, Mental Health
“No one’s ever sat me down and taught me what empathy is or why it matters more than power or patriotism or religious faith.”
― Zak Ebrahim
“Christ the man died long ago, but Christ the idea of love, still exists, not in any church, rather in the mind of humans.”
― Abhijit Naskar
Religion and Trauma
The idea that religion, religious beliefs, or the practicing of our religion might lead to harm for those we love probably sounds ridiculous to many people.
Unfortunately, religious trauma is a reality for many in the United States and around the world. I hope that if you have a knee-jerk reaction of offense at this subject you will read on with an open mind! It is definitely not a judgement on all religious people or an attack on religion as a whole.
Most people in the world practice some form of religion. Only 15% of the population identify as secular, atheist, agnostic, or similar. 56% of the world’s population practice either Christianity or Islam – both of which have both liberal and more fundamentalist believers.
I grew up here in the “Bible Belt” the ultra-religious, mostly Christian section of the United States. Like many if not most, I grew up attending church with my family. Neither of my parents attended church regularly prior to moving to Mississippi but one evening some people knocked on our front door and invited them to come to the Southern Baptist church down the street, so we went. Eventually we joined a non-denominational Christian church before returning to the same Southern Baptist church several years later.
Who Is Negatively Effected by Religious Beliefs?
The LGBTQ population, women, children, racial minorities, blended families and people who have been divorced are just a few examples of those that might be negatively impacted by religious beliefs. That is not to say that men cannot also be negatively impacted because they can be.
While certainly those who have been sexually abused or assaulted within the church have absolutely been traumatized, this post is not about that. We will focus more on how the attitudes of religion as an institution impacts those that are “othered” rather than overt abuse that some individuals within the church perpetrate.
For the sake of brevity, this will be the first in a series of posts so please be sure to read the rest of the series! I will link them at the end of the post as they are available.
Religious Trauma Syndrome
Dr. Marlene Winell, a researcher with a PhD in Human Development, coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) in 2017. RTS is: “a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.”
RTS is not currently a DSM diagnosis, it is rather a collection of symptoms that Winell and others have identified. It’s important to keep in mind that not being a diagnosable illness does not mean that RTS is not legitimate and real. For example, codependency is something most professionals recognize and treat and it has never been in the DSM.
Whether one might meet the criteria of having a syndrome versus simply needing to heal the wounds that their traumatic experience has left is irrelevant. What is important is that as a society and as mental health professionals we are recognizing that people are both damaged by the beliefs that they are taught within religion and that leaving that religion, if they choose to, can also negatively impact their emotional well being.
The Pain of Alienation
Few things are as personal to us as our spiritual and religious beliefs. Because many people in the United States are raised within a religious tradition, finding one’s self hurt by the teachings of that religion can cut deeply. The pain of not fitting into the framework of a “good Christian” or “good Muslim” begins as soon as a person realizes that they are different than they feel the should be. Whether someone is LGBTQ, contemplating a divorce from an abusive spouse, or questioning things they have been taught that no longer make sense, additional pain is caused by believing that one is “going against God.”
The idea that one’s personal safety or emotional well-being is not important to a loving creator does not seem to play a part in most people’s thinking. We hear “God is love” and yet believe that because of who we are or what we do he will not love us anymore. As an adult, I have found the idea that God can love you if you stay in an abusive marriage but not if you divorce to be impossible to accept. I have had clients say “perhaps God wants me to be unhappy.” People who genuinely believe that God is testing them or wants them to be in pain will make the active decision to stay in situations that are unhealthy or even dangerous.
For some, it is easier to accept being unhappy for 80-90 years if it means the promise of “eternal salvation” and the potential for happiness in heaven. In practice, it is very difficult to live in emotional turmoil and pain, whatever the motivation.
