What is “Religious Trauma Syndrome?”

religious trauma syndrome

Most therapists promote spirituality as a coping mechanism. Life is holistic. We need to connect to Spirit in order to feel whole. It helps expand our experience of life. However, even the best things can be corrupted. Religious trauma syndrome is one example. So what it is?

Defining Religious Trauma Syndrome

You won’t find “religious trauma syndrome” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, the symptoms are similar to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sufferers may experience

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

The symptoms occur because of guilt for leaving the faith, questioning the beliefs, or not being devout enough in their beliefs or practices.

How It Happens

Churches with these characteristics are more likely to result in religious trauma syndrome.

  1. Authoritarian. These churches have a hierarchy with God at the top. The rules are inflexible. Members are not to question the rules or the hierarchy. Usually, men have more power than women. Women have more power than children. Abusive practices can trickle down to the people who are lower on the totem pole. This leaves a lot of people vulnerable and helpless because there is nowhere to turn for help.
  2. Isolationism. Members are discouraged from socializing with outsiders to keep themselves “pure.” This may start from childhood so that kids don’t have a basis of comparison to know the difference between their way of life and how others live. Families may go to school, live, and work only with people from their church.
  3. Fear. Fear is often the weapon of choice for any abusive person or organization. It can be fear of physical punishment, ostracism, eternal damnation or anything in between.

How To Deal With It

“Just leave” isn’t really enough to deal with the problems. Sometimes the symptoms don’t emerge until after the person has left the church. If the church is a mainstream religion, triggers can be all around us. Also since many people belong to these religions, it’s sometimes not easy to find a sympathetic ear. Even when people are not of the same religion, are atheist or agnostic, they may not understand because we still don’t do a good job of talking about trauma in our society. So what do you do?

Talk about it. There are online forums for just about everything nowadays. Finding someone who can understand the fear in situations that don’t sound scary is very validating. When others are further along in the healing process, this can help you find your way out and give you hope.

Get therapy. Many therapists still don’t know about religious trauma syndrome, so you may have to educate them. However, a trauma therapist will understand how trauma happens and how to heal it. Ask for trauma treatment, not just help with the symptoms listed above.

Get educated. The more you know, the better you will be able to advocate for yourself. Do you really need medication? Do you have the right diagnosis? If you know what is going on, you can get the right treatment the first time.

The American Religious Identification Survey reported that 12.7 million people went from religious to “no affiliation” from 1990 to 2008. This is a drastic decline in church membership. Not all of those people suffer from trauma, of course, and most churches are places of refuge and comfort. However, if you are suffering from religious trauma, reach out and ask for help.


You Can’t Think Your Way to Spirituality


Once there was a well known philosopher and scholar who devoted himself to the study of Zen for many years. On the day that he finally attained enlightenment, he took all of his books out into the yard and burned them all. ~Zen parable

A lot of people approach spirituality from a head space. They read a book, or maybe lots of books, and then adopt the ideas as their own philosophy. The problem with that is that you can’t think your way to spirituality. It is something that comes from the heart, the gut. It is something that you feel. When it is present, you have a sense of knowing about it. When you approach it from a head space, it’s just intellectual stuff that doesn’t penetrate your bones. It’s got to be in your bones (or embodied) in order to be of any use to you.

There is nothing wrong with books. I am a bibliophile of the highest order. I read incessantly. But when your life is lived through your head, you aren’t really living. The purpose of a human incarnation is to be physical – in the body. The body records everything. It reflects everything. It is the truth teller.

The mind lies. It is a reflection of programming. Programming can be faulty. All our invalidating beliefs are a result of programming. The mind is also a great way to escape your physical reality. Worry and anxiety are means of distracting us from our physical reality. When you think your way to spirituality, you’re actually avoiding living it. You give the illusion of being plugged in when you haven’t left your head.

So, what do you do? When you come across a new idea, or even an old one, that you believe enhances your life, embrace it. Live it. Don’t just give lip service to it. Don’t say, “I believe the Universe wants me to be happy.” Live that. Show through your actions and deeds that this is your truth. Let your heart feel it. Check with your body to see if it actually is your truth.

If you are a spiritual seeker or self-improvement junkie, stop going to workshops for a while and let whatever you have learned sink in. If you have work to do, do it. You can’t get a new idea in unless you make space for it. You do that by letting the stuff that is no longer useful out. Stop thinking. Stop doing and be. If it’s painful, be with that. Nothing lasts forever. This won’t either if you just let it be. No resisting. No justifying. Just be.

