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How to deal with spiritual abuse triggers at church

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Nearly every Sunday morning I sit down in the pews of our church with ease, knowing that I am safe and loved. But that doesn’t keep me from sometimes being blindsided with songs, Christian jargon, and even Bible verses that I find to be triggers to some of the darker days of my spiritual past. Dealing with triggers in church is common for survivors of spiritual abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse – or worse: some twisted combination of all of these.

Before I get to practical ways to deal with triggers, I feel it necessary to delve a little bit more into triggers and explain a few generalities about church, safe spaces, PTSD, and recovery.

First, I want to draw a clear delineation between emotional triggers and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are reading this post and suspect you may be suffering from PTSD, please familiarize yourself with the symptoms/criteria for PTSD and seek professional help. While this post may be practically helpful for you, it is not meant to replace treatment for trauma.

Next, I want to address the fact that sometimes triggers in church are an indication that you are not in a safe place. I wish I could give you a checklists so you would know if your triggers are something you need to work through, or a sign that you need to hightail-it out of there. I can’t do that, because spiritual abuse is a very complex issue. However, I can recommend some reading that might help you if you suspect that this is the case. {Disclaimer: this is not a full endorsement of any of the authors, books, or websites listed below. As always, please proceed with caution.}

On the flip side – and this is very important for understanding the rest of this post

You can be in a “safe space” and still be triggered.  Tweet This! —–> Tweet: You can be in a

For me, this became key in understanding and dealing with my personal triggers.

Two summers ago, my husband and I got into a very intense discussion. We were kinda-sorta between this church and this church, trying to decide if we were going to stay or leave. I was pretty adamant that the problem was with our church, and I didn’t want to go back. My husband wasn’t quite on the same page. The issue of triggers came up, and I shared with him some of the ways I felt triggered and unsafe in church.

I don’t remember the exact words that he used (and chances are, they were probably a bit on the brutally honest side), but he basically asked me to consider that perhaps the problem of being triggered in church was my problem and not an indication of a problem with the church. He told me that I had the power to choose to not be triggered.

I was so angry. 

I shut down, and honestly don’t remember how the conversation ended – other than me feeling misunderstood and unheard.

But now that I am two years removed from this incident, I have come to realize that – brusqueness and lack of tact aside – he had a lot of wisdom and was partially correct.

You don’t have the power to stop your brain from being triggered. This is an involuntary reaction that happens in the psyche as a response to trauma. But you DO have the power to alter how you react once it happens. As you begin to alter your reactions and do the hard work of working through your triggers, you can retrain your brain to react differently to triggers in the future.

Triggers may never completely go away, but you can become a healthier, less-skittish individual – in time.

Practicality on how to do this will be the focus of the rest of this post.

{Again, I urge you to re-read the paragraphs above regarding PTSD and spiritual abuse. I would never want to encourage anyone to stay in an abusive environment or try to deal with trauma without seeking professional treatment. This post is for those who are in a safe place, have received help for their traumatic past, but are still sometimes dealing with triggers. This is only meant to be one “tool in the toolbox” for recovery from legalism, personal trauma, and spiritual abuse.}

How to deal with spiritual abuse triggers at church | abuse recovery, legalism, fundamentalism, quiverfull, IFB

How to deal with spiritual abuse triggers at church:

Know your triggers:

This may seem obvious, but sometimes, we need to start with obvious. If you are going into church without any thought or preparation, you might be blindsided. You have to identify what your triggers ARE before you can make progress on dealing with them.

Is it a specific Scripture or song? Is it that one older gentleman who sometimes is asked to pray whose voice reminds you of a former abuser? Is it a “good old hymn” that takes you back to a dark place? Is it a smell – such as a woman’s perfume or the smell of coffee in the halls?

Take some time to hone in on what’s setting you off.

Work through the trigger on a cognitive level

(It’s helpful to do this outside of the church environment when you have time to really thing through things):

Ask yourself these questions (this is an exercise one of my former therapists helped me work through and is based in the ABC model of cognitive behavioral therapy):

  • What emotions am I feeling?
  • What are my negative cognitions? (i.e., “What am I believing about myself?”) (e.g. “I am powerless, I can be easily manipulated, I have no control,” etc)
  • How can I reframe this to be logically accurate? How can I combat this erroneous thinking with God’s truth?