Turning One’s Back on God
For some, the idea of leaving the church is tantamount to turning their back on God. They believe that to disagree with a teaching of their religion or denomination is to literally disagree with God. The more evangelical or fundamental the church one belongs to is, the greater the potential that questioning teachings will be seen as just short of evil. It seems antithetical that a creator who gives humanity the potential to think and reason would expect blind acceptance of the 783,000+ words in the Bible. Faith is not based on ignorance. To have faith is to make a choice without evidence which is not the same as making a choice without critical thought.
When a person is faced between living their life with freedom or living a lie, it may be easier to imagine living a lie than losing their family. Many who leave organized religion run the risk of being ostracized from their family of origin. I had a client who described a parent crying, inconsolable at the idea their adult child would be “going to hell” because they no longer believed what the parent believed.
“I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal my bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.”
Learning to Heal
Whether you are still practicing your religion, have chosen to leave, or are contemplating leaving, there may be no personal journey more alienating. There may also be no personal journey more agonizing. Even if you are now atheist or agnostic, the wounds left behind may be long-lasting and deeper than you can process alone.
I chose to add healing from religious trauma to my specializations for two reasons: in part because of my own deep, painful wounds inflicted by my time in the Southern Baptist faith and because of a story that a client told me about their child who is LGBTQ. The trauma inflicted on their child by those in the church damaged not only that child but the entire family and impacted the client’s own faith. I saw the need for this, especially in the state of Mississippi. I believe that in the helping field that if we are able to meet a need that is not currently being met, it is our duty to do so.
If you have experienced religious trauma, in any capacity, you are not alone. There is nothing wrong with who you are. I have no desire to “lead you back to God.” Therapy is a journey of healing. If you need help healing, you are safe in the office of a mental health professional.
Stacey ALdridge, LCSW
Stacey is a therapist in private practice and the owner of Inspired Happiness Therapy and Wellness in Ridgeland, MS. If you are in the state of Mississippi and are interested in seeing Stacey for therapy, please visit the Appointments page.
I am a therapist in private practice in the Jackson, Mississippi area. My passion is helping women become inspired to make positive changesso they can lead happier, healthier lives!
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What does religious trauma feel like? ›
Many people experience RTS as a result from an authoritarian religion or faith community. Individuals suffering from RTS may be struggling with black and white thinking, irrational beliefs, difficulty trusting oneself, low self-esteem, or feeling indebted to a group of people.What does it mean to have religious trauma? ›
Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) occurs when an individual struggles with leaving a religion or a set of beliefs. It often involves the trauma of breaking away from a controlling environment, lifestyle, or religious figure.How does trauma affect religious beliefs? ›
If religious individuals experience an interpersonal trauma, this may lead them to modify their religious schemas (changing their religious beliefs). Such individuals may increase or decrease the elaborateness of their religious schemas or reject their schemas altogether.How do Christians heal from trauma? ›
The best way to promote healing from trauma is to get as many traumatized parties who share a common event together and begin processing the feelings, thoughts, and memories together. Each individual remembers things differently. Tunnel vision usually focuses each person on one of our sensory perceptions to survive.What type of therapy is used for religious trauma? ›
Religious trauma therapy
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: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
- A child's body showing signs or marks, such as bruises or burns, from physical abuse;
- A child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children;
In general, research suggests there is a positive association between spirituality and grief recovery for survivors of traumatic loss (20). Researchers suggest that for many spirituality provides a frame through which survivors can "make sense" of the loss (14).What mental illness is associated with religion? ›
Hyperreligiosity is a psychiatric disturbance in which a person experiences intense religious beliefs or episodes that interfere with normal functioning. Hyperreligiosity generally includes abnormal beliefs and a focus on religious content or even atheistic content, which interferes with work and social functioning.Is religious trauma a real thing? ›
Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is recognized in psychology and psychotherapy as a set of symptoms, ranging in severity, experienced by those who have participated in or left behind authoritarian, dogmatic, and controlling religious groups and belief systems.What are examples of religious abuse? ›
- Stopping you from practising your religious or spiritual beliefs.
- Forcing you to raise your children according to spiritual beliefs you don't agree with.
- Forcing you to participate in religious practices that you don't want to participate in.