Chasing knowledge isn’t a way to enlightenment. Acquiring and implementing wisdom is. To do that you have to slow down and be.

Accepting an idea because it sounds like a good idea isn’t the same thing as living in your truth. The self becomes unbalanced and diseased when it’s not in truth. If you are always embodied, you will always know the truth. Your body will tell you. You won’t need a book, a guru, a therapist or a chaplain to confirm it. You will just know.

Getting in touch with your spirituality is a great healing tool. Heck, it’s a great life enhancer. If you want to access it, you need to get out of your head. If you want to live it, let it flow from the mind, body, and heart.


Aho! Mitakuye Oyasin

mitakuye oyasin

Aho! Mitakuye Oyasin is a simple yet deeply meaningful statement. It is Lakota for “all my relations” and recognizes the human, plant, animal, mineral, and ancestor relatives. It is an acknowledgment that all are one. It is spoken during prayer and ceremony to petition God on behalf of everyone and everything on Earth. Mitakuye Oyasin honours the sacredness of all life and creates an energy of awareness which strengthens not only the person who prays but the entire planet.

Loneliness, depression, suicide, and crimes of all sorts are epidemic today. I believe it’s because modern man has lost his ability to feel this connection with his own family, friends, community, the plants, the rocks, and the ancestors. The Age of Reason created beings who are afraid to be curious, play, or use their imaginations. From the age of 6 onward, we spend eight hours a day with our head in books unlearning what our intuition tells us.

When we wake up from a bad dream, we are told, “Oh, that was just a dream.” When we talk of dragons, fairies, ghosts or psychic impressions, we are told to get our head out of the clouds. Those things aren’t real. When we romanticize about being an astronaut or a waitress, we are told to get practical. When we want to run barefooted in the grass, we’re told to put some shoes on before we hurt ourselves. When we are hurt, even this can be invalidated when people say things like, “You’re a big girl. Big girls don’t cry” or “Just get over it.” Soon we learn to cautious and only believe in what can be seen, touched, or heard. We live in our heads and lose our connection to own bodies and own inner knowing. We learn to distrust ourselves. We lose the connection to the spirits, other people, plants, and the stars.

medicine wheelI’ve been many places. I’ve seen many things. Nothing compares to the feeling that I’ve gotten when I am surrounded by people who understand in their bones what it means to have a connection to the past (through their ancestors), the present (through their families, communities, and strangers), and all of the rest of Creation. There is a majesty, a groundedness that both humbles me and lifts me.

Many in the west live life as if it is a solo journey. They pursue excellence, success, and even spirituality as a solo enterprise. If this is you, I ask you to contemplating the meaning of Aho mitakuye oyasin.  Embody it. Live it.

A person who embodies this can never feel lonely. He can never harm the earth, animals, himself, or another creature. He can never feel in search of himself. He is you. He is whole. He is eternal.

This idea isn’t exclusive to the Lakota people. It’s found in most religions and certainly in extant aboriginal tribes. If this idea resonates with you, I invite you to get curious. Investigate your ancestry. Get in touch with your roots. Ask your ancestors to help you find this oneness within your life and your culture. If your ancestors were not the greatest people, find a way to heal them. They live within you. If all you can do is to heal yourself, do that. It will help them because as you heal your past, you heal yourself, and all those who come after you. Do this for you. Do this for me. We are One.


What Happened to the Soul?


“Psyche” is Greek for breath or soul. “-ology” means the study of. Psychology, then, is the study of the soul. So what happened to the soul in psychology?

When psychology became a science about a hundred years ago, there must have been some recognition of the soul as an integral part of the human being- some understanding the that soul plays a part in mental health. Yet, by turning to science, we have moved completely away from looking at the soul and towards parts of the person that conform to the scientific method. We’ve look at things we can observe, draw correlations from, and prove.

Consequently, mental health treatment has focused on behavior, thinking, and correcting chemical imbalances in the brain through the use of drugs. These things do work. In some cases they work very well. In others they don’t work well at all because they don’t address the needs of the soul. If treatment is to be effective, it has to be holistic. It’s time we put the soul back into psychology.

Dream analysis, past life regression, trance work, and energy work are just a few of the methods that heal on the level of the soul. Your mind is in control over what information comes through, the pace at which you work, and the the healing images that you receive. You are in charge of what happens. Your worker is just the facilitator.

Some of this has been scientifically validated, and some of it hasn’t, but the therapeutic benefit is indisputable. Why? I believe it’s because they don’t try to stamp out symptoms. They invite the afflicted to embrace or go into them, to use them as a doorway to healing.

