Psychotherapy, Religion, and Brain Effects of Trauma

February 25, 2014 Tom Cloyd, MS, MA

People deeply involved in any way of looking at the human world tend to take that worldview with them wherever they go. So it is both with those committed to a religious tradition as well as those committed to evidence-based psychology and psychotherapy. Each of us will tend look at serious human problems from our respective viewpoints. This can get confusing. An excellent example of this came up recently with a question posted to Google+ for general comment by

Is forgiveness an important component of healing from trauma?

I suspect that individuals committed to both worldviews reacted to this question in fairly predictable ways. I know I did. My reaction was immediate: "Important? Absolutely not. Useful? It can be, but not in the way religious people tend to think." As I discussed the matter with a thoughtful and articulate individual, a richer picture emerged which is worth bringing to this venue, and elaborating on, for many reasons.

A Quick Definition of Healing

Psychotherapy, religion, and PTSD - how do psychotherapy and religion account for brain trauma and approach forgiveness in PTSD recovery?Healing seems to mean many things to many people, but I will propose a simple, easy to grasp, and defensible definition. To do that, we must first look at the diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) given in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM-5) (APA, 2013, p. 271). Diagnostic criteria, by definition, are simply the qualities a person must have to justify giving them a diagnosis. They are not a complete description of a disorder. Still, fail to meet the criteria and you don't get the diagnosis, if you're being assessed.

That gives us, at the outset, a handy definition of healing: It doesn't necessarily mean a full return to your original condition. It means that you no longer qualify for a diagnosis. While this is not a perfectly satisfying definition for everyone, it is good enough in real life, clinical practice. The diagnostic criteria, the symptoms of PTSD, are 8 in number, with the last several being constraining criteria specified to avoid over-diagnosis. The critical ones are the first 5, and in summary require the presence of:

A. Exposure to a traumatizing event.

B. Presence of intrusive symptoms relating to the event.

C. Attempts to avoid triggers for these intrusive symptoms.

D. Negative alterations in thought and mood, associated with the traumatizing event.

E. Significant alterations (increases or decreases) in physiological reactivity, after the traumatic event.

Brain Effects of Trauma

I could discuss many such effects - and the DSM-5 does, but in truth we need focus on only one. I can make this point easily enough.

Here's the big idea (and too few people see this!): the event referred to initially in the diagnostic criteria by itself is nothing. It must be "traumatizing." How do we know it was, IF it was? By the presence of one or more of the symptoms detailed in "B" - triggered memories, disturbing dreams, dissociative reactions, psychological or physiological distress, or reactions upon exposure to reminders of the event.

If these intrusive symptoms are not present, you just will NOT see the symptoms in "C", "D", or "E." When in treatment we focus on removing the group "B" symptom(s), we are striking at the heart of the issue, because the "B" symptoms cause all the others. Removing these alone will resolve the PTSD. That tells us that these symptoms are the essential brain effects of trauma which lie at the heart of PTSD.

Psychology and Religion - the worlds to which they refer

Regrettably, this essential difference is not frequently enough considered and articulated in ordinary conversation. Why do it? Because it prevents or resolves many disputes right at the beginning.

Let's approach this from the point of view of common sense. We need to consider two highly relevant terms in common use in our society: "the natural world" and "the supernatural world." As advised by the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (p. 607), the world of "nature" is the "physical world of experience" - the world to which we have access with our 5 senses. It is contrasted with "the supernatural world" (Gove, 1966, p. 1507), described as ". . . belonging to . . . the physical universe that is observable, and capable of being experienced by ordinary means . . ." (Gove, 1966, p. 2295).

Surely it is obvious that psychology, and its application in clinical (treatment and healing) settings, is a science based practice and body knowledge. All "applied" knowledge employs and embodies a degree of "craft knowledge" as well - this would be the "art" of psychotherapy. But at its base, it is a science.

What precisely does that mean? Like many common terms, it doesn't have just one meaning. Typically we refer to psychology as a "behavioral" or "cognitive" or "natural" science. Let's look just at that last characterization, since it encompasses the other two. It tells us that the focus is on the world as we can know with our 5 senses. How we accomplish that "knowing" is the topic of "scientific methodology." The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Blackburn, 1994, p. 242) advises us that in modern times discussion of this topic tends to focus on what people in science actually DO - it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Before graduating from high school in the U.S., we are all told what this is: scientists propose and test hypotheses.

Psychology and Religion - the essential difference

It is that last part - the testing - which poses a problem for religion. If religion is about the domain of the supernatural (to which we do not have access with our senses), then we are unable to propose and scientifically test religious hypotheses.

And, indeed, there is no religious science, no peer-reviewed journals of scientific, religious research - addressing such questions as the nature of deity, the question of the existence of God or gods, etc. Religion is forever consigned to the realm of hypothesis, simply by its subject matter: the supernatural world.

Since "forgiveness" is an idea that springs from religious tradition, how can anything having to do with forgiveness be related to psychological trauma, its treatment and healing from its effects? I will take this and related matters up in my next blog post. As you will see, this question is more complex and interesting than you might suppose. [continue to Part II of this series]


American Psychiatric Association, & DSM-5 Task Force. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association.

Blackburn, S. (1994). The Oxford dictionary of philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Gove, P. B. (Ed.). (1966). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (3 Volumes) (3rd ed., Vols. 1-3). Chicago: William Benton, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Honderich, T. (1995). The Oxford companion to philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Connect with Tom Cloyd also at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, his Sleight of Mind blog, his Trauma Psych blog, or his professional website.

