Healing Religious Trauma
What is religious trauma?
Religious trauma occurs when a person’s religious experience is stressful, degrading, dangerous, abusive, or damaging. Traumatic religious experiences may harm or threaten to harm someone’s physical, emotional, mental, sexual, or spiritual health and safety.
This type of trauma often unfolds over several stages:
Many forms of religious trauma are not associated with specific events, but instead accumulate over a long period of time through harmful messages enforced by the community. Some LGBTQIA+ people, for example, grow up in conservative religious communities who believe their identity is sinful or evil. So this type of trauma may stem from a lifelong message that who you are somehow puts your relationship with your god, your family, and your community at risk.
Religious trauma may also occur when a person decides to leave their harmful or abusive religious community. This can be a healthy choice, but it may be disorienting for someone whose life has been controlled by a certain set of beliefs, rules, and expectations.
Leaving an unhealthy religious community may result in strained, damaged, or even broken relationships with friends, family, or partners. Sacrificing an entire worldview, community, and support system—which may result in trauma of its own—can be an incredibly difficult step on the road to healing.
Although not yet added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the term “religious trauma syndrome” (RTS) is gaining traction with therapists and other experts to describe the negative mental health effects of unhealthy or harmful religious experiences. For our purposes, “religious trauma” and “religious trauma syndrome” offer similar descriptions of the same thing.
What is spiritual abuse?
Abuse is the harm or mistreatment of another, often for the purpose of exerting power or control. Spiritual abuse occurs when a person’s religion or spirituality is used to exert control over another person.
If you feel you may have been subjected to spiritual abuse, ask yourself:
These experiences are closely related, but they are distinct.
is an interpersonal experience between two people. Often the abuser is a religious leader attempting to control or manipulate someone lower in the religious hierarchy, such as a volunteer, community member, or visitor. It may be a parent using religion to abuse a child, or a spouse drawing on religious doctrine to assert their right to dominate or control their partner.
is a systemic experience between a person and their religion as a whole. Often the trauma is not linked to one specific person, but to a series of people over a period of time who enforce a traumatizing message or fail to help when a traumatizing situation takes place.
10 symptoms of religious trauma
The effects of religious trauma can be life-altering and long-lasting. Common signs and symptoms include:
Some religious movements rest on the idea that some people are inherently evil, untrustworthy, or unworthy of love. Others elevate certain identities over others, leading to marginalization, discrimination, and oppression. This may result in low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, or suicidal ideation.
Shame occurs when you equate a negative action with who you are as a person. Many unhealthy religious communities use shame as a way to influence and control others. Instead of learning to accept responsibility for their mistakes and extending forgiveness to themselves and others, people in shame-based religions often learn to cover up or deny anything that could be considered wrong by their community.
Some religious communities may identify certain actions or behaviors as indicative of a person’s moral value, and they may promote certain careers or types of families as spiritually superior. This can result in perfectionism, which is often accompanied by high levels of anxiety and stress, as well as the setting of unrealistic goals.
Some religions paint a picture of a vindictive god who punishes people whenever they fall short. Others promote apocalyptic ideas and suggest that a violent end to the world is nigh. These ideas may lead to heightened levels of anxiety resulting in hypervigilance: a constant state of anxiety meant to protect a person from perceived or actual threats of harm.
Many who experience religious trauma are accustomed to making decisions in the context of a certain doctrine and/or hierarchy. If they choose to change their relationship with these institutions or leave them entirely, they may struggle with autonomy and making their own decisions.
For many, religion provides community. If a person changes or leaves their faith, they may lose contact with many friends, family members, and acquaintances.
Some people who leave their religious community may experience a season of loneliness and isolation. It can be intimidating to rebuild a community, especially if people outside their faith were often labeled evil or inferior.
Being part of a religious community often means accepting some amount of feedback regarding how you live your life. Many faith communities also have expectations for volunteering and service.
These can be considered healthy aspects of religion, as long as boundaries are clear and respected. When boundaries are blurred or nonexistent, a person may struggle to find their identity without input from others. They may also have a hard time saying no to certain tasks or prioritizing self-care.
is a religious concept that focuses on ideas about gender, sexuality, sex, virginity, marriage, and procreation. Religions that rely heavily on purity culture may scrutinize or monitor children’s social interactions and segregate kids based on their assigned sex. In these contexts, LGBTQIA+ people in particular may not have the chance to experience social milestones, such as first dates or kisses, until adulthood. This delay can be frustrating, and some people who had overly restricted lives as teenagers may make impulsive or reckless decisions as adults once they leave their religious communities.
Religions that overemphasize purity culture may not prepare their followers for healthy sex lives, even in the context of marriage.
Many people who struggle with religious trauma practice abstinence until marriage and may feel dirty or guilty when engaging in sex. People from religious backgrounds that preach traditional gender roles may struggle to confront realities about desire, drive, and performance that don’t align with what they learned. Some religions teach about sex in a way that centers obligation instead of consent, resulting in unhealthy, harmful, or even criminal sexual behaviors.
Religious trauma can cause, contribute to, or otherwise worsen mental health disorders. Commonly associated mental illnesses include:
What causes religious trauma?
Religious trauma often occurs in authoritarian institutions set up in ways that perpetuate injustice and allow abusive behavior. The divine power that some religions claim to possess is often so meaningful to people’s lives that they’ll concede to actions and behaviors they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate.
Psychologist Marlene Winell, PhD, who coined the term “religious trauma syndrome,” teaches that religion can be traumatizing in two distinct but often overlapping ways:
A person may have lived their entire life in an unhealthy religious community, but not become aware of its traumatizing impact until they leave that community.
Similarly, a person may experience trauma in a religious context, leave their faith community, then feel overwhelmed by the traumatic experience of having to rebuild a life outside of the context of their faith. Both are real sources of trauma that often interact with each other in a person’s journey to spiritual healing.
Religion is not always traumatic. It may be associated with a number of mental health benefits including:
Trauma can happen in all kinds of groups, from families and peer groups to schools and workplaces. Religious institutions aren’t exceptional in this sense. But the way people respond to trauma—and what steps they take to prevent it from happening in the first place—is a key differentiator.
Healing from religious trauma
If you’ve experienced religious trauma, you are not alone. Trauma of any kind can be difficult to process without the help of a mental health professional. Many therapies have proven helpful for survivors of trauma, including religious trauma, such as:
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