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Religious Trauma Syndrome: 3 Healing Strategies
Mental Health

Religious Trauma Syndrome: 3 Healing Strategies

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on January 2, 2023
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5 min

Religious beliefs and traumatic experiences can have a profound impact on mental well-being. If you are struggling to leave a religious community or find it difficult to cope with your beliefs, you might be suffering from religious trauma syndrome (RTS). This article explores the symptoms of religious trauma and how to begin recovery.

Religious trauma
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Religion and spirituality can promote positivity, connection, and a sense of structure. However, religious indoctrination can be dangerous, especially if it centers around negative beliefs and harmful messages. As a result, many people have experienced religious trauma.

Traumatic or stressful religious experiences can cause significant psychological distress. It can consume and affect all areas of your life, with various symptoms making everyday living difficult. If ignored, religious trauma syndrome may trigger other mental health disorders.

We bring you the guide to religious trauma syndrome (RTS), covering what it is, why it happens, and ways to heal from harmful religion.

What Is Religious Trauma?

Religious trauma, or religious trauma syndrome (RTS), is characterized by a group of symptoms associated with painful religious experiences. Religious trauma syndrome is not an official diagnosis but is recognized as a mental health issue gaining traction as a legitimate condition.

Religious trauma occurs when a person struggles to leave a religious community or has trouble leaving behind dysfunctional beliefs taught through religious indoctrination. Some people experience traumatic experiences in toxic religious environments that trigger mental disorders.

The condition often occurs among individuals who have left religious communities, religious leaders, and religious settings where emotional, physical, and sexual abuse have taken place. Symptoms are usually similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD.

Religious Trauma Symptoms

You will not find religious trauma syndrome listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, many people share common problems after experiencing trauma within a religious environment. This trauma can have lasting effects on emotional well-being.

Here are the symptoms of religious trauma to look out for:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of self-worth
  • Negative beliefs about yourself, others, and the world around you
  • A sense of loneliness, isolation, and difficulty belonging
  • Social awkwardness and difficulty building relationships
  • Poor critical thinking ability
  • Difficulties with independent thinking and decision-making
  • Sexual difficulty and unhealthy sexual views
  • Fear of eternal damnation
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Anger and grief symptoms
  • Unfamiliarity with the secular world, including a lack of cultural and mainstream knowledge
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Flashbacks and nightmares

What Causes Religious Trauma?

Different experiences can contribute to religious trauma, and the specific cause can vary from person to person. It often results from the beliefs imposed in authoritarian religion and toxic theology. Trying to break away from a particular environment can trigger many emotions.

Growing up in strict religious institutions or faith communities with authority-enforced religious teachings can have an astronomical effect on a person’s mental wellness. Emotional manipulation through threats, shaming, and guilt-tripping tactics can instill long-term fear.

Returning to the secular world after a period of religious or spiritual abuse can pose a range of problems.

Do I Have Religious Trauma?

If you have grown up or spent time in a faith community or under the control of a religious leader, you could have religious trauma. One way to help determine if you have this condition is to look for signs, such as a lack of critical thinking, information gaps, shame, and self-hatred.

You can also look out for signs of PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorder. Ultimately, religious trauma is a complex condition with multiple symptoms. They may arise when you attempt to leave your religion or try to break free from a controlling environment.

If you think you might have religious trauma – seek help. Ignoring trauma and engaging in self-destructive behavior will not help you turn your life around. Psychological distress can worsen over time. Your mental health may deteriorate and progress into other disorders as a result.

How to Heal From Religious Trauma?

You might feel completely overwhelmed if you have experienced or are experiencing religious trauma. It might be difficult to open up to family members or other members of a religious group. The important thing to know is that you can heal from spiritual abuse.

Here are 3 things you can try to begin recovery:

#1 Do not be afraid of your feelings

Try not to hide from your feelings. Attempting to ignore or make excuses for traumatic experiences, such as child abuse, sexual assault, or any form of spiritual abuse, might work temporarily. However, blocking out your feelings will not benefit you long-term.

You might have grown up in an environment with independent thinking condemned. Your normal thinking might be damaged, and you might be unfamiliar with listening to your thoughts. It is essential for your well-being to take the time to explore your feelings and separate your own spiritual beliefs from those forced upon you in a religious context.

#2 Try cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talking therapy that works to help you change how you think and behave. The idea is that by altering your behaviors and thought patterns, you can handle difficult situations more positively and thereby overcome your problems.

CBT commonly treats various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. You can attend therapy sessions, where an experienced therapist will help you break down your problems into smaller, manageable parts.

If you prefer not to attend face-to-face sessions, you can try the Sensa app. It works as a mental health assistant, using the fundamental principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to help you change your thinking patterns and break free from negative cycles.

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You can record your thoughts in the mood journal, partake in daily activities, and read educational content that centers around CBT techniques. You can also benefit from quick relief exercises should you experience a sudden anxiety, panic, or OCD attack at any time.

#3 Work on yourself

Work on yourself to come to terms with your trauma. You can analyze your teachings and determine what you believe to be true and what you are unsure of. Many religions teach values that you might not agree with yourself. You can begin working to uncover your values.

Many activities can help you work on yourself. You could try journaling, going for long runs, or meeting up with people from outside your faith community to help you gather your beliefs. Finding an alternative social network can help you find new perspectives on your experiences.

What Is the Best Therapy for Religious Trauma?

Seeking therapy for religious trauma can help you heal. A licensed therapist can provide you with coping strategies, support, and expert guidance to help you move forward with your life. Trauma of any sort is difficult to overcome, but professional help is an effective intervention.

You can discuss the best type of therapy for your needs with your doctor or mental health professional. Many therapists specialize in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Among the most successful therapies to support survivors of religious trauma are as follows:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Somatic therapy

A Word From a Psychologist

Faith communities are not always traumatic, but certain religious teachings, patriarchal power, and abuse from a religious figure can be incredibly harmful. Growing up in a toxic environment can suppress normal child development and cause severe problems in adult life.

You might develop religious trauma when leaving a religion or a particular set of beliefs. It can be challenging to leave behind certain ideologies after being subject to indoctrination. You might struggle with critical thinking, self-ability, and making decisions.

It’s important to know that you are not alone. Trauma is common among people who have escaped cults, religious groups, and other abusive circumstances. The symptoms of religious trauma are well-recognized, and various treatment strategies are available.

Always talk to someone if you are suffering. Everyone handles trauma differently, and there is no right or wrong way to behave. The important thing is that you seek support to help you come to terms with things. Doing so will allow you to heal and lead a more fulfilling life.

Conclusion

Many signs can indicate that you are suffering from religious trauma syndrome. You might have a diminished sense of self-worth and feel completely at odds with the world around you. Just know that you don’t have to suffer alone – support that promotes healing exists.

Try not to let your feelings fester, as this will only worsen your mental well-being. Talk to your doctor about finding the best trauma treatment. For at-home mental health assistance, remember you can try the Sensa app.

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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