Recovering and Healing from Religious Trauma

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A religious community is meant to be a safe environment full of people who share the same beliefs and love one another according to those beliefs. But for some people, their religious community and house of worship are anything but safe.

Some people experience abuse and emotional damage in the name of religious beliefs or at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and guide them. Sometimes, they don’t even realize that what’s happening to them is wrong. The result of these experiences is religious trauma.

Understanding Religious Trauma Syndrome

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a condition that results from exposure to hostile, harmful, or abusive experiences within a religious or spiritual community. It can include experiences such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, discrimination, or rejection because of one’s beliefs or identity.

RTS can cause various psychological and emotional symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and shame. If left untreated, it can result in fear that controls a person’s life or makes them believe the world is an unsafe place for them. This fear can even result in phobias, panic attacks, and an inability to leave one’s home or living in a constant state of fight or flight.

Trauma can also impact an individual’s relationship with their religion or spirituality, causing confusion and a loss of faith.

Therapists diagnose religious trauma as a trauma disorder, since religious trauma isn’t an official diagnosis, but the disorder is quite real. It can result from being part of a cult or other extreme religious group or from abusive and painful experiences within any religious community.

Religious trauma can result in a variety of trauma disorders, including the highest-level disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD severely disrupts a person’s life and can make it almost impossible for them to function ordinarily and complete daily tasks.

Examples of Religious Trauma

Religious trauma isn’t always obvious. It’s possible to be impacted by a religious experience and not even realize that’s why you’re experiencing certain emotions.

A few examples of religious trauma include:

  • Instilling Fear of Judgement – Many religious communities instill fear in their members through the teachings of judgment and punishment in the afterlife, which can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, and guilt. The community can compound this fear by enforcing strict rules and regulations that they believe are necessary to avoid judgment.
  • LGBTQ+ Repression and Rejection – Some religious communities reject and repress individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. This rejection can include denying them full membership, access to religious services and events, or subjecting them to conversion therapy to attempt to alter their sexual orientation. It can result in a loss of community, self-esteem, and sense of identity.
  • Physical Assault – Not all religious communities are physically safe spaces. Physical assault can occur in religious communities that engage in practices such as exorcisms, flagellation, or self-harm to purify the soul or seek forgiveness. It can result in physical injury, trauma, and lasting physical and emotional scars.
  • Verbal Assault – Along with physical safety, emotional safety is vital in a religious community. Unfortunately, it isn’t guaranteed. Verbal assault can occur in religious communities that use shaming, belittling, or humiliation as a means of control or discipline. It can result in emotional distress, self-doubt, and a loss of self-esteem.
  • Financial Abuse – Financial abuse can occur in religious communities that use pressure or manipulation to obtain money or assets from members. it can include tithing expectations, donations, or fundraising, resulting in financial hardship and a loss of financial stability.
  • Shaming Sex or Abortion – Based on their beliefs, some religious communities shame individuals who engage in sexual activity outside marriage or choose to have an abortion. It can result in guilt, shame, and a loss of self-worth.
  • Controlling Behaviors – Some religious communities use control and manipulation to maintain power over their members. This control can include restricting access to information, limiting social and educational opportunities, or dictating personal decisions such as whom to marry or what to wear. While these behaviors are based on beliefs, they can still be damaging to individuals, especially those who question those beliefs.
  • Minimizing Mental Health Issues – Some religious communities dismiss or minimize the importance of mental health and well-being, discouraging or prohibiting their members from seeking professional help. They focus instead on a higher power’s ability to heal people’s emotional wounds. This approach can result in untreated mental health issues and a lack of support for people who are hurting.
  • Perpetuating Hate and Violence – While claiming acceptance and love for everyone, some religious communities promote hate and violence against individuals or groups deemed to be unworthy. It can include prejudice and discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other personal characteristics. It can result in lasting harm and trauma for those targeted, as well as a loss of community and support.

Religious Trauma Symptoms

The causes of religious trauma are as varied as the people who experience it. Because people are different, they also may experience spiritual trauma symptoms in many ways.

Symptoms of religious trauma may include:

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Guilt and shame
  • Deeply-rooted anger
  • Hypervigilance
  • Panic attacks
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Fearful thinking
  • Nightmares
  • Uncertainty of how to behave outside of the religious community
  • Trouble fitting in
  • Isolation from the mainstream culture
  • Difficulty or poor decision making
  • Inability to think critically
  • Difficulty building relationships
  • Need for perfectionism
  • Obsessive thoughts or behaviors
  • Lack of social skills
  • Sexual repression or dysfunction

The symptoms of religious trauma are diverse and could be difficult for you to recognize. If you’re experiencing symptoms related to religious trauma or think you may be, consider seeking advice from a mental health professional.

