While religion or faith can be a source of peace and meaning for many people, some religious institutions use their authority over the congregation to create an environment that fosters fear, guilt, shame, and other negative emotions. Did you know that Religious Trauma Syndrome is a real condition that affects many people who have left a toxic religious environment?
What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome?
Religious Trauma Syndrome is a condition experienced by people who have left or are struggling to leave a dogmatic, prejudiced, or authoritarian religion. People who have left such an environment need to cope and heal from the damage of indoctrination. In some cases, people can feel as though they have lost their identity and can feel isolated from their friends, family, and community. It can be compared with PTSD yet it has its own set of characteristics.
Symptoms Of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
Cognitive: Poor critical thinking ability (You may find you feel smarter after leaving and being allowed to think for yourself and be curious), confusion, low self worth or low self-esteem, difficulty in making decisions.
Cultural: Unfamiliar with the secular world, feeling like a “fish out of water”, difficulty belonging, information gaps (Natural history, art, music, etc.)
Social: Loss of support network, some families disown a member who left, sexual difficulty, social awkwardness, behind in developmental abilities
Emotional: Anxiety, depression, grief, difficulty finding pleasure in life
What Are Some Causes Of Religious Trauma Syndrome?
Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, or moral stages
Damage to normal thinking/feeling abilities – Dysfunctional beliefs are taught, independent thinking is condemned, normal feelings are suppressed.
External loss of control – Knowledge is revealed to you by authority – you aren’t permitted to discover it, self is not a reliable or good source, rules and ways of living must be given by religious leaders only
Physical and sexual abuse – Patriarchy power, unhealthy views of sex (Eg. Men need sex, women are just there to make it happen. Women must perform their wifely duties even if they aren’t in the mood. The man’s needs is the most important. Women who dress too sexy are asking for it. Women are only worthwhile if they are married to a man or are a virgin, purity culture, slut-shaming, etc.)
Stopping The Cycle Of Abuse
When you first leave the toxic religious environment behind, you will probably feel a huge sense of relief. You may almost feel “born again” with no one there to look over your shoulder and watch everything you do. However, as time passes you’ll start to notice the effects. Guilt, shame, and fear are hallmarks of abusive situations and many churches are no exception to this rule. You will feel free, but you may receive push back from friends or family who are still involved in that religion or religious circle. You may be pressured to return or labelled as “back sliding”. In some extreme cases, family and friends will disown a person who has left their religion.
The psychological damage from religious abuse won’t go away overnight. There may still be a fear of going to hell or for being punished by some external force. The damage to one’s self-esteem and their own gut instinct will take some time to rebuild. You will need to learn how to trust yourself again and that will take some trial and error.
How Can We Heal From Religious Trauma Syndrome?
Speaking with a professional counselor or therapist who specializes in religious trauma syndrome and PTSD will be a great place to start. There are options for online, texting, telephone, or in-person counseling. You could also join a forum or online community with people who have recently left religion. Building a support system of people who love you no matter what you believe is super important as well.
There is hope and you will get better. Thank you so much for reading today! ❤
I have to admit that I recognize some of this. I grew up in a fundamentalist type of Baptist church in northern Sweden. Even though they were not as culturally backwards and some of the descriptions here, and they were nicer, they were very concerned with the right belief system, believe in Jesus as your personal savior, have an emotional saved by Jesus’ event, etc. After all that’s what determines whether you go to hell or heaven. You must be saved by Jesus. The adherents of all other religions go to hell, and that includes incorrect Christianity such as Catholics, orthodox and non-evangelical Christianity. Earth was 6,000 years old and evolution a lie. They have softened some of their beliefs lately but not when I was young. As I increasingly started having doubts, I also started fearing hell and I also feared for all the people who weren’t saved by Jesus. I was practicing for hell by burning my fingers in the flames of candle lights. Later I decided to leave the church which partially (but not entirely) meant a loss of my social network. That’s why I didn’t mind moving far away. It seems like Texas is the wrong place to go since there is a significant amount of those beliefs still around here, but that’s another story.
Thank you for your comment and I am glad that this resonated with you. It’s tough to leave something you once believed very strongly in, but once you learn the truth of it (It’s no longer working for you and there’s no way these teachings can be real) it feels like a breath of fresh air to leave.
I’m sorry you felt you had to practice for hell. 😦 That’s a horrible thing to believe – that you, a love one , or other people would burn forever. It used to boggle my mind, too.
Haha Texas does have a reputation for being very Christian, but stereotypes die hard. I’m sure you had good reasons to move there.
Thank you Sara for your very insightful reply. I loved it as well as your post.
well written, keep up the great work!
Thank you. 🙂
A well-written post on a not-talked-about subject. Great work! Deb
Thank you so much for reading, Deb. 🙂