RELIGIOUS TRAUMA SYNDROME AND FAITH TRANSITIONS
RELIGIOUS TRAUMA SYNDROME
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is group of symptoms that arise in response to traumatic or stressful religious experiences. While Religious Trauma Syndrome is not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, it is a common experience shared among many who have escaped cults, fundamentalist religious groups, abusive religious settings, or other painful experiences with religion. The symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome are comparable to the symptoms of complex PTSD.
Religious Trauma Syndrome is in the early stages of research and is gaining traction as a legitimate diagnosis. Below are some symptoms commonly experienced by people suffering from Religious Trauma Syndrome.
Confusing thoughts and reduced ability to think critically
Negative beliefs about self, others, and the world
Trouble making decisions
Feelings of depression, anxiety, grief, anger, lethargy
A sense of feeling lost, directionless, and alone
A lack of pleasure or interest in things you used to enjoy
A loss of a community (family, friends, romantic relationships)
Feeling isolated or a sense that you don’t belong
Feeling “behind the times” with cultural happenings
And many other symptoms of PTSD including nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, emotional difficulty, etc.
Religious Trauma Syndrome is often caused for different reasons for different people. Many people experience RTS as a result from an authoritarian religion or faith community. Individuals suffering from RTS may be struggling with black and white thinking, irrational beliefs, difficulty trusting oneself, low self-esteem, or feeling indebted to a group of people. Skewed views of sex, discipline, emotional regulation, relationships, and self-expression are usually present in toxic religious environments.
If you think you may be struggling with Religious Trauma Syndrome. You are not alone. There are many out there struggling with the same feelings you are, and there is hope for healing. Through talk therapy and EMDR you can regain power over who you are and who you want to be. You can move past memories that are too painful to think about, and begin creating the life you want to live.
Deciding to leave your faith is an incredibly difficult process. While it can feel freeing, it can leave you feeling confused, depressed, guilty, angry… the list goes on. When you’ve been a part of a religious group (i.e. a church, a gathering, a community) for most of your life, leaving is not just a life transitions - it is a decision that shakes the foundation of who you are and who you’ve always believed you were supposed to be. You may lose friends, family, and others in your community. In many ways, it can feel like starting over. People transitioning out of their faith usually feel overwhelmed and unsure of what is next. Therapy can help untangle some of these confusing feelings.
Maybe your identity is changing, and you’re not sure how that fits in your faith community. Sexual, gender, and racial identity can all be factors that interact with how you practice your faith. As you grow, change, and come to a stronger understanding of who you are, it can be hard to share this with your religious community. In some cases, your community may reject you if you share information about yourself. Deciding how to proceed is a scary thing. Therapy can help you refine your decision making process, help you own your identity, and cope with the feelings that come up.
Spiritual abuse can happen when a spiritual/religious leader or system attempts to control or manipulate others. It can be hard to recognize, and many don’t realize that it is happening. Abuse in a religious setting may be happening intentionally or unintentionally. When you begin to feel like a person in your religious community or the system of religion itself is crushing your spirit, you may be experiencing spiritual or religious abuse.
SPIRITUAL ABUSE IN RELATIONSHIPS
You may find yourself in a relationship where spiritual abuse is occurring. If you wonder whether or not spiritual abuse is happening in your relationship, ask yourself if you are feeling shame regularly. Some questions to consider if you are worried spiritual abuse in your relationship are the following:
Have you felt silenced by your partner when trying to challenge or disagree about a religious idea? Do they call your thoughts silly, stupid, wrong? Do you feel foolish for having a different idea?
Do you feel shamed by your partner when you disagree about certain religious or spiritual ideas? Is it safe for you to challenge their ideas about religion?
Does your partner force you to attend religious gatherings against your will?
Have you been shamed or punished by your partner for not obeying certain rules outlined by the religion? Punishment can be physical, or emotional (like receiving the silent treatment).
