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Mental Health, Spirituality and Religion

Fueled by the need to be spiritually and emotionally free, Tanya charged the front of the church during the altar call while the worship service came to a close.  She threw herself on the floor in front of the wood table that held communion cups.  She looked up to see the engraved table that read “This Do In Remembrance of Me.”  She inhaled deeply and let out a loud cry. Gasping for air as tears fell, she felt the weight of the prayer cloth envelope from the heavy-handed usher.  The usher used the cloth to cover her body while she spoke in tongues and fanned fanned Tanya. This was an all too familiar scene to them both.

Tanya left service and felt better but not free. Week in and week out, she went to the altar looking for the peace she seemingly only found momentarily. She often felt judged for needing to respond to the altar call every week.  Three weeks later, she met with her pastor. He recommended a therapist who had been trained in religious trauma. 

Tanya decided to start therapy.  She knew she had severe emotional needs and a desire for inner peace. She felt a connection with the therapist and gained great insight into what she was experiencing. The therapist helped her learn language to express her feelings. After working with the therapist, she realized trauma has to be worked through and not just pushed down or forgotten.  

Therapists consider pushed down or forgotten trauma to be suppression and or repression. Tanya’s story is like many of the women I have been honored to partner with. She is a high achieving African American woman, well accomplished, and often the emotional and financial support for her family.  She is affectionately known as the “family go-to girl.” In her formative years, she had always been the go-to, and she loved the attention and validation this title gave her.  More recently, she struggled under the weight of this title. Her family and friends still depend on her greatly because of how well accomplished she is in her career and social status.  

Most of Tanya’s family is not aware that she was molested and abused by a leader in the church where she grew up.  Tanya had a hard time navigating the tension presented by being abused in the same church community, where she also felt a strong sense of belonging and comfort.  The church, for so many, provides security and a therapeutic community (Matthews, Corrigan, Smith, & Aranda 2006). Tanya also believed she would find the relief that she was seeking with other churchgoers. Churchgoers believe in healing through faith, known as “faith healing,” which refers to the belief that healing is a result of God’s power moving through their faith (Hays & Aranda 2015).

African Americans are less likely to seek formal mental health providers such as social workers, psychiatrists, or psychologists to manage psychological problems (Hays & Aranda 2015). Black people historically have been treated unethically and suffered atrocities in clinical healthcare systems. A study analyzing Black people’s attendance in therapy illustrated that those individuals carry stigma and have lower belief in treatment efficacy (Whaley, 2001). This illustrates that the weight of depression is more impactful for Blacks than their non- Hispanic white counterparts (Williams, 2007). Therefore, Blacks who face mental illnesses are at a greater risk of poor outcomes due to preexisting racial disparities, poor treatment engagement, and limited health-seeking behavior due to the rightful mistrust of medical and clinical models. So what does that mean for women like Tanya? These women desire to do healing work and find freedom from internal oppression because of their abuse but have a hard time believing therapy can offer that freedom.

 Women like Tanya and other African Americans tend to rely on informal sources of support such as church, clergy, friends, and family.  Some informal communities where Black women can engage in therapeutic relationships include beauty shops, Jack and Jill groups, and sitting at the kitchen table with elders. These are all cathartic methods to manage psychological problems and stress (Matthews, Corrigan, Smith, & Aranda 2006).

If you have similar experiences as those of Tanya or know someone who does,  and you do not know where to start your healing journey:  try these five therapeutic ways of taking care of yourself.  

These steps can help you create a route for your healing journey.

  1. Try Breathwork- Breathwork: is a term that encompasses a range of breathing exercises designed to enhance physical, spiritual, and mental health. Our trained and licensed therapists at Black Christian Therapy use breathwork as a therapeutic modality. It is proven to help those suffering from chronic pain, anxiety, PTSD, grief, depression, and other emotional stressors.

How we use Breathwork:

Emotional Wellbeing- the breath is used as a vehicle for accessing psychological material. When we breathe from our diaphragm, we can help regulate the nervous system. When the nervous system is controlled, we are no longer in fight or flight mode, which encourages the body to relax, decreasing cortisol. When our cortisol is low, we are in “social engagement mode.”

What to Expect from Breathwork Sessions:

Breathwork has been practiced for years; it is not new to Christians or people of faith. It is a form of meditation and mindfulness.  Expect soulful gospel or instrumental music and prayer while utilizing different breathing techniques. If you are doing a session that is not led with spirituality, the music will be reflective. Both have unique benefits. 

  1. Try Therapy- Work with a licensed therapist who specializes in trauma care-Therapy is evidence-based practice.  We know that therapy works but having a therapist with whom you have a rapport with will increase your likelihood of successful sessions.  Therefore, having a therapist who shares similar experiences may make you feel more comfortable. 
  2. Try Grieving-Set aside time to grieve loss.  Be it the loss of the life and childhood you desired or to not think about the trauma or experiences at all. Healing is a journey and not a destination, thus grief is not measured by  mourning, by rather allowing yourself to be.  “To be” is a phrase that suggests action. So grief is also intentional and so is healing. 
  3. Try Journaling- Journaling can help you access psychological material that may have been blocked due to the trauma.  Journaling helps to organize your thoughts, relieve intense feelings, and is helpful as a means of preparing to explore the trauma with a professional.
  4. Try Prayer and Meditation – Prayer and meditation helps you connect with purpose and pursuit. Prayer specifically has been proven to show active, buoyant activity in the brain. It is explicitly decreasing the fight or flight response.  Studies have shown that individuals who pray often have less depressive symptoms and higher rates of self-esteem.

None of these healing steps are mutually exclusive.  They can exist in conjunction.  Prayer and meditation is a powerful tool, so is cognitive behavior therapy with a therapist.  The two can be incredibly healing.  Setting aside time to do breathwork and or journaling can have cathartic effects.  The key here is to begin a healing journey!  Just start.  Start where you are and start with what you have. Your breath and your prayers go with you everywhere you go.  Start there if all else fails. But do not stay there.  

Cognitive-behavioral therapy provides a means for psychological relief through talk therapy; the treatment can also help you create skills, tools, and methods of dealing with complicated relationships or past trauma. Suppose you are a spiritual or religious person; in that case, the key is finding a therapist trained in spirituality, religious trauma, or someone who has a great deal of understanding of cultural competence in working with Black people of faith. Remember, above all, that healing is a journey and not a destination. 


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here