Christian Psychology, PTSD and the Christian

Shortly after Easter in 2003, I was medevac’d out of Kuwait City during Operation Iraqi Freedom because my heart would not stop racing, and I could not catch my breath. Six months later, I left the Army and a physically abusive marriage. A little before Easter in 2004, the Lord saved me, and I was remarried within the year of my salvation to a man who professed Christ as Savior. I left my home state of New Mexico and moved across the country to Virginia and began attending my husband’s church, which had lots of ministry activity that I easily got swept into. I soon began exhibiting PTSD symptoms, but at that time, I did not know it. Even though my faith in Christ was strong, I did not grow up in the church, so I was not familiar with church language, much less theology. At that point in my faith, I had never heard of the word “theology,” so it would be safe to say my theology was weak. When the distressing symptoms of PTSD showed up in my life, I began to believe that the enemy of God was trying to get me “back to his side,” especially when PTSD symptoms began to occur when I was sitting in the pews for church services. I grew fearful that my flesh was screaming to return to my former life of blatant depravity, which would lead to me losing my salvation. That fear exacerbated my PTSD symptoms, so I further threw myself into ministry endeavors in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms.

Even though my PTSD symptoms were not constant, whenever I was overextended in responsibilities, I soon found myself in an emergency room with lightheadedness, shortness of breath, a racing heart, tingling sensations in my extremities, shaky hands, and feelings of impending doom. This went on for years. Medical bills piled up because of these trips, so I sought help and advice from pastors and Christians who had been saved longer than I had. Both eagerly informed me that my symptoms had to be a result of a volitional sin that I was unaware of and too prideful to admit, a result of a weak faith or possibly my failure to submit to my husband correctly. As a result of these answers from well-intentioned saints, I dove into theological studies as if my eternal life depended on it.

During this time, we found ourselves living isolated lives due to my husband’s job. I had come to believe that ministry work would keep me in God’s good graces, so when all those ministry opportunities disappeared due to where we were living, I frequently fretted over how I was supposed to keep my salvation. I became fixated on dissecting every aspect of my Christian life to find the culprit of the origin of my symptoms. I also discovered theology books and some Biblical Counseling books around the same time. Theology books helped me formulate and develop theological concepts about God, salvation, and sanctification. Biblical Counseling books taught me that I needed to dissect my heart repeatedly. I thought if I could purge my heart of all the extra sin that lay dormant in its endless caverns, my symptoms would end, and I would finally be “happy” in Christ.

When I was not diving into theology or Biblical Counseling books looking for answers to my dilemma, I taught myself to plant a garden, sew and care for chickens while homeschooling my two youngest children. Gardening and sewing became two very practical body therapeutic interventions because when I was fixated on how to improve my garden and my sewing skills, I was not fixated on my symptoms or my failure to purge my never-ending wicked heart (Jer 17:9-10), which I was constantly reminded of in many of the Biblical Counseling books I read. However, over time, when I read theology books, I grew in my knowledge of orthodox doctrine, church history, applied theology, and the Scriptural context of various popular Bible verses.

After living with symptoms for 12 years, they become less frequent. When they seemed under control, I decided to pursue a degree in Counseling at a well-known Baptist seminary, along with a theological studies degree. I wanted to cover all my bases to help me make sense of the emotional, physical, and psychological phenomena I had experienced my entire saved life to possibly help others in the body of Christ with the same symptoms. Even though my counseling degree helped me learn how to assess and diagnose PTSD, I did not connect the dots to my own symptoms. Most importantly, by this time, I was heavily influenced by the Biblical Counseling books I had been reading and determined that any mental health diagnosis, including PSTD, was simply a heart issue that needed to be addressed and repented of. For many of the counselees I counseled during my internship, I secretly held on to the notion that they were only suffering from symptoms due to their heart issue.

