PTSD Spirituality: PTSD, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment

Harassment can inflict the PTSD soul wound. Bullying and harassment can severely damage our identity, our souls. While we often think of military combat as the cause of PTSD, we can receive PTSD in several other ways. These forms of attack will damage us beyond the physical. American culture is slowly becoming more aware that bullying, teasing, and harassment can leave emotional scars and even lead to death. At times what may start as friendly kidding or teasing can morph into damaging behavior and damaging responses. And, at other times, some people will use these behaviors to bother or intimidate others because they know they will likely get away with it and also be able to make someone else feel emotional and spiritual pain. When these actions begin to treat someone as the other, a subject and not a person, a meat-puppet to be consumed, we will often see PTSD damage.

Embarrassment Can Alienate and Kill

Severe embarrassment can be physically harmful. In some cases, severe embarrassment and/or a sense of betrayal has prompted people to suicide. Often the person who arranged for the embarrassment to occur will say they were “only joking” and had “no idea this would happen” afterward. The victim of the teasing and the practical joke feels they have been so alienated from their communities that suicide is preferable to facing down the laughter, the jokes, and the bullies.

Indeed, our culture even includes phrases like, “I could have died I was so embarrassed.” Phrases like these are useful to actually keep us from committing self-harm. But when we don’t have other people we trust enough to share our embarrassment with, then the pressure only builds. If we are already alienated from our communities and don’t have trustworthy others to share our inner-pain, shame, or embarrassments with, then the pressure will continue to build and self-harm become more probable.

We Are Damaged As Individuals

Just as not every case of combat will produce PTSD, neither will every case of verbal harassment end up causing PTSD. Trauma and stress can affect us to different degrees based upon our individuality. But if we experience combat or if we experience verbal abuse or sexual harassment, we are more likely to be harmed than those who have not had those experiences inflicted upon them.

Violation of our humanity, damage to our soul, can manifest itself in the form of PTSD. When our identity, our sense of self, is perceived to be at risk, we are more likely to be engaged by PTSD. Sexual harassment can also be a trigger that activates a person’s pre-existing PTSD, even when the initial trauma was not sexual in nature.

My Latest Round of Sexual Harassment

Not so long ago I found myself the target of some sexual harassment and was surprised to discover to what extent it had activated some of my PTSD behaviors.

In one of those rare moments when I was actually walking in public by myself (I usually have someone with me in case I fall over), a car with four men pulled up next to me and started talking about my body, my limp, and my cane in some explicitly sexual ways. At first I thought they were harassing someone else and not me. When I realized they were talking to and about me in sexual ways some of my PTSD behaviors immediately activated.

In particular my Fight or Flight response (associated with the brain’s amygdala) kicked-in: I either had to make it to the doors of a store which was ahead of me or I had to sort out how to stop these guys if they got out of the car and came at me. As there were four of them I figured I would only be able to put an end to one or two of them before I went down. The thought of dealing with a manslaughter charge and prison did not enter my mind. I only reacted in Fight or Flight terms: It was get to the relative safety of the store, or put those guys down. Their continuing comments made me feel extremely vulnerable and even embarrassed. So much so that it made the Fight or Flight response seem like the only reasonable outcome.

Fortunately, they stayed in the car and the driver stayed along side me until I got to the store. As I started into the doors and the men said some more things, made some particular gestures, laughed, sped up and drove around the corner. I remained in the store longer than I usually would have. When I left I was rather cautious but they had not come back. I felt like absolute crap and slunk home in embarrassment.

Some Lessons Learned

1. Sexual Harassment, Assault, and Rape are about Abusing Power, not Sex.

Intellectually, I have always known that sexual harassment and rape rarely (if ever) have much to do with desire, beauty, or sexual horniness (remember, I used this word in a sentence!). Those four men were not interested in having sex or joking with me, they were interested in making me feel embarrassed, vulnerable, and degraded. They succeeded. Those feelings of vulnerability, shame, and degradation activated my PTSD Fight/Flight response and it is fortunate that none of them tried to stop me from entering the store.

2. PTSD Can Be Activated by Unaffiliated Triggers

As mentioned already, we can have our PTSD triggered by experiences which have nothing to do with how we initially got PTSD. Learning to identify and live with PTSD triggers is one of the activities we must all engage in. As we do so, our relationships will strengthen and we will find new reasons to stay alive and thrive.

3. Talk, Write, and Pray

If you have a PTSD triggering event, then discuss the incident with someone you trust. When we have experiences that either produce our initial PTSD or that later serve as PTSD triggers we need to grapple with them, talk them out, pray.

Later that day my wife came home and after she settled in we talked about my degrading experience, how vulnerable it made me feel, and how it was really about power and not about sex. In my own offline notebooks I also explored how and why I felt so degraded and embarrassed when it was those four men who were the ones who had done wrong.

I was the “victim” of their “teasing” and their “jokes” but it made me willing, rather it primed me, to kill or maim as many of them as I could before I went down. I hope to never be in a physical conflict again in my life, I teach courses on non-violence, but my PTSD got initiated and I went to Fight or Flight mode. Since I cannot run or even walk fast I was forced to be ready to fight. I don’t like the fact I had that response. I understand it, but I wish I was not so damaged as to have it. My talks with my wife, notebook writing, and prayer have helped me ease away the shame and anger the episode splashed me with. Now, anger and shame mostly abated, I am able to explore it again in this essay for PTSD Spirituality.

