Stress Debriefing: Why Dwelling on Negative Church Experiences May Only Make Things Worse

Newsweek recently carried an article that mentioned the harms of stress debriefing (June 18, 2007), referring to the practice of some therapists helping people who have gone through painful experiences by dwelling on the trauma they experienced in order to “process” it. In many cases, this practice only makes things worse, and is cited as an example of questionable therapies in vogue today:

“Stress debriefing,” for instance, is designed to prevent symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in those who have suffered or witnessed a trauma. In a three- to four-hour group session, a therapist pushes patients to discuss and “process” their feelings and to describe in detail what they experienced or witnessed. Many of those who undergo stress debriefing develop worse PTSD symptoms than those who deal with the trauma on their own, controlled studies show, probably because the intense reliving of the trauma impedes natural recovery. Burn victims who underwent stress debriefing, for instance, had worse PTSD 13 months later than victims who had no psychotherapy; people who went through it after being in a car crash had greater anxiety about travel three years later than those who did not.

I wonder if this might also apply to those who have had a negative experience with a religion? When I look at some of the people I have known in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who left the Church, I think there is a risk that some of the support groups a few have become involved with or even started have, in effect, become extensive “stress debriefing” sessions that really don’t seem to have helped, in my opinion.

Is it possible that extensive dwelling on negative experiences or other problems can increase the pain and the bitterness, or even create “recovered memories”? False recovered memories is what comes to mind when I read some people’s description of the their Church experience, where home teaching in pairs becomes remembered, years later, as oppressive mind control with a senior Mormon there to make sure nobody starts asking questions, where every action of a bishop becomes some form of mind control or manipulation, and where possibly good-natured visits from home or visiting teachers or other members becomes shallow manipulation or insincere “love bombing.”

I have some good friends who have left the Church without all the “stress debriefing” therapy that some online groups offer. They simply determined that they didn’t believe it anymore, or disagreed with a policy or position, or were too ticked off about something to come back. And then they moved on without needing to come back and pick at the church and repeatedly trash our faith, though they aren’t necessarily shy about why they disagree. They can talk openly about what they respect in the Church, without having to color every aspect of the Church in dark and sinister tones. We can disagree calmly on key issues, agree on some others, and move on in our friendship. I hope they come back some day, but their current religious status is no barrier to my liking them and respecting them, and I am glad that they can respectfully allow me to have my beliefs without having to “hate bomb” me with anti-Mormon spam or assume I’m an idiot for disagreeing.

Stress debriefing: be careful about what kind of support you get for the pain you’ve been through, religious or otherwise.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

8 thoughts on “Stress Debriefing: Why Dwelling on Negative Church Experiences May Only Make Things Worse

  1. An interesting treatment, provided for by the NHS here in Britain, called EMDR is worth a read through. Personally, I don’t know what to make of it; it’s obviously evidence-based, but there’s nothing biologically substantial to confirm its effect.

  2. From the Wikipedia article, it doesn’t sound like EMDR has proven to be significantly better than the other acronyms it was compared against (I’m not a psychologist!). The long paragraph about the theory of why it works set off all kinds of pseudoscience alarms, to boot, though I can’t pin down why right off.

    Maybe this is a dumb question, but do any studies compare these treatments to no treatment at all? Do they ever look into the correlation (if any) between supportive, wholesome support (friends, family, church) and fast(er) recovery?

  3. Maybe the 13 months mentioned in the one study isn’t a long enough time frame.

    The essence of PTSD is that the wounds can lie dormant for very long, festering, until they errupt, sometimes on their own, or sometimes with an unexpected trigger.

    It could be that Stress Debriefing or any treatment may just get those wounds exposed and brought to the surface earlier.

    The question then becomes healing the wounds earlier in the person’s life, or just covering them up by ignoring them and having to deal with them later.

    And 13 months is usually not enough to deal with serious issues anyway. Things like that are usually measured in years, not months.

    Jeff, there really has been PTSD-inducing kind of abuse and manipulation in the church over the years. You’ve discussed it on your blog.

