For most of us, spirituality is a strength. It is what gets us through hard times. Spirituality bonds us to a community and creates traditions.

However anything, including things that are typically positive, can be made into something traumatic when there is misuse or abuse, including religion. We call these things, “adverse religious experiences (ARE).” This is a useful thing to know about because it can help people spot traumatic abuse, stop it, heal it, and validate that it was harmful.

There is no list of adverse religious experiences because they vary. AREs are any experience of a religious belief, practice, or structure that threatens a person’s safety or autonomy and/or negatively impacts their physical, social, emotional, relational, sexual, or psychological well-being. One or more of these can result in trauma or trauma responses, such as anxiety, depression, confusion, nightmares, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, chronic fear, stress, chronic shame, health conditions, self-harm, difficulty with relationships, and engaging in risky behaviors.

To make it a little easier to pin down just what constitutes adverse religious experiences, let’s look at the three categories of experiences with examples.


Physical – being beaten because you’re “bad,” washing your mouth out with soap because you spoke the “Devil’s words.” locking you inside to save your soul from being impure, withholding food or sleep as punishment for a religious infraction, withholding medical attention because God will heal them if He wants to, being exposed to extreme temperatures or going without food to gain spiritual wisdom, self-flagellation.

Sexual – being molested by a priest, being told that you have to do what a man wants because he’s a man and he has dominion over you, your parents look the other way while you are fondled by an adult because that adult has religious authority of the family, being told by a swami, guru, or shaman that having sex with them is a way to enlightenment.

Emotional – being cornered and threatened for asking questions, being threatened with ostracism if you don’t attend church, manipulating people to give beyond their means, requiring someone to be perfect.

Verbal – calling you names for listening to popular music, praising some people for obedience or purity (which implies everyone else is less than), making statements about being the Only Way or Chosen path (which creates a culture of fear and shame), humiliating others for being outside your faith.


Physical – leaving your children to fend for themselves so you can go to church, not hugging your people because touch is evil.

Sexual – refraining from educating your children about sex because it’s “unclean” or you fear that talking about it will make them promiscuous, withholding sex because it’s only godly under certain circumstances, there are no boundaries between children and adults and a child’s innocence is not protected (they see too much and know too much)

Emotional – not listening to others’ concerns or feelings, referring to God as the only answer, telling people to “Read your Bible/Koran” rather than engaging in an exchange of ideas and having a relationship, exposing a child to domestic violence because it’s a man’s right to rule his house as he wants to.

Verbal – withholding praise and approval

Communal Practices

Community violence – when your congregation burns a school down because people of color go there.

Bullying/threats/intimidation – standing outside an abortion clinic and telling people they are going to Hell for having an abortion.

Terrorism – killing people because they are not of your religion.

Public outing/stigmatizing/branding – sharing private information about people so intentionally cause them harm.

Forced confessions – torture.

Shunning/excommunication – judging people and turning your back on them for their deeds.

Brainwashing/forced indoctrination – this is cult-like behavior.

Love bombing/trauma bonding – this is also cult behavior to recruit vulnerable followers.

Forced conversion – this can be done with the intention to “save someone’s soul”.

Forced ritual performance – this is also typically done to “save” someone.

Substance abuse – this can be religiously sanctioned and is growing in the psychedelic communities.

Financial manipulation – preachers with extravagant lifestyle that are financed by the poor, or missionaries providing life-giving staples to poor communities in exchange for converting to their lifestyle.

In most cases, the people who do these types of things believe that they are doing so for the welfare of others. The bottom line is, if a practice tramples on someone’s sovereignty, boundaries, or dignity, it’s not okay. It’s hurtful, damaging, and in some cases, illegal.

What Does Healthy Spirituality Look Like

Adverse religious experiences can happen in any spiritual path. It’s not limited to the big three (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).

  • Healthy spirituality uplifts you without looking down on others.
  • You are open to ask questions and explore your faith because questions can only make your belief stronger.
  • It is tolerant of those who are different because they are not a threat to you. They are your fellow human beings.
  • Healthy spirituality is loving and peaceful for all.
  • No one is sexually, emotionally, or financially exploited in a healthy spiritual path.
  • You have free will and won’t be ostracized for exercising it.
  • Physical, sexual, gender, financial, and other boundaries are respected.
  • Guilt and shame are not used to control others.
  • There is room for error. You’re not expected to be perfect or enlightened.

Getting Help

Religious trauma syndrome is becoming more recognized in the mental health field. If you suffer from adverse religious experiences or religious trauma, seek a trauma therapist (not all therapists are trained to deal with trauma, and “trauma informed” is not the same thing as a trauma therapist).

Your pain is real. The situation is serious, and you deserve to be believed and heard by someone who can help.