Religious Trauma Syndrome: 11 Ways Out + Reasons & Symptoms 2024

This guide presents the most interesting and important facts about religious trauma syndrome (RTS), plus a step-by-step guide for overcoming it. 

Religious Trauma Syndrome
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In my role as a life coach, I have dealt with many people who have experienced religious trauma syndrome. It would appear that there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding this topic. 

That’s why I’m keen to share this guide with you. 

So, let’s dive in.

Religious Trauma Meaning

Religious trauma is the result of an emotionally damaging religious experience.

Trauma in a religious context may occur as a direct result of what a member of a religious community has said or done to you. It may also be unrelated to your religion, yet intensified by how your faith community responds (or how you believe they’ll respond).

In many cases, you’re made to feel embarrassed, ashamed or scared about what happened, because it opposes the commands of God. 

Religious Trauma Examples

  • You feel ashamed for your sexuality or experiencing certain sexual thoughts.
  • You feel ashamed for divorcing your spouse.
  • You feel ashamed for choosing to have sex (or even worse being a victim of sexual assault).
  • You feel ashamed for questioning the word of God or your religious leaders.
  • You feel ashamed for not adhering to certain religious teachings. 

What Causes Religious Trauma?

The fear of being shamed or cast out by our peers terrifies most people, no matter what type of community they’re part of.

Humans are naturally social beings. It’s suggested that our intense desire to ‘fit in’ with our community may be embedded in our DNA, stemming back to the times when being banished from our caveman tribe would have meant certain death. 

That’s why it can be so traumitising being bullied at school or in the workplace, for example.

Now throw religion into the mix. If someone is part of a faith commuhity, that’s often a very important part of their lives. Many people feel reliant on this community for a sense of purpose and belonging. So, being shamed by them can be tough to deal with, especially when they’re suggesting you’re going to burn in hell for all of eternity. 

You don’t have to be directly shamed by your religious community to experience trauma. It may be that your religious leader has shamed their action without being aware that you have engaged in it. Either way, this can be deeply traumatising, if only because you’re taught that “God sees all and knows all.”

Spiritual Abuse From Religious Leaders

Any structured community provides an opportunity for abuse of power dynamics. That’s no more apparent than in religious communities where the leaders claim to share the word of God.

  • If a religious leader forces you to conform to his belief system in order to belong, this has the potential to create deep religious trauma. That’s called indoctrination. Ultimately, you should be made to feel free to develop your own spiritual beliefs. 
  • If the leader attempts to motivate you with fear-based tactics, that’s another common situation where religious trauma occurs. A common strategy is telling people they’ll go to hell if they don’t follow the rules of the religion. 
  • If they discourage you from seeking outside help, that’s likely to enhance any religious trauma you’re experiencing. Often, you’ll be told that God doesn’t give anything you can’t handle on your own – and that prayer is all you need. These are harmful messages that downplay people suffering from a mental health problem or mental illness.
  • If you’re publicly shamed for your words or actions in front of your faith community, that can lead to deep religious trauma as well. 

Sexuality And Religious Trauma

This is a common cause of religious trauma and deserves its own section. Many religious institutions have strict rules on sexuality. It’s still common for the LGBTQA+ community to be shamed and excluded from certain churches. 

This can be deeply traumatising once someone begins to experience what they’re told are unhealthy sexual views. Before long, they begin to feel shame and fear around a fundamental part of who they are. As such, they’ll often fear that they’re a fundamentally bad person in the eyes of their church. This can create deep trauma which takes a long time to overcome.   

Religious institutions will often have rules about sexual purity too. Most commonly, women are encouraged to dress modestly and both genders told not to have sex before marriage.        

This can lead to shame and trauma when one begins to feel sexual urges. Then, what about the situation where one suffers from physical and sexual abuse? The victim would not only have to deal with the aftermath of that, but also with being a sinner in the eyes of God.

As a general rule, if a religious leader encourages you to not trust your natural physical urges, there’s potential for trauma.

Sexual or physical abuse from religious leaders can certainly be a deeply impactful cause of religious trauma as well.   

What Are The Signs Of Religious Trauma?

The scenarios listed can cause an impact on your mental health that’s serious enough to be labelled as religious trauma.

Religious Trauma
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After dealing with such scenarios, you may feel empty, guilty, confused or bitter. You may be struggling to connect with other people and worried about what your future holds. 