Do you notice your partner using scripture, religious texts, or certain beliefs/rules to justify their harmful or abuse behavior?
Does your partner isolate you from others outside of the faith tradition, against your will?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, you may be experiencing spiritual abuse at the hands of your partner. Before trying to have a conversation about this with your partner, it may be valuable to seek therapy. If you feel unsafe having this discussion with your partner, please call 1-800-799-7233 or visit www.thehotline.org.
Many churches and religions teach that men are above women in heterosexual relationships. This may be how you prefer to structure your relationship - but the most important thing to consider is choice. If you feel that you have no choice other than being submissive to your husband or dominant over your wife, it might be time to reconsider the structure of your relationship to find something that works for you and your spouse.
ABUSE WITHIN CHURCHES, TEMPLES, CULTS, AND OTHER GATHERINGS
It is no secret that the church (Catholic and otherwise) has been exposed for serious cases of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse occurs regularly within religious groups. It is not normal and it is not okay. Due to power dynamics in these religions, leaders can often enact abuse on others and never be reported. When a leader holds the authority to tell you that you can be kicked out of your religious group, that God may be angry with you, or that you deserve hell, there is a complicated power dynamic at play. This often silences survivors of abuse and makes it harder to come forward to report abuse. If this has happened to you, you don’t have to deal with this alone. You can heal, and untangle the complicated feelings that come from experiencing abuse from a religious leader.
Sometimes it is difficult to see abuse in a religious setting. In larger and mainstream religious organizations, it becomes more challenging. Here are a few questions to ask yourself in order to identify if your religious community has abusive dynamics:
Do the leaders hold all the authority? Do they avoid distributing power to other members of the congregation?
Does your religious community discourage free thinking, critical thinking, or opinions about their messages?
Does your community imply that you are less valuable or worthy of love because of things you cannot change? (i.e. gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, age, etc.)
Do they put down other religions and belief systems in order to uphold their own?
Do you find yourself feeling more guilt and shame instead of love and belonging?
If you’re answering yes to many of these questions, it might be worth closely examining how your religious community is impacting you and your mental health. You can consider looking for organizations who practice “horizontal” leadership (leadership where power distributed fairly evenly among all) rather than “vertical” leadership (leadership that is top down, elevating one or a few people at the top as having all the power). You can find a community that celebrates your differences rather than shames you for them. Finding diverse congregations can be a great place to start. You might considering surrounding yourself with people who encourage your critical thinking and opinions about your beliefs. Most importantly, find someone who is safe to discuss your feelings and beliefs with.
Surviving and escaping a cult is an experience that often leaves you feeling alone, isolated, and unsure of what is next. Cult survivors often suffer serious abuse, life threatening situations, and gaslighting. It is hard to find people who understand what a cult survivor has been through. When a survivor mentions the cult they were a part of, they are often met with shame - “How could you actually believe that? You had to have known it was a cult… right?” So many people who have escaped a cult need to process what they have been through, but have limited resources to do this. Therapy is an excellent option if you have survived a cult. It can help you neutralize painful memories, create new meaning in your life, and regain the power that was lost through years of systematic abuse.
If you suspect you are in a cult, or you have a loved one in a cult, here are a few questions you can consider:
Do you sense that you’re in danger? Possibly physical danger? Or danger of slander and/or a destroyed reputation?
Are you being forced to pay money to obtain spiritual enlightenment? Is there information that causes you to advance in your spirituality that is not publicly or freely available?
Are you being shamed or punished for questioning beliefs or having different opinions?
Are you permitted to think for yourself and contribute to ideas? Or are there only a few chose individuals who hold the power and information you need to become enlightened?
Are you being ranked? Are you being told that you are less valuable than another person for various reasons around the belief system?
Is diversity accepted? Diversity of identity, thought, or opinion?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may consider talking to somebody about your situation. It may not be safe to immediately leave a cult, so if you or a loved one is in this situation please do not make a hasty decision. Consult with a professional like a therapist who can help you strategize an exit.