I am going to post some examples of printable worksheets below that you can use to aid you in this process, either in actually using the specific worksheet, or in just giving yourself tools to use on your own:

Negative Thoughts Diary (This and links to come are affiliate links – I earn a commission off of clicks and purchases)
Negative to Positive Thoughts Journal Printable Worksheet
How To Challenge Cognitive Distortions

Also, I think it is important to note that working through things on a cognitive level DOES have a Biblical basis:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. ~Philippians 4:8
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, 5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ… ~2 Corinthians 10:3-5

Ground yourself in the present

What a trigger does is take you out of the moment and back to the trauma. It may not be a full-on reality break or clinical flashback, but it causes you to leave the moment you’re in and end up lost in the memories, cognition, and emotions of your past.

It is helpful in these moments to practice a therepuetic technique called “grounding.” Now, the first time I was introduced to this, I thought it was silly. Our therapist, Jan, said softly, “Tell me three things you hear…three things you see…three things you smell…etc.”  Me: Whatever, this is dumb.

But now it’s something I use all the time.

By engaging your senses, you “ground” yourself in the present. This makes it harder for your brain to flashback to the trauma. It reminds you that you are safe rather than in danger (calms down your fight-or-flight response).

Ideas for grounding:

I began jotting down things that rubbed me wrong. If something troubled my spirit or caused my cynic voice to holler, I wrote it down in my notebook. When a worship song lyric made me cringe and shiver, I’d sit and note it, right then.

In time, I began to take it a step further. Instead of just noting the cringe-worthy phrase, I took a moment to sit with it. Could I pinpoint what about that line hit me wrong? Did it bring up a memory or hook some old painful theological wound? Did it seem to oversimplify or overcomplicate? Did it strike me as being at odds with the God I know?

I continued to do this through Lent, and the most surprising thing happened.

By honoring the questions and concerns that rose up, by giving them a very physical space to “live,” a new space opened up in me too.

I had worried that if I began to write down the things that made me cranky, I might never stop. Instead, the opposite happened. When I honored my cynic voice and noted what she had to say, she stopped shouting so loudly, and I could hear those other things.

Beauty. Hope. Maybe even the voice of God.

_____

For those of us who have burned out or been burned by faith, the local church is often where all of our baggage and angst and hope and heartache collide.

There is no church with a perfect theology. There is no pastor or priest so eloquent that [he] won’t say something that hits us wrong. Our “triggers” are many and varied and no matter how careful they may be with language, someone is bound to step on a land mine.

I love my little church; I believe it is vital to my healing and to my becoming. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feel fraught to me a lot of the time.

It’s painful to stay when I’m feeling twitchy. My first instinct upon an inadvertently triggering statement is to sneak out and go hang out in the bathroom until the whole thing’s over. But I’m starting to believe that this twitchy, complicated place might actually be where the healing happens.

Letting ourselves feel and notice the places where we are still raw and hurt and angry and not to run – this might be what it looks like to clean the old wounds, to reset the old breaks, to move on.

Excerpt from Sermon Notes for Cynics by Addie Zierman

Excuse yourself if needed

There’s no shame in stepping out and taking a moment. I’ve had my share of near-panic-attacks-in-church-bathroom-stalls over the years. Take that time to collect yourself. Cry if you need to. Take a walk around the church or outside.

While I think that God works through the traditions of corporate worship, sermons, and church services – I also know that God works with tears and prayers on bathroom floors. Sometimes, those “God moments” or “divine appointments” with a friend or acquaintance happen when you least expect it. Don’t be afraid to share your struggle with someone who notices you are upset. You might be surprised to find yourself develop a good “safe” friendship or relationship with that person.

You can also employ this method while still staying put. You don’t have to sing every congregational song – you can bow your head and close your eyes and just listen. You can sit down and pray or just sit quietly and calm yourself.

Remain aware of “trigger-enhancers.”

By this, I mean anything that makes the trigger seem worse, or makes you more susceptible to triggers. Such as the following:

  • Sleep deprivation – either unavoidable (kids waking up, insomnia, nightmares) or avoidable (staying up til midnight binging on Netflix – ask me how I know…)
  • Bad weather or seasonal changes – rainy days can make you feel more emotional
  • Female hormonal changes
  • Too much caffeine
  • Forgetting to take your medication if you take anxiety meds or anti-depressants
  • Fighting with spouse or kids before church, waking up late, running late for church, the latest Facebook drama – basically anything that puts you in a heightened state of anxiety
  • If your church has a guest-speaker who may have a preaching style that causes you discomfort.

