What is “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.