When viewed from the perspective, depression becomes your friend. Hoarding becomes your teacher. Shame is no longer a byproduct. Symptoms aren’t things to be hidden away anymore, but things that show you how your soul has fractured. What has been broken, can then be mended or made new. It’s a much healthier way to approach life.

It’s also very empowering because it teaches you to trust yourself. Your soul does not lie to you. It’s the higher version of yourself. It’s free of ego. It only shows you what it knows you can handle, so you are always in the cradle of safety. I often ask people, “Who are you?” They start to tell me what they do or what roles they occupy. No, that is not you. What is left when you strip all that away is you. When you have seen into the depths of your soul, you will be able to answer, “I am That” and know what that means.

If you are terrified that you may meet monsters there, that’s a valid fear. We’re not all sweetness and light. Everyone has a dark side. I think you may be surprised at what else you will find though. Thus far, there has always been enough love, forgiveness, and compassion inside of everyone to deal with whatever darkness we find. Who knows? You may come to find that confronting your darkness gives you the compassion to forgive it in others. You may even get to the point where darkness excites you because you know it means there is healing and growth around the corner.

If you are working hard at overcoming communication problems, managing stress, or removing anxiety from your life, maybe it’s time to ask yourself what happened to the soul. Relax into it and let your soul feel what it’s feeling and tell you its story. It could lead to enlightenment.

If you are not sure what I am talking about but are intrigued enough to give it a try, contact me. I’d love to see how I can help.

What You Want is Not For Sale

not for sale

We live in a society where everything is a commodity. The belief is that everything can be bought for a price. Cars, homes, land, beauty, salvation, friendships, education, spirituality, happiness, and even love. In fact, we judge others by how well they are able to acquire the things they want. The truth is, what you want is not for sale. The sooner you learn that, the happier you will be.

not for saleLove

We want love. We settle for sex. Perhaps the most honest purchase of sex is through prostitution. Both parties understand that it’s a transaction and agree to the price. However, it is sometimes bought for the price of our company, nights out, or even exchanged for marriage. We might give the other person financial security, the appearance of respectability, or slavish devotion. None of that is love because when it goes, the “love” goes. Grasping for love never ends. The fear of emptiness always looms.


So much of what we do is about acquiring security. If we buy a good education or a get good job, we think this can keep us safe from poverty. If we marry the right person (buy love), this can keep us safe from loneliness. If we work out and take care of our bodies (buy health), we feel this will keep us safe from disease and old age. If we go to church and pray (buy salvation), we feel we can keep our souls safe from contamination. If we stay busy enough, we won’t feel how empty we are inside. None of those things provides security. They only give us the illusion of security by providing us with a distraction.


Lots of people come to counseling wanting me to give them advice, or worse, to tell them what to do. This is an attempt to buy wisdom. It’s a “get out of jail free” card. It’s the same as buying self-help books, sitting at the feet of a guru, or going to motivational seminars. Hearing ideas can illuminate areas of darkness, but they won’t stay lit for you until you generate your own light. This comes from creating the experience for yourself. Vicarious wisdom isn’t wisdom at all. It’s just nice words. Experience gives the words juice.

Self – Worth/Self – Esteem

Advertising only works because we believe that we are not good enough and some product or service out there will hide our flaws well enough for us to pretend that we’re okay. Or perhaps, it will make us even feel okay. We imagine that the appreciative glances at our shiny new car are about us, when inside we really know that we’d not get those same glances without the car. Whether it’s a face lift, luxury vacation, entourage, big house, awards, diploma, titles, or our children’s achievements that make us feel important, they are things designed to give the impression of self-worth. Pictures of apples can be lovely, but you can’t eat one.

These things can’t be bought because they are priceless. This doesn’t mean that they are without value. It means that they are sacred.

not for saleWhen we rank everything in terms of monetary value and personal desirability, there are winners and losers. Most often we end up on the losing end of our own judgments. When we view everything in terms of possessions, we begin to treat people like property. A person who is owned or controlled cannot love because he lacks the freedom to choose. Love only exists where there is freedom.

When all is property, we focus on acquiring more, bigger, and better possessions. Or we spend so much time maintaining it that there is no time to enjoy it. There is no time to savor what we have, where we are, or even tap into the beautiful aliveness of the Now.

No wonder we are so empty inside. We’re not here. The things we give our attention to cannot give us anything back.