Image credit: Sean MacEntee /license

APA Reference
Cloyd, T. (2014, February 25). Psychotherapy, Religion, and Brain Effects of Trauma, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from

Author: Tom Cloyd, MS, MA

February, 28 2014 at 11:52 pm

There seems to be something wrong with your analysis right off the bat, though you may modify it in later posts. Science tests hypotheses, _including_ hypotheses about the role that irrational (I use the term descriptively, not pejoratively) beliefs may play in human experience. If scientific investigation of psychotherapy were to find that belief in a loving God made for better (more adaptive, less neurotic) mental health on average than non-belief, well, then, so be it. I'm not saying belief _does_ have this effect, just that it's a testable possibility.
For the record, I'm an agnostic with a graduate education in cognitive science (not to be confused with cognitive therapy).

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 2 2014 at 12:05 am seem to have seen through me! Lovely. I was hoping someone would. Read my response to the previous comment and you'll see I've clearly anticipated this line of thought (even in the post itself). The key of course, is to distinguish the source of the an hypothesis from its subject.
Hypotheses whose subjects are supernatural are not falsifiable (to use Karl Popper's famous distinction), and thus are not scientific hypotheses. We certainly can, and do, have non-scientific hypotheses in many parts of our thinking, but because they cannot be validated their usefulness cannot be demonstrated. THAT is the problem with hypotheses that are fundamentally religious.
So: define "forgiveness" in a measurable way, and hypotheses about forgiveness become scientific! I'll bet that many folks didn't see THAT coming, but I think you likely did. This doesn't get us quite out of the woods, but it certainly does get us moving. Stay tuned for the rest of my thought on this matter.

Harry Martin
February, 28 2014 at 11:13 am

To posit that psychology and religion is an either or position is to ignore the reality and evidence that people experience and combine both in real life. If psychology (the study of the psyche, the soul) is to choose to ignore the spiritual dimension it is to ignore a significant segment of life, of evidence, if you will. Hardly good scientific practice. To reject religion and spirituality because it cannot be quantified by the senses is essentially the same as rejecting the belief that the world was round. A reality NOT accepted by the scientific minds of past ages because they only accepted what could be seen. There is often as much prejudice in the religious against psychology and again as sadly myopic. Open-minded study and research is finally starting to recognize that religion and psychology, faith and reason, are actually both needed if true wholistic health is to be realized. Hopefully as the two disciplines recognize their mutual need the ability to recognize and to discover evidence and means of sharing that evidence will grow. It was in religious faith that many great minds fulfilled their vocations as profound scientists AND clergy (e.g. Roger Bacon, Nicolas Copernicus, et al). I propose they would have no difficulty allowing the place of forgiveness in the health of the psyche.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 1 2014 at 11:57 pm

Harry - thanks for your interesting comment.
To begin with, I don't "posit" anything - I just point out that psychology has to do with the natural world and religion with the supernatural. This isn't MY idea, but is a commonly accepted distinction. I then continue by pointing out that this means that we can have knowledge in psychology, but only hypothesis in religion. Again, if you think things through carefully, this is simply a logical implication deriving from the initial definitions, which you can find in any reputable dictionary or encyclopedia.
Suppose I state that some spiritual intervention cures warts. Well, so what? Since I'm unable to demonstrate this, or any other religious proposition, I can never leave the hypothetical. I've actually covered all this already, in the article. Plenty of people would argue that religion does all sorts of things, but it is not possible to KNOW this, because of the nature of religion. Yes, this is basic philosophy of science, but don't blame me! I didn't invent it. I merely report it.
Religion just can't be scientific, as I said in my post. That does NOT mean that we reject religion. Not to accept something as verified is NOT to reject it as untrue. Again, this is basic logic. In reality, we just don't know, and never can, and that allows you or me to make all sorts of claims, without risk. Interesting, to be sure, but not necessarily useful.
Your example of a round earth is interesting. Sense experience appeared to reject this, until a more thoughtful person examined the matter more carefully, then the facts became clear. "Appearance" often requires careful examination, and even special tools, but it's still sensory experience, even if what we're using is an oscilloscope or particle accelerator, or even a factor analysis of a data matrix. NONE of these tools have been, or can be, used to valid religious hypotheses. If you disagree, give me an example.
So, it's not a matter of being open minded. It's a matter of being rigorous in our definitions and procedure, and not allowing sloppy thinking to confuse us.
As for the matter of forgiveness, do realize that at this point that has not been addressed. I'm only laying a thoughtful groundwork, so that I can take this discussion interesting places.
You say "Open-minded study and research is finally starting to recognize that religion and psychology, faith and reason, are actually both needed if true wholistic health is to be realized." That is a conclusion, derived from...what? I know of NO naturalistic demonstration (i.e., one that is scientific) which has to do with any religious proposition. If you do, show me. Fair enough? This is how science works. You don't believe me (or I, you) because I'm an authority, but because what we assert can be demonstrated.
Bacon and Copernicus, and many other men and women of science, have been exceptionally religious, but that does not show up in their equations or their scientific (i.e., about the natural world) logic. It cannot. It's just not possible, and I know of no demonstration that contradicts that statement. So, it's NOT a matter of "allowing" some hypothesis in our scientific thinking. It's a matter of validating it - an altogether different problem.
Now, here's a hint of things to come: We do not need to be concerned about the source of a hypothesis. It doesn't matter. I can use a random sentence generator to produce some hypothesis. If it looks promising, we can investigate it in the natural world, and it the data indicate its likely true, then we have something. Think carefully about what I just said and I believe you'll see that this is going to end up in a surprising place!

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