Religious Trauma

Our beliefs in God or religion are very sensitive subjects and we want to honor that. We at Seattle trauma counseling have a great love and respect for all the world’s religions; however, when one’s religion or spiritual beliefs begin to be the root of anxiety, panic, nightmares or shame this is quite different.

We feel strongly that a person’s individual or collective beliefs in a divine higher power should support inner stability and serenity not inner fear and shame. The word Religion comes from the Latin word, “Religare” and originally has the same definition as yoga; “to reunite”. Unfortunately for many people religions or even God may have taken on a meaning that we find scary, hypocritical or shameful. It often no longer serves to reunite us to our source or to serenity but rather is used in the service of a person or organization. We strangely may even feel compelled to stay connected to our beliefs even when they make us feel ashamed or afraid. Why is this?

According to American psychologist, educator and writer, Marlene Winell, millions of people around the world suffer from a condition called Religious Trauma Syndrome. It’s a set of simultaneous symptoms and characteristics that are related to harmful experiences with religion, and are the result of immersion in a controlling religion, or sometimes its due to the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.

Religious Trauma Syndrome is a condition that can be experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle.  RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith.  It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

According to Dr. Winell, Religious Trauma Syndrome has a very recognizable set of symptoms and a definitive set of causes. It can also express itself in a debilitating cycle of abuse. There are ways to stop the abuse and recover.

Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome:

  • Cognitive: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making
  • Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning, panic attacks and nightmares. Most people who suffer from religious trauma say they feel an almost daily background feeling of both shame and anxiety that affects the way they feel about themselves.
  • Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks
  • Cultural: Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music)

Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:

Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home results in:

  • Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested.
  • Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned.
  • External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source.
  • Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used for discipline.
  • Equating the love of GOD with Parental acceptance. Teaching a small child that if they do not believe in what the parents believe, even if the child finds aspects of the religious system confusing or frightening, that they will lose both the love of the parents and suffer for all eternity. This is terrifying for a small child who may not even as of yet developed a capacity for understanding heaven or hell.

Cycle of Abuse

In some faiths, the doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation can cause psychological anguish for someone by creating the ultimate double bind. You may feel that you are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment even when you still believe in God and do all you can to follow the teachings. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.  You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven. Salvation is not a free gift after all. To some God may seem to be an angry or vengeful God even though we are told that he is loving. This can be a strange riddle to figure out.

For some sincere believers, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief.

Stopping the Cycle

Stopping the cycle will look different for different people, however when it happens there can be a sense of freedom, excitement about information and new experiences, new-found self-respect, integrity, and the sense of an emerging identity.

There are huge challenges as well. The psychological damage does not go away overnight. In fact, because the phobic indoctrination in young childhood is so powerful, for some, the fear of hell can last a lifetime despite rational analysis. Likewise the damage to self-concept and basic self-trust can be crippling. This is living with Religious Trauma Syndrome.

For some people it is continuing to feel the effects of being used sexually, for others it a fear of death, and still for others it may A betrayal or disillusionment by a spiritual teacher. Whatever the case religious trauma can be frightening and disorienting. Let us help support you as you find the way out.

Mistaken Diagnosis

Often Religious Trauma Syndrome mimics the symptoms of many other disorders:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • clinical depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • bipolar disorder
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • eating disorders
  • social disorders
  • marital and sexual dysfunctions
  • suicide
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • extreme antisocial behavior, including homicide

There are many extreme cases of RTS, including child abuse of all kinds, suicide, rape, and murder. Not as extreme but also tragic are all the people who are struggling to make sense of life after losing their whole basis of reality. None of the previously named diagnoses quite tells the story, and many who try to get help from the mental health profession cannot find a therapist who understands.

Robert Espiau and Joshua Canady both have many years of extensive training in the meditation and mindfulness traditions. They also have extensive training and experience in world religions having studied the dominant world religions in depth and have lived and studied within religious communities. They hold a deep respect for people’s beliefs and experiences and work to help clients find their own path. One that supports them in becoming free of anxiety, depression and shame. One that allows them to discover for themselves what is spiritual or divine.

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