    Items such as abusive missionary companions. Mission presidents (mission nurses, and lower level mission leaders) telling sick missionaries that they aren’t really sick or aren’t sick enough to see a doctor and therefore the church won’t pay if they go see a doctor for that condition.

    The number of missionaries to suffer life-altering conseqences from untreated illnesses or injuries in the mission field is not insignificant.

    Then there’s the church’s past history of dealing with child abuse. Sure there’s been improvement, and new policies, procedures, and hot lines put in place. But there was child abuse before those things got implemented, and a lot of abused kids never got the treatment they needed, and were sometimes hurt as much by the coverup (or denial) as by the abuse.

    Some people might believe that the church still doesn’t handle spousal abuse well. The emphasis on preserving marriage has often been used to justify influencing a wife to stay with her abusive husband. That kind of continual abuse, even if it’s just verbal/emotional, and especially the church’s influence to ignore it for the sake of marriage, is a huge source of PTSD among women.

    And of course, these types of things happen in all churches, not just ours. However, because of our lay ministry, even when local leaders do NOT put forth their advice as professional (or binding) counsel, the priesthood authority we attribute to such men does influence us to give weight to their advice.

    Maybe you’re looking at unprofessional support-groups (such as some for anti-mormons or former mormons) where people gather in order to fuel and justify their bad feelings, and you’re conflating them with the more professional PTSD therapies that legitimately deal with, “process” and heal the emotional or psychological wounds that caused the PTSD.

    Forgiveness and other types of “processing” come before forgetting. Those who try to forget up front by ignoring the wounds and the offenses/actions/abuse that caused them are essentially covering up the wounds without healing them. Such a course of action generally causes the wounds to fester and produce toxins that build up in the person’s life, and destroy family and relationships. And at best leave scars that still interfere.

  4. I am surprised when people suggest that Exmo’s should keep their peace and not be outspoken in their criticism of Mormonism. President Hinckley stated of the Church that “it is the kingdom of God or it is nothing”. If it is true it should be heralded as God’s word if false it should be decried as a fraud. I don’t see how anyone with conviction either way on Mormonism can be anything but outspoken. Don’t you think?

  5. In my experience, both the member and the exmo’s are generally outspoken. Exmo’s are outspoken about a number of issues, such as the classics of polygamy, skin color based priesthood and the temple endowments, but I have to think that, just from my own experience, that dwelling on the negative does make things worse for any member of any church. We all need to remember that the leaders of any church are human and err. Hinckley in times past has suggested to members of the LDS church to go home and pray about the doctrines and talks discussed at General Conference and ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
    This is a good post, thanks Jeff.

  6. Bookslinger’s point is well taken. There have been problems and we need to speak up – but not to dwell on mistakes and pain, but to help prevent the mistakes next time and to require action when action is needed.

    And those leaving the Church are entirely welcome to boldly explain why and answer questions that other might ask them, just as those who choose to stay in the Church or join the Church are free and encouraged to do the same. But I have seen plenty of cases where non-professional “therapy” in the form of dwelling on an offense or problem over and over really seems to have harmed the individual and those around him or her rather than confronting it, taking appropriate action, and moving on.

    And I think the false memory thing is real for some: people really can remember events in a completely warped way, colored by the new lenses they beat into their skulls, creating darkness and pain in places where there may have been something closer to light in the first place.

  7. You are being a little rough Jeff. Priesthood leaders covering up child abuse is not Okay. Excommunicating the wife and doing nothing to the husband in cases of severe abuse is not okay.

    Teachers having sex with a high school student is not okay.

    Covering up these kinds of crimes to protect the priesthood is wrong.

  8. Late on this post…

    I think debriefing fails not because of dwelling on the issue, but because counselors legitimize irrational beliefs and ultimately encourage false ideas. Surprising little psychotherapy/psychology methods are evidence based.

    As for ex-mos – well I am one and in my experience, and there is no way to say this nicely, I have never a vocal ex-mo that I thought was a normal person who had their life under control. The vocal ones all seem to have a host of issues they carry with them. I once tried to post on some famous message board for ex-mormons and I have never seen such a seething stew of small minded, damaged people, most of which would have left any church.

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