Recovering from Religious Trauma

One of the most difficult aspects of religious trauma may be recognizing that you’ve experienced it. For people within a religious community, that group’s behavior is normal. If it’s not considered mainstream, it’s likely thought of within that community as the only acceptable way to be for some positive, desired outcome in an afterlife. So, it may take years or conversations with a mental health professional for you to understand the cause of your symptoms.

When questioning whether your religious experience was traumatic, consider whether you experienced anything that’s considered wrong outside of your religious community. For example, sexual abuse is always wrong, regardless of spirituality.

You also should consider whether your religious beliefs keep you isolated from others who aren’t in your community and from the mainstream culture. While it may be typical for people in a religious community to find mainstream culture and outside beliefs problematic, keeping members from exposure to the outside world suggests a bigger issue.

Because of this difficulty in recognizing trauma related to religious experiences, many people may first notice symptoms. You don’t feel emotionally well or see that people around you seem to function much differently from you. You develop depression or anxiety or feel afraid seemingly nonstop. When you recognize these or any of the symptoms of this type of trauma, it’s probably a good idea to speak to a mental health professional. They can help you determine the root cause of the trauma.

Once you learn the cause of trauma symptoms, you begin the process of recovering. Recovery can be difficult because you need to discuss things that you’d rather avoid. But uncovering the cause of the trauma is vital to processing it and moving forward with your life in a healthier way.

The process of healing from spiritual trauma may mean challenging fundamental beliefs and restructuring your value system. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon your religious beliefs if they’re still important to you. Instead, you recognize that what happened to you was traumatic and how to heal from it. This process is best done in partnership with a qualified mental health professional. You can even find a mental health professional who shares your religious beliefs.

Therapy Options

Working with a mental health professional to determine the best treatment for your specific needs and circumstances is essential. Depending on your circumstances and needs, a therapist may recommend a combination of approaches.

The following therapy options can be helpful for those who have experienced religious trauma:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT can help people recognize and challenge negative thought patterns related to their religious experiences and develop new, healthier ways of thinking.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, you emphasize the development of emotional regulation and interpersonal skills. DBT can be especially helpful for people who struggle with intense emotions and relationship issues related to religious trauma.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)EMDR is a form of therapy that involves guiding a person’s eye movements to help process traumatic memories. EMDR can help people heal from the psychological effects of religious trauma by reducing the emotional distress associated with their experiences.
  • Family or Group TherapyFamily and group counseling can be helpful for those who have experienced religious trauma if the trauma has impacted their relationships with others. Family or group therapy can provide a supportive environment for people to process their experiences, build healthy relationships, and gain insight into their emotional and psychological struggles.
  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)Interpersonal Therapy focuses on improving interpersonal relationships and communication skills. IPT can be helpful for people who have experienced religious trauma if the trauma has impacted their relationships with others or if they struggle with feelings of isolation or loneliness.
  • Somatic TherapySomatic Experiencing Therapy focuses on the connection between the mind and body. It can be helpful for individuals who have experienced religious trauma if they have physical symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, or body aches. This therapy can help individuals process their traumatic experiences and develop a greater awareness of physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.

Seeking Professional Help

Trauma is unlikely to disappear or go away on its own. You must process the traumatic happenings to make sense of them, then learn coping skills to help alleviate symptoms. Seeking professional help is a critical step in recovering from religious trauma.

Steps to consider when seeking help from a mental health professional include:

  • Research Counselors – You can start by searching for counselors in your area who specialize in treating religious trauma. You can use online directories, such as the one provided by All Counseling, to find counselors and read about their specialties and areas of expertise.
  • Identify Specializations – It’s important to find a counselor with experience and knowledge in treating religious trauma. Look for counselors who have received training in trauma-focused therapy.
  • Interview Available Cousenlors – Consider reaching out to several counselors to ask questions and learn more about their approach and philosophy. You can ask about their experience working with individuals with religious trauma, their views on spirituality, and their approach to therapy.
  • Decide on the Best Fit – After conducting interviews, you can evaluate the counselors to determine which one would be the best fit for your needs. Consider factors such as personality, communication style, and level of comfort.
  • Analyze Your Progress – Regularly assess your progress in therapy to determine if it is helping you heal from religious trauma. Discuss it with your counselor if you don’t feel like you’re making progress. If the lack of progress continues, you may consider exploring alternative therapy options.

All Counseling Can Help

Recognizing and recovering from religious trauma can be difficult, but it is possible. Various therapeutic approaches and strategies can help in healing from spiritual trauma.

It’s essential to work with a mental health professional who is knowledgeable about religious trauma and can help you develop a personalized plan for recovery. With the proper support and resources, it is possible to overcome the adverse effects of trauma and reclaim a sense of peace and well-being.

Don’t let religious trauma control your life any longer. Take the first step in your journey to healing and recovery by using All Counseling’s therapist directory to locate a therapist who is an expert in trauma.