is a long-term thing that may have been building since early childhood in its foundations. I think it can be nearly as debilitating. Also, men in general tend to not understand a different level of abuse that women sometimes go through in places that are overcontrolled by abusive men. I’m not necessarily talking about sexual abuse, but it could be present too. So I am discounting your discounting of this syndrome, if that makes sense… 🙂

  32. Yeah, that’s a strawman that people like to throw out. It’s a myth, it’s insulting and it really needs to die.

  33. I had PTSD following a huge betrayal by a well known Christian singer-songwriter at a time when I was already vulnerable. I see now that a lot of the harm was due not only to the shock but my being unable to reconcile his treatment of me with how I had perceived him before as I had known him oersonally since I was 15. My mind couldn’t accept it.

    I think t his cognifitve dissonance is a central feature of religious abuse in churches too, especially when parental influence is also brought to bear so that not only those you look up to as leaders, but your own parents are condoning your abuse. It’s very hard for someone to come to terms with that. Religion can be very traumatising and hard for people to break away from because it’s seen as so important to them and their identity and also uses manipulative techniques and power as well as the threat of withdrawal of affection, approval and ultimately what is often construed at the time as God’s approval.

  34. “Sometimes a name is halfway to healing.”

    I so agree! It was only after I was able to name my experience as spiritual abuse that I could start dealing with it and walking out of the nightmare. Keep naming!

  35. is the implication that when one professes a religion, on the other hand, that is NOT a label to certain feelings?

  36. When communists and other convinced atheists talk about the oppression that religion has caused over the centuries I like to point out that non-religious belief systems have done the same too (er..communism, fascism). because it’s a bit of a diversion to think that oppression is CAUSED by a particular belief-system. (it’s also totally opposite to Marxist materialism, as far as I can see!). So here I want to make the point strongly that believers in some secular political ideologies, for instance, might have the same issues. Yes, certain belief-systems make it easier to justify authoritarian behaviour, but that is not the whole story.

  37. I think those replying to Mika missed his or her point – Mika’s church is a “genuine bible believing church”. The author of the article’s church was in fact a cult. Simple, eh? Presumably those replying to Mika were also not attending churches but cults. What a shame the the cults (as defined by Mika) put a sign up on the door saying “church”.

  38. I haven’t read it. But it’s a bit old, so maybe has not taken account of, for example, 200 years of research into human psychology. Nor the development of sociology, social psychology, etc. The irrational has a huge role to play in politics, economics, all areas of life. However, the christian bible is a couple of millennia older…..

  39. Ummm…..ask Lauren Drain about her PTCD. She was a member of Westboro Baptist Church and was thrown out of the church AND her family for asking too many inappropriate questions. Go read her book “Banished” and you’ll see how abusive those people, including her father, could get. She also has a page on Facebook, and she also is doing fundraisers for a fund to help other people who leave WBC (and a few have, and have had nowhere to go – they were literally homeless upon leaving, as she was when she was thrown out. Seriously. GO LOOK HER UP.

  40. Yes, I DO know how abusive, cruel, and mean both church leaders, members, AND church school teachers are. I’ve been there, dons that…from age of birth to 18. There are events in life that happen that you cannot just walk away from. But its YOUR choice on how you let people and events affect YOU. I’ve no sympathy to those of you who did not walk away but could have. I could not until I graduated. And very young I learned a valuable lesson…No One Decides My Life, My Value, nor does ANYONE own the right to judge me! As adults, I’d think you’d already know better! But I guess its dependent on who you’re surrounding yourself with. But only you can decide whether or not to let people bully you. If you choose to allow it to the point of mental breakdown, its no different than being in an abusive relationship. You chose to stay. These are the consequences. Choose to leave, you suffer much less. Choose to be your own person…you do not suffer at all, because you’re happy being who you are. But inventing disorders is a mockery, when reality is, you let it happen. Versus a person witnessing or being involved without choice.

  41. Me to. I feel the same I’m at a loss at the moment. It’s only now starting to effect me now. I’m finding it hard to get on my feet because of the programming.

  42. Guys suffer from religion-induced sexual dysfunction too.

    I was at work several months ago and thinking about the depression and anger that plagued me throughout much of my teen years, and I think much of it can be linked to Jesus’s words about lust in Matthew 5. I often felt guilty and angry when I felt any kind of sexual urge, and since adolescence is a time when we guys feel that frequently, there was a ton of anger and guilt. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I saw a minister on TV teach that the purpose of those passages wasn’t to make us feel guilty or repress our sexuality, but to emphasize God’s grace, to make us realize how much we need Him in our daily lives, and the fact that Jesus was “showing up” the Pharisees by telling them that they weren’t nearly as good at following the Law as they thought they were.. It was like, “Gee, NOW someone tells me.”

    I look at classic symptoms of childhood sexual abuse and many of them pertain to me. Basically, God sat back for years and let the enemy tear me to shreds. A woman said as much in an article that was posted here a few years back about the Purity Movement and how it had basically made her frigid.
    The fact that I haven’t pulled a Columbine is proof that God is indeed merciful, so I can only hope that something good can come out of this.