- Using religious or spiritual leaders or teachings to:
What are the 7 domains of trauma? ›
- N. eurological and Biological Maturity.
- O. ver-reactive Stress Response.
- E. motional Regulation.
- A. ttachment Style and Relationships.
- Domestic violence.
- Natural disasters.
- Severe illness or injury.
- The death of a loved one.
- Witnessing an act of violence.
So, as discussed in the definition, there are three parts to trauma: event, experience of the event, and effect.Where trauma is stored in the body? ›
Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response.Where is sadness stored in the body? ›
Emotional information is stored through “packages” in our organs, tissues, skin, and muscles. These “packages” allow the emotional information to stay in our body parts until we can “release” it. Negative emotions in particular have a long-lasting effect on the body.What does trauma stored in the body feel like? ›
It may feel like you're on edge. You may start to sweat. Your heart may race, your fists may clench. Trauma isn't only a person's emotional and psychological reaction to an intense or overwhelming event, it can lead to physical manifestations that are felt in the body too.What are the 4 tips for healing from trauma? ›
- Become familiar with emotional regulation and distress tolerance and skills.
- Trauma Self-Help Healing and Recovery Tips.
- Minimize isolation by connecting with others.
- Seek out support.
- Participate in social activities, even if you don't feel like it.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) » ...
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) » ...
- Cognitive Therapy » ...
- Prolonged Exposure » ...
- Brief Eclectic Psychotherapy » ...
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy » ...
- Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) » ...
- Medications »
The gold standard for treating PTSD symptoms is psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy.What is the best trauma focused therapy? ›
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) ...
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) ...
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) ...
- Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) ...
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) ...
- BONUS: Medication.
What is religious psychosis? ›
Individuals experiencing religious delusions are preoccupied with religious subjects that are not within the expected beliefs for an individual's background, including culture, education, and known experiences of religion. These preoccupations are incongruous with the mood of the subject.What are 6 behaviors that indicate emotional abuse? ›
Examples include intimidation, coercion, ridiculing, harassment, treating an adult like a child, isolating an adult from family, friends, or regular activity, use of silence to control behavior, and yelling or swearing which results in mental distress. Signs of emotional abuse.Do Narcissists pretend to be religious? ›
The narcissist goes through the same cycle in his relationship with God, the quintessential authority figure. But often, even when disillusionment and iconoclastic despair have set in – the narcissist continues to pretend to love God and follow Him.Which chakra is associated with trauma? ›
People tend to hold their traumas in the Manipura chakra. Those suffering from PTSD often feel like they have no power, no strength in decision making and who they are and these symptoms are governed by this energy center.How long does emotional trauma take to heal? ›
People affected by trauma tend to feel unsafe in their bodies and in their relationships with others. Regaining a sense of safety may take days to weeks with acutely traumatized individuals or months to years with individuals who have experienced ongoing/chronic abuse.What trauma does to your soul? ›
Severe trauma or PTSD can literally have such a strong interpersonal effect that it feels like the damage is irrecoverable. It can literally feel like your soul has been robbed of its power. Particularly in some of our veterans it often feels like they have lost themselves at their core.What is the best religion for mental health? ›
Religion has been found to enhance remission in patients with medical and psychiatric disease who have established depression. The vast majority of these studies have focused on Christianity; there is a lack of research on other religious groups. Some research indicates an increased prevalence of depression among Jews.What is a alogia? ›
Some people are naturally quiet and don't say much. But if you have a serious mental illness, brain injury, or dementia, talking might be hard. This lack of conversation is called alogia, or “poverty of speech.” Alogia can affect your quality of life.What is a Jesus complex? ›
A messiah complex (Christ complex or savior complex) is a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that they are destined to become a savior today or in the near future.How do you overcome church pain? ›
- First, pray. When you experience hurt in the church, remember that the church is not always the best when it comes to imitating Christ. ...
- Confront the offender. ...
- Forgive. ...
- Find a faithful partner. ...
- Resolve your own past. ...
- Commit to always act in love.
