In her three-part series therapist and EMDR practitioner Lesley Goth explains how mental stress can negatively impact our physical and spiritual health. Click here to read part one and here to read the part two.
We come to the end of our journey exploring how stress—the S in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—affects us spiritually. In part one of this three-part series, I addressed how stress negatively effects the mind/brain. Part two was how stress effects the body and how a variety of emotional and physical disorders can be rooted in how we process and manage our stress. We now come to the grand finale. Often, we neglect to assess how stress affects us spiritually. But if we are made up of a mind, body, and spirit, then we cannot neglect this equally important part of our human make up. So how does stress affect us spiritually?
I’ve mentioned that I am a trauma specialist. I work with people who have been exposed to actual or perceived threats of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. When these experiences are repeated more than once, the patient could be suffering from “complex” post-traumatic stress disorder. I play a unique role in the healing process as I am privileged to see people’s most vulnerable parts. I see their pain. I see their wounds. I see their tears.
I’ve noticed that there is a common defense mechanism wherein people detach from their bodies to survive the actual or perceived threat. It’s ironically a God-given defense mechanism to detach from our bodies so that we can tolerate the traumatic experience. There is a continuum of detachment, or what professionals call dissociation, that can exist. Have you ever driven to a location and wondered how you got there? That is a form of dissociation. The other extreme is what is referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), or as more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. This is where alternate personalities are created to protect the core self from harm. The need to detach, or dissociate, is a defense against the reality of what the brain sees as a life-threatening event. It’s a survival mechanism that the brain uses when needed. I’ve never worked with DID clients, but I have worked with several clients who dissociate and remove themselves from their bodies when under stress. In so doing, they “zone out” and aren’t present with me in the room.
The key to helping a client if this happens is to help them regain a sense of presence. To get them back in their bodies or in the moment, one of the things I will ask them to do is name five things in the room. This is usually a quick way to get them back. When someone zones out, they leave their body, mind, as well as their spirit.
Regardless of what you believe spiritually, I think it is safe to say that our spiritual connection often exists in our bodies. I refer to it as a supernatural sensation we feel when connected to something outside of ourselves. It’s like listening to a song that touches us and we get that tingling feeling, or what I refer to as “goose bumps”. Our spirit is being touched. Kathryn Seppamaki writes about how the different facets of the human spirit are the same whether you are from the Christian faith or not. We are all spiritual beings and we all possess spiritual characteristics of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Regardless of what you believe, Seppamaki goes on to say, it is from our spirit that we love, where we find our peace, our patience, our kindness toward others, our goodness, our loyalty and faithfulness, and our gentleness and it is this spirit that is the root of our self-control.
When traumatic stress hits, we lose this sense of connection to our spirit which can result in feeling lost, overwhelmed, empty, alone and, worst-case scenario, hopeless. Some common ways that stress can impact us spiritually is to experience a lack of joy, a lack of peace, a heightened sense of impatience, less gentleness and compassion toward others, a lack of self-control, and mostly a disconnection from God, the universe, or a higher power. There can be a sense of abandonment, rejection, and utter lack of protection that makes connecting to the spiritual self a huge challenge in the healing process.
In my practice, I have seen people with PTSD turn away from their spirit/faith because they blame God and question His goodness and love toward them for allowing the trauma(s) to occur. Someone with PTSD often feels as if they have been punished by God. Stress from trauma can cause a sense of worthlessness and negative belief that God can’t love them. Stress from trauma can and does cause a lack of feeling safe, therefore trusting the spiritual world or God which is unseen, feels very unsafe and out of control. I often see how people who were let down or not protected by their parents or caregivers often assume God will not protect them either. This is merely some of the ways stress affects us spiritually.
Healing from this detachment to our spiritual self often means gaining a sense of control but the truth is that we have very little control over anything in this world and in our lives. That is simply reality. This doesn’t have to be bad news. It can be quite freeing. What if we could let go of the things we cannot control and put our energy into the things we can? What if we focused on “what is” vs. ”what if”? What if we had an opportunity to process our traumas and could see that spiritually we were never alone and that we are worthy of love? What if we could express our hurt, anger, and range of emotions to our higher power, universe, God?
I worked with one client who was sexually abused as a child and grew up with a strong Christian faith. She always did the “right” thing and loved her church and God. However, after having to be “perfect” her whole life, she finally broke down and fell apart. The stress of holding it all together and being so perfect eventually overcame her mind, body and spirit. She had major heart issues. She couldn’t sleep at night. She had an eating disorder and addictions to gambling and alcohol. One day, she broke down and felt as if she couldn’t even speak or think clearly. She came to me for help. In the middle of many sessions, whenever I would broach the subject of her abuse, she would dissociate and zone out. Part of her journey was expressing and working through her rage at God. He allowed her abuse to happen and continues to allow innocent children to be hurt. How could a loving God do this? Was she not perfect enough? Were her prayers not good enough? Was she being punished for her past mistakes?
As heart wrenching as this is, this is typical for someone with PTSD. I created a safe place for her to express her rage at God. I helped her process her trauma and how she blamed herself for what happened to her. As she processed, she was able to see that God was there with her. She wasn’t alone in her pain. It wasn’t her fault. The reality is that bad things happen all the time and this was out of her control. She slowly learned that God was not her enemy. He was her friend and healer. She learned that she doesn’t have to be perfect, nor can she even try. When she tries, she fails. She learned to let go of the things she cannot control and put her energy into the things she can. She let go of her addictions. She reconnected to her spirit and is feeling freer then she ever has in her whole life.
We lose sight of our spirit during during painful times. We detach and go into hyper control mode. We need this connection to our spirit to heal and move forward without the burdensome stressors that bring us to dark places. Our spiritual connection to our bodies and the world around us is grounding and healing and necessary in living life to the fullest. Our bodies and minds crave this connection and attachment to our spirit. To deny it or cut it off is detrimental to our overall health. This three-part blog is about reconnecting to the body, mind, and spirit. All three aspects of our existence are needed for overall health and wellness. Without one of the parts it’s like a three-legged stool with only two legs. Yikes! That is not very sturdy.
I recommend asking yourself if you can relate or connect to anything you’ve read. If so, seek help and guidance to work through your stress and pain. No one must face these things alone. Reach out, talk to someone you trust and get professional help if needed. Live life to the fullest and heal the parts that deserve to be healed.