Religious trauma: Signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment
Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 09/08/2023
What is religious trauma?
Religious trauma occurs when a person’s religious experience is stressful, degrading, dangerous, abusive, or damaging. Traumatic religious experiences may harm or threaten to harm someone’s physical, emotional, mental, sexual, or spiritual health and safety.
This type of trauma often unfolds over several stages:
- A person experiences a trauma: The trauma may be directly related to religion, such as sexual assault by a religious leader, or it may be indirectly related or unrelated, such as a divorce in the family.
- The trauma has religious implications: The effects of the trauma are processed through the lens of a person’s religion. Someone going through a divorce may feel pressure from their faith community to work harder, make unwise compromises, or even tolerate abuse to keep the marriage from dissolving. They may be told that their standing in the faith community or their relationship with their god is at stake.
- The response of the religious community may retraumatize: Religious leaders may ignore or outright deny reports of physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse. The religious community may ostracize the victim of a trauma, claiming it was somehow deserved, decreed by their god as necessary, or not that bad in the grand scheme of things. The victim may avoid sharing their experience for fear of what it could mean for their place in the faith community.
Many forms of religious trauma are not associated with specific events, but instead accumulate over a long period of time through harmful messages enforced by the community. Some LGBTQIA+ people, for example, grow up in conservative religious communities who believe their identity is sinful or evil. So this type of trauma may stem from a lifelong message that who you are somehow puts your relationship with your god, your family, and your community at risk.
Religious trauma may also occur when a person decides to leave their harmful or abusive religious community. This can be a healthy choice, but it may be disorienting for someone whose life has been controlled by a certain set of beliefs, rules, and expectations.
Leaving an unhealthy religious community may result in strained, damaged, or even broken relationships with friends, family, or partners. Sacrificing an entire worldview, community, and support system—which may result in trauma of its own—can be an incredibly difficult step on the road to healing.
What is religious trauma syndrome (RTS)?
Although not yet added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the term “religious trauma syndrome” (RTS) is gaining traction with therapists and other experts to describe the negative mental health effects of unhealthy or harmful religious experiences. For our purposes, “religious trauma” and “religious trauma syndrome” offer similar descriptions of the same thing.
What is spiritual abuse?
Abuse is the harm or mistreatment of another, often for the purpose of exerting power or control. Spiritual abuse occurs when a person’s religion or spirituality is used to exert control over another person.
Signs of spiritual abuse
If you feel you may have been subjected to spiritual abuse, ask yourself:
- Has someone ever used or attempted to use my religious beliefs or practices to manipulate me into certain actions?
- Am I free to practice my faith at home?
- Has a parent or partner ever tried to force their religion on me?
- Have my religious leaders ever tried to justify domestic violence or protect known abusers?
- Has my boss ever limited my ability to work or the opportunity for promotion based on my expressed belief in, or disavowal of, a certain faith?
- Have my religious leaders ever recommended I stay in an abusive or harmful situation in order to grow closer to my god?
- Do I have freedom of choice in how I live my life, raise my children, interact with my partner, and so on, or are those decisions made for me by my religious leaders?
Spiritual abuse vs. religious trauma: What’s the difference?
These experiences are closely related, but they are distinct.
Spiritual abuse is an interpersonal experience between two people. Often the abuser is a religious leader attempting to control or manipulate someone lower in the religious hierarchy, such as a volunteer, community member, or visitor. It may be a parent using religion to abuse a child, or a spouse drawing on religious doctrine to assert their right to dominate or control their partner.
Religious trauma is a systemic experience between a person and their religion as a whole. Often the trauma is not linked to one specific person, but to a series of people over a period of time who enforce a traumatizing message or fail to help when a traumatizing situation takes place.
10 symptoms of religious trauma
The effects of religious trauma can be life-altering and long-lasting. Common signs and symptoms include:
Some religious movements rest on the idea that some people are inherently evil, untrustworthy, or unworthy of love. Others elevate certain identities over others, leading to marginalization, discrimination, and oppression. This may result in low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, or suicidal ideation.
Shame occurs when you equate a negative action with who you are as a person. Many unhealthy religious communities use shame as a way to influence and control others. Instead of learning to accept responsibility for their mistakes and extending forgiveness to themselves and others, people in shame-based religions often learn to cover up or deny anything that could be considered wrong by their community.