Can religious trauma cause OCD? ›
Psychologists do not believe that religion causes people to develop OCD. However, religion may influence whether someone with OCD experiences obsessions and compulsions related to religion, Abramowitz said. OCD makes you think in black and white.What is religious intimidation? ›
Religious persecution consists in making an offence of certain religious beliefs, or of their natural expression in speech, writing, or religious observances. The term is loosely used of mob violence, which is sometimes encouraged or connived at by the authorities; but in its stricter form refers to legal action.What is religious duress? ›
Benkert and Doyle (2009) describe religious duress as a type of fear in victims that hinders their ability to detach from the abuser. They argue that religious duress is similar to the idea of reverential fear, which intensifies based on the high levels of respect that one has for a person in position of authority.What are the 4 R's of trauma? ›
The trauma-informed approach is guided four assumptions, known as the “Four R's”: Realization about trauma and how it can affect people and groups, recognizing the signs of trauma, having a system which can respond to trauma, and resisting re-traumatization.What are the 5 F's of trauma? ›
The freeze, flop, friend, fight or flight reactions are immediate, automatic and instinctive responses to fear. Understanding them a little might help you make sense of your experiences and feelings.What are the 4 F's of trauma? ›
Pete Walker's “Complex Trauma: From Surviving to Thriving,” explores the four F's of complex trauma, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn, to help survivors understand their coping mechanisms and reactions, and begin to work towards actions that may better serve them in their life and relationships.What are five of the common signs a person is reacting to trauma? ›
Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect. Most responses are normal in that they affect most survivors and are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited.How can you tell if someone is traumatized? ›
- Being easily startled or frightened.
- Always being on guard for danger.
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior.
- Overwhelming guilt or shame.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ...
- Acute stress disorder (ASD). ...
- Adjustment disorders. ...
- Reactive attachment disorder (RAD). ...
- Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). ...
- Unclassified and unspecified trauma disorders.
What Are Common Reactions to Trauma? All kinds of trauma create stress reactions. People often say that their first feeling is relief to be alive after a traumatic event. This may be followed by stress, fear and anger.
Which areas of the brain are most directly affected by trauma? ›
The effects of trauma on the brain impact three areas of the brain that are impacted the most are the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These areas all play a part in regulating emotions and responding to fear.What is trauma sensitive language? ›
The key in trauma-informed care is to approach each of your clients as if they have experienced trauma. The language that you use with your clients is important. Trauma-informed language includes using words that don't trigger your clients. In fact, the word “trigger” can be triggering, for lack of a better word.Can the effects of trauma be reversed? ›
The functions of the amygdala, hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex that are affected by emotional trauma can also be reversed. The brain is ever-changing and recovery is possible. Overcoming emotional trauma requires effort, but there are multiple routes you can take.How do you deal with spiritual PTSD? ›
Inwardly-directed spiritual practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and prayer may help reduce hyperarousal. Foreshortened Future and Loss of Interest in Activities. Rediscovery of meaning and purpose in one's life may potentially have enormous impact on these symptoms.How unresolved trauma is stored in the body? ›
The energy of the trauma is stored in our bodies' tissues (primarily muscles and fascia) until it can be released. This stored trauma typically leads to pain and progressively erodes a body's health. Emotions are the vehicles the body relies on to find balance after a trauma.What is the most powerful factor that can counteract the effects of trauma? ›
“Research shows that the strongest protective factor linked with resilience to childhood trauma is the reliable presence of a sensitive, nurturing, and responsive adult,” Child Trends reports.Where is trauma stored in the brain? ›
When a person experiences a traumatic event, adrenaline rushes through the body and the memory is imprinted into the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. The amygdala holds the emotional significance of the event, including the intensity and impulse of emotion.Which chakra is affected by PTSD? ›
Vishudha Chakra is located at the throat and governs self expression. Those who suffer from PTSD as a result of emotional abuse often have blockages in their Vishudha Chakra, causing fear around speaking, self expression, and perhaps could be related to a sufferer having a hard time seeking out help.