Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) occurs when an individual struggles with leaving a religion or a set of beliefs that has led to their indoctrination. It often involves the trauma of breaking away from a controlling environment, lifestyle, or religious figure. In some settings the symptoms of religious trauma can be similar to that of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).1
What Is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma can stem from spiritual abuse, can impact individuals differently, and can have a devastating effect on someone’s self esteem, sense of self-worth and identity. Religion can impact the way that we see the world, and it can be easy to deny the existence of problems in the face of continual optimism and faith that a higher power will fix any challenge encountered, but this toxic positivity can lead to lasting harm.2
Religious trauma can lead to an individual believing that they are inherently bad or condemned (especially if they’ve experienced purity culture)—even after they have left the religion and their previously held beliefs.
What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome?
Religious Trauma Syndrome is not an actual diagnosis and is not included in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). However, this does not mean that it is non-existent or doesn’t impact millions of individuals every year. Religion can easily be weaponized, and sayings can be twisted to fit the agenda of the messenger. Shame, guilt, and condemnation can be among many of the harmful messages communicated which can lead to lasting and deep mental health wounds and damage to the psyche.3
Often, RTS occurs when one is surrounded by a strong community of like-minded individuals who see their religious path as the only way and identify those not in the religion to be bad and misguided.4 There is a deliberate and intentional effort to be disconnected and set apart from mainstream society and traditions. For some, this can include not observing holidays, going to places like movie theaters, or dressing modestly. For others, this can include living in more rural areas, avoiding the appearance or perception of ‘evil,’ or attending religious gatherings frequently.
Reconsidering the Term “Religious Trauma Syndrome”
While religious trauma syndrome is commonly used, many clinicians and researchers are shying away from the use of ‘syndrome.’
Darren M. Slade, PhD and President, Global Center for Religious Research, explains, “Use of the term ‘syndrome’ is an outdated label that can actually be more detrimental than helpful. When originally coined, this so-called ‘syndrome’ was part of a larger cultural fascination to pathologize everything without sufficient clinical or psychological justification. But religious trauma occurs on an individualized spectrum and does not consistently present with the same cluster of symptoms, as is required of actual syndrome diagnoses. The label ‘syndrome’ limits religious trauma by manufacturing arbitrary parameters on people’s lived experiences, thereby excluding them from treatment options or alienating them with feelings of being diseased and abnormal.”10
Religious Trauma Examples
While RTS can be different depending on the religion, practices, or beliefs, it typically has a common component of fear and emotional manipulation. Individuals may be told that they will be separated from God, face social ruin, or go to hell based on their adherence to a certain set of traditions or belief.2
Some examples of religious trauma syndrome include:
- A child experiencing same sex attraction may be told that their feelings are sinful and that they need to repent.
- An adolescent expressing their thoughts may be physically disciplined or beaten into submission by a parent or religious leader to “save their soul.”
- A young woman who finds herself pregnant out of wedlock may be subject to sanctions and be ostracized from the community or congregation. She may feel shame, confusion, guilt, or depression due to religious indoctrination or beliefs that she is a bad person.6
- A person may be told that the majority of their financial resources should go to the cause of furthering the message of the religion, causing financial hardship.
These experiences can wreak havoc on one’s sense of self and create a false narrative that absolute adherence to certain practices and traditions are necessary to make it to the afterlife.5 Because religious trauma can be prevalent in childhood, becoming more distant from religion can sometimes mean that individuals feel that they are abandoning everything that they’ve been taught.
Slade adds, “While archetypal traumatic experiences exist, such as sexual assault, there are no predictable causes of overwhelming or disruptive adverse effects on individuals. For one person, trauma results from teachings about hellfire, damnation, original sin, or a belief in the rapture. For another person, it’s the act of public shaming or being ‘slain in the Spirit.’ For someone else, it’s the experience of repeated sexual, emotional, social, or physical stigmatization and isolation.”