On top of that, the more serious symptoms of religious trauma include:

  • self-loathing or a general low sense of self-worth; 
  • anxiety disorders and hyper-vigilance;
  • indecisiveness or poor critical thinking ability;
  • sexual difficulty or sexual dysfunction (due to dysfunctional beliefs about sex). 

Those who have experienced religious trauma may also commonly feel a deep sense of shame. This can lead to depression and similar mental health disorders, as well as becoming addicted to coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol.

The good news is: it’s possible to overcome these symptoms to live a normal and happy life once you’ve parted from your toxic faith community. 

Can You Get PTSD From Religious Trauma? 

The symptoms of religious trauma are very similar to the symptoms of complex PTSD.

These include negative beliefs about oneself and struggles making decisions, as well as difficulties regulating emotions and with our relationships. 

These symptoms all occur with C-PTSD, although it might not be technically correct to say you “can get” PTSD from religious trauma.  

Here Are Some Questions To Ask Yourself

Still not sure whether you’ve experienced religious trauma? Here are some good questions to ask yourself.

  • Has anyone ever used your religious beliefs to manipulate you into certain actions?
  • Has anyone important in your life ever tried to force their spiritual beliefs onto you?
  • Has anyone used religion as a reason to dissuade you from seeking help for a personal situation?
  • Do you have freedom of choice for how you live your life, raise your children and interact with your partner?
  • Has anyone important in your life used their spiritual beliefs in an attempt to shame or embarrass you? 
  • Do you find yourself making important life decisions based on spiritual beliefs you don’t truly believe in?     

Related Content: What Is Catholic Guilt – Insights For Your Liberation 

What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome?

Religious Trauma Syndrome is a term coined to describe how one has suffered religious trauma and tries to distance themselves from their faith community. It’s often very difficult because of the connection and sense of identity built between this victim and their religion. 

Marlene Winell + Religious Trauma Syndrome

Religious Trauma Syndrome is best described by Dr. Marlene Winell who coined the term in 2011.

She described it as: “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with damaging indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community or lifestyle.”

Religious Trauma Syndrome DSM-5

Religious Trauma Syndrome hasn’t been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, it’s being increasingly recognized and used by therapists across the world to detail the scenarios described above by Dr. Winell.  

Is Religious Trauma Syndrome Real?

The scenario and the aforementioned symptoms associated with leaving a toxic religious community is certainly real. Sadly, it’s more common than you may realize.

If you’re struggling with these symptoms, make sure to read on for my step-by-step guide for dealing with Religious Trauma Syndrome. 

How To Deal With Religious Trauma Syndrome

1. Recognise That Religious Trauma Syndrome Has Occurred

Some people don’t have experience of living in a secular world. Their parents raised them to follow their religion. They spend their weekends at religious gatherings. All of the major life experiences have been seen through a religious lens. For them, their religious indoctrination  is “normal thinking”.

That’s why many people see the words of their religious leaders as gospel, and struggle to tear themselves away from communities that aren’t supporting them.

Hopefully, with this list of symptoms of religious trauma, you’ll find it easier to recognise that you’re suffering from religious trauma syndrome.  

2. Develop Your Own Critical Thinking Skills

You need to shake the habit that everything religions teach are in your best interests. Sometimes, that isn’t the case. Encourage yourself to question why your religious institution is telling you certain things – and whether this helps you or hurts you.

3. Take Inventory Of What You Believe And Why You Believe It  

This is a nice exercise to help you start thinking for yourself. Write a list of what you’ve been taught to believe, then question why you believe that. Do you know it to be true? Are there beliefs which hurt you that can be questioned? It’s OK to identify beliefs which require more exploration.

4. Separate Your Personal Values From Your Religious Beliefs

It’s OK for you to have personal values outside of what your religion teaches you. This is a normal consequence of independent thinking.

It’s a nice idea to write down a list of values and qualities that you hope to possess in your journey of life. For inspiration, try exploring some role models who you look up to. These could be friends, family members or public figures. They don’t have to be followers of authoritarian religions.

To round off this exercise, take your list of personal values and identify which ones are driven by your religion and which aren’t.      

5. Create Relationships With People Outside Your Religious Affiliation

If your only deep relationships are within your religious community, it makes it tougher to tear yourself away. Religious trauma syndrome is therefore more likely if you get caught in a toxic and harmful community. This situation often creates an echo chamber that makes it harder to question what you’re told.

