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Having a religious faith system can be a brilliant source of community and hope for many people. While having a healthy religious foundation carries many benefits, it can sometimes inflict stress and deep emotional wounds, especially if it involves a high-controlling environment or peers.  Such controlling religious communities often end up giving religious trauma to many people, the effects of which continue to linger on for a long time
What is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma occurs when someone’s religious experiences become dangerous, degrading, damaging, or abusive.  These experiences may harm or threaten to harm a person’s physical, mental, sexual, spiritual, and emotional safety and health. Following are some stages over which religious trauma may unfold itself:
This trauma may have a direct relationship with religion, such as sexual assault coming from a religious leader. Alternatively, it may not be directly related or even completely unrelated, such as divorce in the family.
Religious implications of trauma
A person may process the effects of trauma through their religious perspectives. For instance, someone going through a divorce may face pressure from their religious community to make unwise compromises or even tolerate abuse to save the marriage. They may also be asked not to proceed with it as the gods may not be happy with it, or their standing in their community may be at stake.
The response of the religious community may cause re-trauma
Many religious leaders ignore or even deny reports of sexual, spiritual, emotional, or physical abuse. They may also ostracize the victims of religious trauma by saying that they deserved it or that god decreed it. This may make the victim hesitant to share their experience as they fear that it may disrupt their place in the community.
Many types of religious trauma may not be associated with specific events but may accumulate over a certain amount of time, mainly through harmful messages. For instance, some LGBTQIA+ people may grow up surrounded by conservative religious communities that consider their identities evil or sinful. In such a case, religious trauma may stem from a lifelong message that puts a person’s family, identity, and relationship with god and community at risk. Sometimes, religious trauma may happen when a person decides to get out of their abusive religious community. While this is a healthy choice, it may disorient someone whose whole life has been controlled by a specific set of rules, beliefs, and expectations.
What Causes Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma commonly occurs in authoritarian institutes that work in certain ways that allow abusive behavior and perpetuate injustice. The divine power that these religions claim to possess is so meaningful in some people’s lives that they start conceding to behaviors and actions they would not tolerate otherwise.
Many experts agree that religion can be traumatizing in the following distinct but overlapping ways:
- Leaving the religious community
- Enduring the associated trauma or spiritual abuse
Someone who has been living their entire life in an unhealthy religious community may not be fully aware of its traumatizing impact. It is only when they leave the community that they realize its traumatic effects. Similarly, a person may undergo trauma in a religious context, leave the community, and may feel overburdened by the traumatic experiences of rebuilding a life without the involvement of religion. Both factors can be a source of trauma that often interacts with each other.
How Do I Know If I Have Religious Trauma?
Following are some symptoms of religious syndrome to look out for:
Many religious movements are based on the idea that certain people are untrustworthy, inherently evil, or unworthy of love. Others may elevate certain identities over other people, leading to discrimination, oppression, and marginalization. Such practices often lead to symptoms like depression, poor self-esteem, suicidal ideation, and self-harm in victims.
Feelings of shame happen when a person equates an adverse action with who they are as a person. Many religious communities use shame as a tool to impact and control others. Instead of accepting their mistakes and asking for forgiveness from themselves or others, a victim of religious trauma may attempt to cover anything that their community deems wrong.
Many religious communities identify certain behaviors and actions as an indicator of someone’s moral values. Moreover, they also promote certain types of families or careers as spiritually superior to others. Such discrimination leads to the development of perfectionist tendencies in victims of religious trauma, which, in turn, leads to high levels of stress and anxiety.
It is common for some religions to instill a belief in a vindictive god who punishes the followers when they fall short. Other religions may be based on apocalyptic ideas, suggesting a violent end to the world. Such concepts can induce anxiety and hypervigilance in people.
Difficulty making decisions
Many people who undergo religious trauma often make decisions in the context of a certain religious hierarchy or doctrine. If they choose to leave their religious institutions, making decisions become impossible for them.
Loss of Community
Religion is a source of community for many people. Those who leave their faith or change it often end up losing contact with many of their family members, friends, and other acquaintances. Consequently, they end up experiencing social isolation and loneliness and may struggle to find newer communities, especially if their religion previously taught them that people outside their faith were inferior or evil.
Lack of boundaries
For many people, being a part of a certain religious community automatically means accepting feedback about how to live life. While this is considered a healthy aspect of religion, it sometimes violates a person’s personal boundaries. This blurring of personal boundaries can make people struggle to find their true identities without receiving input from others. Moreover, they may also have a difficult time saying no and are not able to prioritize self-care.