An individual who decides that they will leave their religion or faith community may find themselves without a place to go. They may lose family, friends, or an extended network of individuals that they previously felt connected to. On a deeper level, it can be common to lose your sense of self and your identity as you learn that most of the things that you knew to be true as it pertains to religion and faith were untrue. You may feel lost and find yourself at a point where you must build a new support network based on who you are outside of the religion that you left.7
Religious Trauma Symptoms
Symptoms of religious trauma include:4
- Poor critical thinking skills
- Difficulty making decisions
- Decreased sense of self-worth
- Difficulty building strong relationships
- Being unfamiliar with mainstream culture/isolation
- Struggling with fitting in and belonging
- Sleeping issues
- Eating issues
- Sexual dysfunction
- Anxiety symptoms
- Depression symptoms
- Grief symptoms
If you grew up in a religiously abusive organization or community, it can be challenging to break away from those beliefs and traditions. As a result, there can be significant mental and emotional anguish as well as cognitive dissonance between what you have been taught in childhood and what you have learned through research and your own personal exploration. You may find it difficult to trust others or to trust yourself due to experiencing a religious environment that was toxic and/or a faith leader who had manipulative intent, causing betrayal trauma.8
It’s important to keep in mind that some of the symptoms of RTS can overlap with other mental health disorders which include bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorders, or clinical depression.
The Lasting Mental Health Effects of Religious Trauma
Religious trauma can have an astronomical impact on one’s mental health. Growing up with a strict set of standards and beliefs can mean that you are ill-equipped to navigate a society that operates with a different set of rules. Guilt, depression, hopelessness, and fear can be one of the many emotions you experience as you distance yourself from a religiously abusive community or environment.4
You may experience being ostracized and distanced from a close-knit community and feel the conflicting emotion of being liberated at the same time.9
8 Ways to Recover from Religious Trauma
If you’ve experienced religious trauma, here are seven ways to cope:
1. Recognize That It Has Occurred
It may be easy to make excuses for your childhood or to think that things were just different. In order to heal from your childhood trauma, you have to recognize that, while your community and/or parents may have had good intentions, they were misguided, and it led to you experiencing harm.
2. Separate Your Personal Values From Your Religious Beliefs
Find examples of individuals who do good and are caring who may not subscribe to religious or spiritual beliefs. Write down a list of values that you find important and identify which values are connected to religion.
3. Get Connected to Healthy Supports & Community
Get to know individuals that are outside of your religious community. Join a civic organization or a club. Look for ways to connect and belong to a group where the commonality is not religious beliefs.
4. Explore What You Believe & Why You Believe It
Take inventory of what you’ve been taught to believe and what you know to be true. It’s ok to identify areas where you may feel less sure and would like to do more exploration.
5. Create Healthy Boundaries in Relationships
Experiencing religious trauma can mean that you have not experienced healthy boundaries. This means that you have had decisions made for you without your informed consent and that it may feel unfamiliar to set your own standards for relationships.
6. Identify Your Hopes for the Future
Be intentional about creating a life and experiences for yourself that are outside of what you experienced as a child. Make a bucket list and start taking small steps outside of your comfort zone. Foster relationships with individuals who have different perspectives and backgrounds than you.
7. Seek Support Through Therapy
Finding a therapist can feel like a daunting process and it may seem unlikely to find a clinician that specializes in religious trauma. However, a trauma-informed therapist that specializes in Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) can be a great starting point for getting additional support. A few therapy techniques to explore that have proved helpful for recovering from trauma include EMDR and somatic therapy.
Slade suggests that, “The most effective treatment options will, of course, depend on the individual and the type of religious trauma. However, at the Global Center for Religious Research 2021 International eConference on Religious Trauma, multiple speakers highlighted the effectiveness of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, entheogenic (psychedelic) therapies, and somatic therapy. In each case, though, there was an emphasis on people connecting to a larger community of trauma survivors, as well as recognizing the link between traumatic experiences and their adverse effects on the physical body’s nervous system.”
8. Know That You’re Not Alone
Slade adds, “We are coming to learn that religious trauma is much more pervasive and universal than previously thought. An important tip for someone working to heal from religious trauma is to remember that you’re not alone in your pain. The continued experience of trauma later in life is not a reflection of your personal coping skills or your strength to overcome the past. You are not your trauma.”
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Religious Trauma Syndrome
The process of leaving a religion can be complicated and it looks different depending on the individual. You may doubt yourself and doubt that you’re doing the right thing. However, connecting with individuals who have had a similar experience, as well as a therapist, is an excellent step in making healthy decisions for your mental and emotional well-being and creating a new future for yourself.