That’s why it’s a good idea to build a diverse social network. You’ll expose yourself to a wider range of ideas and you won’t find it as hard to tear yourself away from a group if you begin to experience difficulty belonging to it.

Perhaps you can join an organization surrounding a sport or hobby. This is an effective way to make friends. Of course, you can often find like-minded individuals in your school or workplace too. 

6. Identify Your Hopes For The Future

With these new values in mind, it’s time to start thinking about what type of life you really want in the future. What do you want to do with your life? What type of people do you want to surround yourself with? How do you want to feel?

Then, ask yourself: does your religious community support these goals or not? 

7. Share Your Thoughts With A Trusted Confidant

Talking about your troubles is an important step to dealing with religious trauma syndrome.

So, find a trusted confidant who you feel comfortable telling about your traumatic religious experiences. 

If you don’t have a friend or family member, you can always seek support from a therapist or some other form of mental health professional.

Certified mental health professionals will be familar with your symptoms of religious trauma syndrome and are qualified to help you through it. 

Online therapy is cheaper than ever and is widely regarded as being effective as face-to-face treatment with mental health professionals. There may be local support groups in your area too.   

8. Create Healthy Boundaries In Your Relationships

If your family members have played a part in your religious trauma, it’s time to negotiate healthy boundaries with them. Explain that it’s not healthy having your decisions being made for you. Explain how that’s making you feel if you’re brave enough. A therapist will be able to help support you through this process as well.

9. Begin To Build Your Life Around New Values

You’ve written down ideas about your ideal future and the values you want to embody. Now it’s time to build that life.

This might be intimidating, especially while you’re dealing with the aftermath of experiencing  religious trauma. Find the strength to take small steps towards that life every day. 

10. Find A Healthier Religious Community

Just because you had troubles with one religious community, it doesn’t mean that all of them are authoritarian institutions.

So, you shouldn’t be discouraged to find a new church or to practice your faith in a less controlling environment. 

Faith transitions might not be necessary. Many good churches encourage individual thinking and can offer the support you’re looking for.

It can take some time to get to know the leaders of the community and understand what’s being preached. Maybe you can find one that’s a good fit.

If you decide leaving the church altogether is best, that doesn’t mean you have to leave your faith in your religious figure behind. It’s possible to find other healthier ways to practice your faith – and keep hold of the good parts that weren’t causing trauma. 

11. Stay Strong

The impact of severing your connection with your faith community can cause a huge shock to the system, and it’s right that is now being recognised as potentially deeply traumatic

Be compassionate with yourself as you begin this journey to free yourself. 

Perhaps it will help to realize that you’re far from alone in experiencing these feelings. Religious trauma syndrome is gaining traction in society as people become more vocal about their experiences.  

Please know that the continued experience of trauma or other mental disorders, even after leaving your toxic religious community, is completely normal. By following the steps in this guide, you can get through it and continue to live a happy life.

For extra support, consider reading Dr. Marlene Winell’s book titled Leaving The Fold. This covers the potential impact of Religious Trauma Syndrome on your mental health, plus how to recover from parting ways with your religion. This book should help you to continue your life journey, free from your toxic faith community.    

I’m Not Trying To Demonize Any Religious Community Or Anyone’s Religious Beliefs

I have no reason to demonize religion. There are many religious communities that provide a fantastic foundation for their members to grow, feel safe and develop a strong support system. Faith communities can help people develop their identities in a positive and empowering way. I’ve seen that in many of my friends and clients.

Religious Beliefs
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Still, it’s fair to say that these groups have the power to shape who we are for better or worse. While it’s definitely not present in every religious community, there certainly is the potential for spiritual abuse. 

Hopefully, this guide will help you to identify the type of religious environment where spiritual abuse occurs, so you can escape it sooner rather than later. 

Any More Questions?

Thanks for reading my guide on religious trauma syndrome.

If you’d like to ask a question about religious trauma or share your experience dealing with an authoritarian religion, you can leave a comment in the box below.

It would be great to hear from you.

About The Author

Bijan Kholghi is a certified life coach with the Milton Erickson Institute Heidelberg (Germany). He helps clients and couples reach breakthroughs in their lives by changing subconscious patterns. His solution-oriented approach is based on Systemic- and Hypnotherapy.