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June 06, 2024

Religious Trauma

When we speak about trauma, we often associate it with trauma that we have experienced physically. People most likely would not even fathom the idea that trauma can be linked to spirituality or religion. Did you ever feel a sense of lingering guilt, fear or shame that was connected to your religious or spiritual upbringing? Or maybe you went through a crisis of faith that abandoned you into feeling lost or isolated? If you have, then you’re not alone.

Religious trauma is a reality for many people. These folks have endured harmful religious or spiritual practices. They have been through emotional and psychological distress resulting from detrimental religious practices, teachings, and environments. These encounters can lead to long-term mental health effects, including personal identity and relationship problems.

What is Religious Trauma?

Religious trauma is when an individual or a group of people encounter trauma related to their religion or spiritual community. These experiences can occur within a church, temple, covenant or spiritual organisation. Members of such communities are exposed to indoctrinated messages, humiliation, coercion, abuse and ostracism.

Religion is usually linked to a way that people lean into when they have other traumatic experiences. However, there isn’t much talk about the negative impact of religion or spiritualism on you. Unlike other types of traumas, it’s deeply entrenched in one’s core beliefs, identity and worldview. Therefore, it can be very difficult to identify. Children often experience religious trauma as childhood trauma, so they are closely linked.

What is Religious Trauma Syndrome?

Author Marlene Winell first coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome in her book Leaving the Fold. Religious Trauma Syndrome refers to the range of emotional challenges a person experiences when they are in or leave organised authoritarian religion or spiritual doctrines. These psychological problems include depression, fear, loss of identity, agency, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), lack of decision-making and other psychological disorders.

It’s essential to note that religious trauma syndrome is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) or any of the DSM-5TR (Text Revision) information, and neither is it in the ICD-10. However, many independent psychologists and therapists recognise it as a set of symptoms in their practice.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Religious trauma and spiritual abuse are closely related but differ subtly. RTS is usually a systemic issue with an individual experiencing abuse through a doctrine or religion as a whole. They’ll encounter a number of people who feed them traumatising messages that take place over a period of time.

Spiritual abuse, on the other hand, is an interpersonal encounter between two individuals. It can be the religious leader who attempts to exploit another person in their congregation by manipulating religious beliefs. This control and abuse can also be a parent on the child or a spouse on their partner.

Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse

Manipulation: Using religious teachings or doctrines to manipulate individuals into certain behaviours or beliefs.

Domination: Exercising excessive control over a person’s life, decisions, and actions through religious authority.

Financial Exploitation: Coercing individuals into giving money or resources under the guise of religious obligation or blessings.

Labour Exploitation: Demanding excessive time and effort from individuals without proper compensation or consideration.

Fear and Intimidation: Instilling fear of divine punishment or eternal damnation to control behaviour.

Guilt and Shame: Using guilt and shame to manipulate individuals into compliance with religious norms or expectations.

Isolation: Encouraging or enforcing separation from family, friends, and outside influences that do not align with the religious group’s beliefs.

Ostracism: Threatening or implementing exclusion from the religious community for non-compliance or questioning of beliefs.

Distorted Doctrine: Misrepresenting religious texts or teachings to justify abusive behaviour or control.

Prophetic Abuse: Claiming divine revelation or authority to manipulate and control individuals.

Psychological and Emotional Effects of Religious Trauma

Religious trauma can have lasting effects on a person’s mental and emotional health. Harmful religious teachings, practices, and environments lead to a range of psychological and emotional issues that are typical of any traumatic experience. Here are some key impacts of religious trauma:

Anxiety and Depression

Persistent Fear: Individuals may experience chronic anxiety due to fear-based teachings about sin, punishment, or eternal damnation.

Hopelessness: Depression can result from feelings of worthlessness or failure to meet the strict standards set by their religious community.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Intrusive Thoughts: Victims might suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts related to their traumatic religious experiences.

Hypervigilance: They may become overly alert or easily startled, constantly on guard against perceived threats or judgment.

Identity Crisis

Loss of Self: Individuals often struggle with self-identity, especially if their religious beliefs and community heavily define their sense of self.

Confusion: They may feel lost or uncertain about their purpose and values after leaving or questioning their faith.

Emotional Distress

Guilt and Shame: Intense feelings of guilt and shame can arise from internalising messages of unworthiness or sinfulness.

Anger and Resentment: Individuals might feel anger toward the religious leaders, community, or even themselves for the trauma they endured.

Interpersonal Difficulties

Trust Issues: Trusting others, particularly authority figures, can become challenging due to past experiences of manipulation or betrayal.

Isolation: Victims may withdraw from social interactions, feeling isolated or misunderstood by those who have not experienced similar trauma.

Loss of Faith

Spiritual Disillusionment: Disillusionment with religious teachings and practices can lead to a complete loss of faith or a drastic change in spiritual beliefs.

Spiritual Confusion: Individuals may struggle to find new spiritual or philosophical paths, feeling conflicted about what to believe.

Cognitive Dissonance

Mental Struggle: Individuals might experience cognitive dissonance, where their beliefs and experiences are in constant conflict, leading to mental stress.

Difficulty in Decision-Making: Making decisions can become difficult due to fear of making the wrong choice or being judged.

Physical Symptoms

Somatic Complaints: The stress and anxiety associated with religious trauma can manifest as physical symptoms, such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or chronic pain.

Sleep Disturbances: Victims might have trouble sleeping, experiencing insomnia or nightmares related to their trauma.

Public Health Concerns

Trauma itself is ubiquitous in public health as its symptoms place a considerable burden on the public health systems. Research shows that 1 in 3 adults have experienced religious trauma in the USA. However, RTS is a burgeoning field that has yet to be dissected to quantify its impact on society.

Generally, mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD increase the demand for mental health services and associated health costs. Recognising religious trauma as a legitimate form of trauma is crucial for appropriate care and support. Public health policies should advocate for including Religious Trauma Syndrome in the DSM-5 and ICD-10. This will improve public health outcomes and reduce long-term societal and economic impacts.

Seeking Help for Religious Trauma

Religious trauma can deeply affect mental and emotional well-being. If you or someone you know experiences symptoms of religious trauma, professional counselling can offer vital support. Recognising and addressing these issues is essential for recovery and improved quality of life.