After earning those degrees, I began counseling vocationally and overextended myself often. I began to feel emotionally, physically, and psychologically exhausted once again. I knew I needed help after a panic attack showed up in a counseling session, but this time, I was the counselor. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like a weak, hopeless failure. At home, I began to feel easily irritated once again, emotionally numb, and withdrawn. I was wholly confused because again….I was the counselor. I knew my theology had developed over the years, meaning I humbly yet thankfully understood the progressive nature of sanctification, which provided assurance that God will continue to sustain my faith, even when life gets hard (Phil 1:6). My Biblical Counseling knowledge seemed proficient enough, meaning I made a habit to continually check any and all heart issues against Scripture for any rogue sin that flew under the radar of my awareness and habitually repented for all my volitional and non-volitional sin. I found myself growing frustrated, angry, and discouraged with myself for not being able to “keep it together.” I shared this with my husband, and he recommended that I go to the VA for help. I resented his suggestion and rejected the notion that my “past trauma was interfering with our present lives.” – meaning my present life as a wife, mother and counselor.

During a domestic violence workshop that I was required to attend for my job, the speaker described the neurobiological symptoms of PSTD. I began to weep. She had described the very symptoms I had suffered with and endured for years. I was faced with the reality that the theological world I grew to love so much failed to make sense of my natural world. I realized that the chronic “heart checks” that the Biblical Counseling books kept referencing as the root of all mental health problems were not helping. So I begrudgingly sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs to appease my husband. Psychologists assessed me over a few months and I was finally diagnosed with PTSD and eventually given a 100% disability rating. I felt relieved to have answers to my long-suffering symptoms but also utterly defeated simultaneously.

Even though the VA psychologists didn’t understand my faith, they understood my symptoms and didn’t blame my faith or question my faith for my symptoms. That was reassuring and refreshing. However, the VA could not offer solutions to my symptoms besides suggesting medication, participation in random research studies on PTSD, and gave me a referral for counseling from therapists in our local community, meaning outside the VA system because the wait list for VA services was over six months out. I rejected the medication route but participated in research studies. I tried a well-known community-based trauma therapist, but her method of trauma counseling included reciting positive affirmations, which I found weird and uncomfortable. She eventually dropped me because I refused to follow her lead in those affirmations.

During one particular research study, I asked the psychologist: What comes first? Do the physiological trauma responses that happen in the body come first and then the intrusive thoughts follow OR do the intrusive thoughts come first, which causes the physiological symptoms to occur?

This highly recommended VA clinical research trauma psychologist did not know the answer. This was disheartening and discouraging. However, she did help normalize my PSTD symptoms, which continues to help me to this day.

My PTSD journey has led me to enter the field of academic research in the area of faith, theology, and the body, not only to help me find the answers to my question but also to help other Christians who struggle with PSTD symptoms. I have learned that the disconnect between theology and nature accounted for why the theology books I had been reading for years were not able to make sense of my inner physical symptoms. Any hint of the validity of the natural world going awry in the life of a believer seemed to be suspect of naturalism or secular determinism (Sproul, 2018). I concluded that there must be a better way to embrace the study of nature without embracing naturalism or determinism, where Christians can recognize the power of nature’s impact on our psyche and “outer man” without rejecting a God who saves, heals, and sanctifies the “inner man.”

PTSD does not have to be this thing that Christians are afraid of understanding. It also does not need to be this thing that Christians debate or argue if it’s a legitimate phenomena. It surely does not need to be minimized or disregarded as a result of “heart issues”. Since sin reigns havoc in the world, Christians should be proficient in understanding the various ways sin impacts the world and shows up in nature, in both body and soul, in both material and immaterial realities of being. There should be a type of counseling for Christians that merge theology and psychology back to the Creator. This counseling needs to be well-versed in both nature and faith. Instead of debating whether Christians should welcome psychology or neuroscience research, there has to be a recognition that Christian theology has always been psychological (Charry, 2006). This psychology must not simply integrate secular research into Christian counseling, which will make it secular counseling (Lelek, 2018). This kind of counseling must create a new way to merge nature and faith into a cohesive methodology of caring for the souls of suffering saints. This is the kind of counseling I am seeking to do.

Charry, E. T. (2006). Augustine of Hippo: Father of Christian Psychology. Anglican Theological Review88(4), 575–589.

Lelek, J. (2018). Biblical counseling basics: Roots, beliefs, and future. New Growth Press.

Sproul, R. C. (2018). The consequences of ideas: Understanding the concepts that shaped our world. Crossway Books.


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