What Is Religious Trauma?

Religious trauma is real. One of the reasons why I’m passionate about helping people who have suffered religious traumas is because of my own experiences with them. Throughout our lives many of us will face traumatic events. Trauma can be defined as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event.” It’s important to note that everyone reacts to traumas differently. Two people can go through the same event and be affected differently. Chances are that if you had to name some potential traumas, you would be able to name some. Things like sexual assault, any form of abuse, divorce, loss of a loved one, or a natural disaster are ones that come to mind.

But traumas around religion are not ones that are usually named as a form of trauma. In grad school I can’t remember any discussions in class about the effects of religious trauma beyond discussions that I initiated. However after having spent almost my whole life in a religious system I have worked with enough people to have seen the pain that religious people, systems, and beliefs can cause, without saying anything of the pain that these have caused me. For counselors who did not grow up being a part of religious systems they may be unable to fully understand and really grasp the amount of pain that this type of trauma can cause nor will they have experienced it themselves.

Perhaps the biggest reason that religious traumas don’t get talked about or named is because there are systems in place that are designed to keep these traumas hidden and secret. What these systems are is what I’ll be writing about in my next blog post.

Here are a few examples of potential religious traumas.

Being shunned by a community that was supposed to care for you

  • Being told that who you are is sinful
  • Receiving messages from friends and family that they are “concerned” about your faith
  • Being made to feel like an outcast, as though you aren’t good enough
  • Being raised in an environment that taught dualistic thinking (either/or, black/white type of thinking)
  • Made to feel marginalized because of your gender
  • Told that you need to forgive someone who horribly wronged you because “God has forgiven you”
  • Raised in an environment where feelings were seen as negative or didn’t matter because feelings couldn’t be trusted
  • Told that counseling isn’t biblical – that you just need to pray harder, trust more, or sin less
  • Been pressured to keep the injustices / wrongs / evils that were committed against you quiet because of how it would reflect on the church or church leaders
  • Growing up with or living with a faith that is based in fear
  • Not feeling free to leave your faith

These are just a few examples of potential religious traumas that people can experience. If you found yourself recognizing or having experienced any of these you might have been exposed to religious traumas.

Dr. Marlene Winell, who coined the phrase Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), identified four key areas where the effects of RTS is seen in individuals:

  • Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion.
  • Affective: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning.
  • Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization.
  • Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction

If as you read these examples you find yourself saying, “that’s my story,” or as you read about the effects of RTS you recognize yourself experiencing these symptoms, then please reach out to an experienced counselor for help.