While it might be tempting to hide under the covers instead of braving church, I’m not recommending avoidance. I’m recommending awareness of your vulnerabilities.

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.

(Disclaimer, I totally suck at this…)

  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Prepare for the service the night before – pick out your outfit and your kid’s clothes ahead of time
    • (Changing outfits 5 million times before a church service because you are bloated and nothing fits is not at ALL helpful for positive thinking – ask me how I know…)
  • Dress casual on days you are feeling especially vulnerable or anxious
    • (Wear your jeans or leggings; skip makeup and curls; opt for a ponytail, comfy cardigan, and mascara.)
  • Remember to eat breakfast before you leave.
  • Drink coffee if you need to, but not so much you get jittery.
  • Try to get to church on time, or early, to calm yourself before the service – or to engage in positive and safe interactions with your Christian church family.
  • Check the bulletin as soon as you get to church – especially if it lists songs, scriptures, and sermon topics. This can help you not be blindsided by triggers. Take time to browse the scriptures ahead of time. Pull up a different version or paraphrased translation on your phone to get more of a feel for the text before facing the actual inspired words. The inspired words are SO important and this should not be a replacement for God’s text, but it can help you prepare your heart to be more receptive to the inspired words.
In my heart, I believe the Bible is rich and deep, that it’s so much more than all these memories. I believe it is spacious enough for me to leave my baggage at the gate, for me to wander further, deeper, nearer to God.

And yet, I’m also not sure what to do in those moments when words of the Bible itself are the trigger making me shut down.

How in the world do you move forward from that? How do you walk deeper into the Word of God when it feels so barbed, when it cuts you as you brush up against it?

Excerpt from RECOVERING FROM LEGALISM | DEAR ADDIE #7 

Remember you are not the only person in the congregation.

It’s not all about you.

Your triggers are yours to own. I’m not saying, “Pull up your big girl panties and deal with it.” But I also kind of am. 

What’s triggering to you may be exactly what someone else in your church who comes to the service from a TOTALLY different background needs to hear.

And, as I quoted from Addie above who spoke so eloquently about this subject, “There is no pastor or priest so eloquent that [he] won’t say something that hits us wrong. Our triggers are many and varied and no matter how careful they may be with language, someone is bound to step on a land mine.”

So no, you didn’t have a choice when you were abused. You don’t have a choice when your brain reacts to a trigger. But you do have a choice in how you move forward. You can choose to run and hide because you are offended and triggered at every little thing; or you can face the trigger, deal with the discomfort, and work through your issues.

Face your triggers head on by looking for ways to re-frame them in a positive light.

I think this has begun to happen in time as God has worked healing – far more His doing than anything I’ve done. But there are certain situations which were, at one point, triggering for me – that I’ve since been able to move on from. I will give you two brief personal examples:

Example 1:

I’m not a fan of the song “The Old Rugged Cross.” *gasp*

When I was in high school, I was one of four main pianists who played for our small church. This meant I was up in front of the congregation every service.

Enter communion (aka “The Lord’s Supper”) – our church observed monthly. The same text from 1st Corinthians. The same hymns played softly on the piano and violin. The same angst every month, wondering if I were “worthy” or “eating and drinking damnation unto [myself]. Add the layer of the fact that I was in a very public position during this somewhat torturous ordeal. If I didn’t partake, people would notice. If I partook unworthily, I might be damned.

I would obsess about the four weeks past. Had I been respectful enough? What about that movie I watched where they said, “Oh my g-o-d?” What about that cute boy across the church aisle that I can’t seem to stop thinking about – and why is it so hard for me to “guard my heart”? I’m sorry God, I failed again. Please don’t make me get sick…

All these thoughts ran through my mind set to a soundtrack of “The Old Rugged Cross,” “There is a Fountain,” “Broken for Me,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” and other traditional hymns regarding the blood of Christ and the Crucifixion.

Talk about some serious teen angst…

Fast-forward 12 years…

This summer, I had the opportunity to play for our morning services (a priviledge I’ve had the honor of having about twice a month this year). While I do not choose the congregational songs, there are two times of meditation where I have the freedom to choose songs to play softly while Scripture is displayed on the screen.