Many religions overemphasize purity culture and do not prepare their followers to live healthy sex lives, even within marriages. Consequently, many people abstain from sexual practices until marriage and may feel guilty or dirty while engaging in them. They may also struggle to confront realities about drive, desire, and performance, especially when they do not align with what their religion teaches them.
Mental health disorders
Lastly, religious trauma may contribute to or trigger mental health disorders. Following are some types of mental health disorders commonly associated with religious trauma:
- Depression and anxiety
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Healing From Religious Trauma: Ways to Manage
Managing the effects of religious trauma can be extremely difficult and daunting. However, recognizing and separating yourself from it can aid healing. Following are some tips to support post-traumatic growth for people living with religious trauma:
Recognize religious trauma
As you work on addressing your religious trauma, try to recognize everything that contributed to its development. Remember that despite having good intentions, sometimes certain caregivers or community members may contribute to harm. For someone to recover from this trauma, it is imperative to accept and acknowledge this contribution.
Separate personal values from religious beliefs
Look around you and find examples of people who may not succumb to spiritual or religious beliefs. Additionally, consider making a list of your values while keeping them separate from religious-based ideas to promote healing.
Connect with a healthy community
Try to find people outside of your usual religious community to form a new support group. Try looking for other ways to connect with a group and belong with them, especially the ones that do not revolve around religion or spirituality.
Consider exploring what you believe
Compare what your religious authorities have always taught you with what you believe to be true. Pinpoint certain areas where you are not very sure and wish to explore more. Recognizing these individual ideas and beliefs is imperative for overcoming religious trauma.
Create healthy boundaries in relationships
Going through religious trauma can disrupt a person’s ability to set healthy boundaries. This is mostly because other people start making important decisions in the victim’s life without sorting their consent. For such a person to recover, it is necessary to explore healthier ways to set boundaries with a mental health expert.
Set hopes for the future
Always be intentional and determined about setting up a life outside religious trauma. Consider forming a bucket list that lets you venture out of your comfort zone. Harbor relationships with people who carry different backgrounds and perspectives than you.
Finding a therapist and asking for help can feel scary. Moreover, finding an expert who specializes in managing religious trauma can also be challenging. However, a trauma-informed expert who specializes in treating complex posttraumatic stress disorder can help people struggling with religious trauma. These therapists evaluate the individual circumstances of each patient and apply the most suitable therapies, such as somatic therapy, EMDR, etc.
Is religious trauma syndrome real?
While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, does not recognize religious trauma as an official diagnosis, the problem is very much real and continues to affect plenty of people. Specific groups remain particularly vulnerable to this psychiatric problem, such as those who have escaped cults or fundamentalist religious groups.
Can religion be necessarily traumatic?
Religion does not always become traumatic. On the other hand, experts have associated it with various health benefits, such as the following:
- Reflective practices encouraging meditation and rest
- Imparting a sense of belonging and community
- Emphasis on various moral values, such as forgiveness, love, empathy, and compassion
- Support and love for people who are struggling, grieving, or marginalized
Trauma is a natural phenomenon that can hit any group, including families and peers at workplaces and schools. There is no exception for religious institutions in this case, and the way a person responds to trauma remains the key differentiator.
What are religious trauma examples?
Following are some types of religious trauma a person may go through:
- Experiencing same-sex attraction but being told that these feelings are sinful and must be repented
- Being told that a major chunk of their financial resources must go towards the cause of strengthening or spreading religion, ultimately creating financial hardships for them
- Becoming pregnant out of wedlock and being subjected to sanctions from the congregation
- Being beaten into discipline by a religious leader or parent as a way to save a soul
What is the difference between spiritual abuse and religious trauma?
While both experiences are closely related, they also have many differences. Spiritual abuse refers to an interpersonal experience that happens between two people. The abuser, in this case, is a religious leader who is attempting to manipulate or control someone lower in the hierarchy, such as a community member or volunteer. A classic example is a parent who uses religion to abuse their child. Religious trauma, on the other hand, is a systemic experience between an individual and their experience. This type of trauma may not necessarily be linked to one specific person but to a group of people over a specific time period who continue to reinforce a traumatizing message to the victim.
1 Wortmann JH, Park CL, Edmondson D. Trauma and PTSD symptoms: Does spiritual struggle mediate the link?. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 2011 Dec;3(4):442.
2 Downie A. Christian Shame and Religious Trauma. Religions. 2022 Oct 3;13(10):925.