Knowing Our Inherent Worth Helps Heal Soul Wounds

Sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical is an attack on our core identity, upon who we really are. These attacks inflict soul wounds. It hurts so much because we find ourselves treated like a meat-puppet for someone else’s amusement or pleasure. Verbal and physical harassment, assaults and rape, severe teasing and practical jokes demean us. They tells us that someone believes we lack inherent value. When we experience these instances of dehumanization, we are more susceptible to PTSD and its stable of harmful behaviors, like self-cutting, substance abuse, and suicide. These experiences can render us so angry that we may lash out at those who love us and care for us. This is hard for everyone.

Love, the Image of God, and You

I wish I could say the simple solution is to have people treat one another with dignity and respect. That we would appreciate one another as members of the “Imago Dei,” that wonderful divine image in which God created us. We all have value, we must never forget it. As we withstand how some treat us poorly and as we withstand the subsequent PTSD suffering, we know we have essential value and can choose Life.

We know we are worthy of being loved and worthy of loving others, for as 1 John 4 tells us, God is Love. We share in that love given as the Imago Dei, the Image of God, in which we are created. We hope and pray, that those who treat others poorly may be converted to a position of Life, a position which seeks to build our individual dignity and not attempt to degrade us with shame.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z


  1. Thanks for sharing your story, finally finally finally someone has shared PTSD/trauma by verbal sexual harassment. I just diagnosed with PTSD yesterday by my psychologist. Before and after i knew it’s PTSD i felt my trauma is not really valid until i read this. And in my case the event has happened online on social media repeatedly. There are some women who mentioned me with unwanted sexual advanced 4 years ago before i’m married, since that i’ve got nightmares until late 2015. I didn’t realized it that it was traumatized. Then in august 2016 there was a trigger on an article that makes realized that if we have similar nightmares over and over again, it is one of trauma symptoms especially PTSD and that makes me shocked and I had panic attacks after that. It’s haunted me everyday. I didn’t believe in my self why online verbal sexual harassment can makes me trauma while others PTSD cases are always about raped if it’s related with sexual things. But then my trauma is valid by diagnosis, although my assesment test result shows i’m also a very sensitive person and hardly to open up my feelings that’s why all the stuffs are overwhelmed in my brain for years. Even until yesterday after i got my diagnosis i was felt invalid, then i’ve found and read this article and it’s really helped me to believe in my feelings. That verbal sexual harassment also can makes someone PTSD, not just about physically harassment or assaults. Also despite the event has happened 4 years ago but i told my husband right before i decided to seek help to a psychologist on november 2016 by chat. I adore your brave to telling all your experience to your wife and to this article with this ‘verbal sexual harassment’ case. You know it’s not easy for me to telling it even to my husband.

    • Hello W,
      I am glad that this helped. You are right, not all trauma is physical and it can damage us.
      Even telling someone we love and can trust about our experiences and our PTSD can be difficult. Yet, it can be very healing and lead to even deeper levels of trust.
      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. It’s possible sexual harassment and rape might also be about sexual gratification oaks be a combination of sexual gratification and power

    • Or*

      • Hi J,
        While there may be an element of sexual gratification in the rape act, it is demeaned by the inherent violence and coercion in the rape-act. Any sexual gratification is also subordinated to the acts of power and coercion inherent in the violence.
        Also, not all rapists are able to sexually climax, but still carry out the rape as a means of exercising power.
        If the rapist were looking for sexual gratification as his primary aim, then there are other ways and financial transactions that offer a non-violent approach (not that I am crazy happy about those ways and transactions, but they are at least not directly connected to violence and dehumanization).
        I appreciate your taking the time to visit the site, reading the essay, and commenting.
        Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  3. Dr Z:
    So sorry to read about what you went through. Sexual harassment is very embarrassing; it happened to me in a geometry class in high school and in the hallways. As a fifteen year-old girl, I didn’t know how to deal with the unwanted attention. Thanks for posting this…it will help a lot of people.

    • Hello, Queta. Thank you for your good wishes. While I don’t wish to ever experience that kind of harrassment again, I was later able to learn from the experience. Thankfully, the men did not get out of the car and come after me. Sexual harrassment and bullying are ways to dehumanize another person. Ultimately, the people doing the harrassment and their targets are both dehumanized and that makes the PTSD soul wound more possible. The aggravated soul wound can expereince more and deeper healing as we better understand what is happening to us in terms of PTSD’s dehumanizing aspects. It makes things easier to bear in the long run as we acquire more understanding of PTSD and how it wants to isolate and harm us. I hope your summer continues to well. Semper Pax, Dr. Z.

  4. Dr. Z,

    This is an excellent post! I wish more would address the behaviors of those who lack conscience within society. I believe that Narcissism is rampant. I guess I could hook that up to your “Compassion Deficit Disorder” and it feels the same to me.
    What is so important about this post and many others who bring attention to what bullying does, is that it describes the behaviors on a level that people understand, rather than what I do which seems a bit more frightening to people with “labels” and such and when they find out what a disorder is and does, but it’s really not about labels, as much as it is about content. Labels merely give the BEHAVIORS a fancy title. I appreciate the way you have described what the behavior is and how it deeply affects others and in what ways. Your work is a tremendous blessing to me. Thank you for writing this and I look forward to more posts when you feel up to it!

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