I love this freedom because it allows me to both explore new contemporary favorites, or re-explore old hymns (especially if I haven’t had a lot of practice time during the week…the hymnal is still my go-to saving grace when I’m ill-prepared!)

I have only two piano arrangement books that I use that are short enough for these two quick minutes. One has two-page arrangements of hymns. The other blends hymns with contemporary pieces in medleys.

It was a Sunday our pastor was gone, so our assistant pastor was filling in – beginning with a 3-week overview series of the gospel as delivered by himself and two other men in the church. He wanted to cover the life of Christ, so the songs he selected were “Joy to the World,” “Meekness and Majesty,” and “Christ Arose.” It was a bit of an odd collection, especially for the first week of August. I wanted to fit my selections to his.

My first choice was a medley of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and Twila Paris’ “He is Exalted.”

While flipping through my books looking for my second selection to go between the second and final songs, I found an arrangement of “The Old Rugged Cross” that had a lot of really unique harmonies. It honestly kind of fit with the slightly-wonky / mashup-esque style that the rest of the service was holding. And so, I played it.

It was new. It was fresh. It was healing.

I took something that reminded me of spiritual angst and fear and re-framed it as something beautiful and positive. I created a new memory.

Example 2:

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a church ladies retreat. Being honest? My thinking was, “$160 to stay in a hotel away from my family for 2 nights? WHERE DO I SIGN?!?!”

While I was the second youngest person in attendance, completely exhausted, and kind of holed up in my hotel room eating chocolate and watching ice-skating in between sessions (one of which I skipped to take a nap) — one highlight of the weekend was the annual ladies talent show. I signed up unsure of what I would perform, but eventually settled on the two blog posts from earlier in this series where I shared about our disappointing prior church experience and how we came to call our current church our church home. While a few women had the opportunity to read these posts thanks to their kind following on social media, many of the women in attendance at the retreat were older and less social-media-inclined. I wanted them to be able to hear my story and understand just how deep my appreciation for our church is.

When I finished, many women were wiping back tears. My pastor’s wife stood up and asked if we could sing “To God be the Glory.” She looked at me, and I think even asked, as though feeling out… “Is this okay?” 

I had a moment where everything inside me wanted to scream, “Any song but that one…oh, except for Victory in Jesus…cuz that’s like…the worst!” 

Honestly, it’s not so much that I have anything against the song. It’s just a trigger because I sang/played it nearly weekly at the church I attended in high school. It was overdone, overused…and lost all meaning other than to remind me of a time in my life that I often wish I could forget.

But I had a choice…

Run or reframe.

I chose the latter. And there, surrounded by women in blue jeans…women who are willing to pray with me on bathroom floors…I knew I would be okay. I was in a safe place with safe people. And it was enough.

“To God be the Glory” will never be my favorite song. But at least now, I have a different memory attached to it.

Don’t give up.

Healing from trauma takes time. It’s taken me 12 years to get to THIS point, and it’s probably painfully obvious that I

have so much further to go in this process. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It’s exhausting. But it’s worth it.

Keep going to church. Keep trying to sing the songs. Keep staying when you want to run.

_____

To read the rest of the posts in this series, Grace: How a Recovering Legalist Moves Forward in Faith, visit the landing page. To receive future posts by email, check the “Messy Faith” box under “Subscribe” in the right sidebar. I would also love to have you following along with this series on Facebook, at Beautiful Messy Faith.

3 Comments

  • jmwe29

    Very good post with excellent information. I have piles of triggers myself- songs, catch phrases, you name it. I still resent anyone that refers to God’s people as sheep, assuming they think we’re all stupid. I wanted to thank you for including links to my blog posts- Red Flag Churches. In a way, I hope there aren’t many that read them, but the problem is everywhere. I plan to put a link in to your blog- you take it a step further into recovery where I just hit on identifying these places.

    • Aprille

      Joyce, thank you for commenting. This is a journey and we are not all in the same place (and that’s okay). I still deal with triggers nearly every week, but using some of these “strategies” it gets easier and easier. Thank you for sharing; I hope to encourage as many as possible. There’s honestly not a lot of resources out there for people like us who want to keep pursuing God and faith outside of abuse, without rejecting faith completely.

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