Stop trying to buy your way through life. What you want is not for sale. All of the things I talk about above are available to anyone free of charge. If you want love, be love. Sit quietly. Touch your heart with your hand, and breathe until you are able to feel what’s there. You may encounter some uncomfortable things first. Sit through it. It won’t take long. When that dissipates, you will find that the love you always wanted has always been inside of you.

Perhaps it’s just a seed. If so, cultivate it. Oaks grow from tiny acorns.

Love is all around you too. It’s in trees, the birds, the sky. Everything is love. I doubt you’ll be able to see it unless and until you can first see the love within yourself. When you realize that you have this endless supply of love that doesn’t depend on anyone else’s approval or love, you won’t want or need the “love” that has to be bought or manipulated to receive. You will never again compromise your own integrity to receive it. You will find it easy to love those who are not particularly lovable.

This will give you the security to accept that no matter what life throws at you, it will be okay. How? Because love creates connection. When you have connection in your heart, there is hope, faith, and a knowing that all is well. This knowledge will help you to base your self-worth on what really matters. You’ll know that you are worthy simply because you are. See? It’s all related.

Knowing you are safe, worthy, and loved can help you grow in wisdom. Being always has a way of doing that. It teaches what cannot be learned in books. It is the ultimate experience. You don’t have to climb the Himalayas or see God to become worthy or enlightened. It happens in moments of mindfulness. It may not be particularly sexy or exciting, but the real thing rarely comes in bells and whistles.

Keep sacred the things that are not for sale. When you lose them, you lose yourself. Trying to buy and sell them makes them commonplace. Don’t mistake the byproduct for the prize.

Life is hard enough as it is. Feel the love. Make time to allow the connection between you and all creatures to happen. Live the sacred and you will never worry about the things that are not for sale because you will always have them inside of you.

The One Thing You Need for Spiritual Growth

spiritual growth

spiritualityWhat if I told you there was only one thing you need for spiritual growth? Would you buy that?

As I was cruising around the internet today, I saw many interesting articles that talked about how to attain spiritual growth. They talked about being disciplined, setting goals, and creating to do lists. The tasks varied from things you do every day to bigger things that required planning and time to accomplish like reading the Bible, praying, attending church regularly, visiting (insert holy place), and memorizing (some famous spiritual writing). The less religious tasks were things like attending a sweat lodge, doing a silent retreat, learning yoga, practicing gratitude, obtaining a rosary that was blessed by the Pope, going on a pilgrimage, or becoming a student of a famous guru.

To my understanding all those things miss the mark completely. As a leader of spiritual travel tours, I meet a lot of people who are searching for something. They have been to many places. Some have experienced interesting things, some have just had a good time and seen some cool scenery (their descriptions, not mine). So, I can tell you that doing something – anything – isn’t going to create spirituality within you. The one thing you need for spiritual growth is a sense of being.

Think about it. You are (“are” is a form of the verb “to be”) spiritual. You don’t do spiritual. So all you have to do to feel that is be. It’s not somewhere “out there.” It’s not something that you buy. It’s not something that you learn. It’s not something that someone can give you. It’s already within you. It’s your natural state of being.

Yes, someone can teach you skills that will help you to get closer such as meditation so that you can learn how to be still. Yes, spiritual places may help you tune into the energy that is within you and around you. Yes, inspirational writings can help you to see what others have already discovered. Yes, enlightenment can come in a moment from reading, seeing, or experiencing something profound. There is nothing wrong with any of that, but none of that is necessary.

All you have to do is Be. And you can do that right now, where you are, with whatever problems that you have, no matter how much money you have or don’t have, no matter how much peace you have or don’t have. no matter what religion you are. It’s available to everyone right now.

I know that for some of you, that’ s a very scary thought. You’re not ready to embrace it, and that’s okay. For others, it might be something you can accept intellectually, but something stands in the way of your heart fully accepting it. Some of you totally accept it, want it, and still don’t know how to do it. I am sure there are some of you who think what I am saying is total nonsense. It’s okay. I urge you to give it a try anyway.

Just be. Notice where you are right this moment. Notice what’s going on with your body. Are you relaxed? How’s your breath? How are your muscles? What is your mind doing? What is the air around you doing? How’s your stomach? What do you see? How about what you smell, taste, feel, or hear? Take it all in and slow it down. Really be present. If it gets uncomfortable, stay with it. Everything is transient so just notice as it transforms. If you do this long enough, you will start to notice an underlying peace that cradles your very existence.

The more you do this, the deeper into yourself you will be able to go. Your physicality will matter less and your spirituality will become more accessible. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.