Some religious communities may identify certain actions or behaviors as indicative of a person’s moral value, and they may promote certain careers or types of families as spiritually superior. This can result in perfectionism, which is often accompanied by high levels of anxiety and stress, as well as the setting of unrealistic goals.
Some religions paint a picture of a vindictive god who punishes people whenever they fall short. Others promote apocalyptic ideas and suggest that a violent end to the world is nigh. These ideas may lead to heightened levels of anxiety resulting in hypervigilance: a constant state of anxiety meant to protect a person from perceived or actual threats of harm.
5. Difficulty with making decisions
Many who experience religious trauma are accustomed to making decisions in the context of a certain doctrine and/or hierarchy. If they choose to change their relationship with these institutions or leave them entirely, they may struggle with autonomy and making their own decisions.
6. Loss of community
For many, religion provides community. If a person changes or leaves their faith, they may lose contact with many friends, family members, and acquaintances.
Some people who leave their religious community may experience a season of loneliness and isolation. It can be intimidating to rebuild a community, especially if people outside their faith were often labeled evil or inferior.
7. Lack of boundaries
Being part of a religious community often means accepting some amount of feedback regarding how you live your life. Many faith communities also have expectations for volunteering and service.
These can be considered healthy aspects of religion, as long as boundaries are clear and respected. When boundaries are blurred or nonexistent, a person may struggle to find their identity without input from others. They may also have a hard time saying no to certain tasks or prioritizing self-care.
8. Delayed social milestones
Purity culture is a religious concept that focuses on ideas about gender, sexuality, sex, virginity, marriage, and procreation. Religions that rely heavily on purity culture may scrutinize or monitor children’s social interactions and segregate kids based on their assigned sex. In these contexts, LGBTQIA+ people in particular may not have the chance to experience social milestones, such as first dates or kisses, until adulthood. This delay can be frustrating, and some people who had overly restricted lives as teenagers may make impulsive or reckless decisions as adults once they leave their religious communities.
9. Sexual dysfunction
Religions that overemphasize purity culture may not prepare their followers for healthy sex lives, even in the context of marriage.
Many people who struggle with religious trauma practice abstinence until marriage and may feel dirty or guilty when engaging in sex. People from religious backgrounds that preach traditional gender roles may struggle to confront realities about desire, drive, and performance that don’t align with what they learned. Some religions teach about sex in a way that centers obligation instead of consent, resulting in unhealthy, harmful, or even criminal sexual behaviors.
10. Mental health disorders
Religious trauma can cause, contribute to, or otherwise worsen mental health disorders. Commonly associated mental illnesses include:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Eating disorders
What causes religious trauma?
Religious trauma often occurs in authoritarian institutions set up in ways that perpetuate injustice and allow abusive behavior. The divine power that some religions claim to possess is often so meaningful to people’s lives that they’ll concede to actions and behaviors they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate.
Psychologist Marlene Winell, PhD, who coined the term “religious trauma syndrome,” teaches that religion can be traumatizing in two distinct but often overlapping ways:
- Enduring the trauma/spiritual abuse
- Leaving the faith community
A person may have lived their entire life in an unhealthy religious community, but not become aware of its traumatizing impact until they leave that community.
Similarly, a person may experience trauma in a religious context, leave their faith community, then feel overwhelmed by the traumatic experience of having to rebuild a life outside of the context of their faith. Both are real sources of trauma that often interact with each other in a person’s journey to spiritual healing.
Is religion necessarily traumatic?
Religion is not always traumatic. It may be associated with a number of mental health benefits, including:
- A sense of community and belonging
- Reflective practices that encourage rest and meditation
- Love and support for those who are marginalized, grieving, or struggling
- Emphasis on moral values, such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and empathy
Trauma can happen in all kinds of groups, from families and peer groups to schools and workplaces. Religious institutions aren’t exceptional in this sense. But the way people respond to trauma—and what steps they take to prevent it from happening in the first place—is a key differentiator.
Healing from religious trauma
Religious trauma therapy
If you’ve experienced religious trauma, you are not alone. 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)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Prolonged exposure therapy
- Radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO-DBT)
- Somatic therapy
- Faith-based therapy
If you’re looking for support, browse our directory to find a therapist near you.
Other tips for recovery
Some mental health remedies rely more heavily on individual practice, rituals, and reflection than others. Such methods can help people who are or were religious heal in ways that feel familiar to them. Common mental health practices that may be comforting or accessible to people of a more spiritual mindset include mindfulness, meditation, self-care, and journaling.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.