The Intersection of CPTSD and Religious Trauma
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (also known as CPTSD or complex trauma) and religious trauma are two deeply impactful experiences on their own, but when they intersect, which they often do, they can create a particularly challenging and complex path to healing.
In this blog post, we'll explore the intersection of CPTSD and religious trauma by shedding light on the struggles survivors face while also offering guidance for those on their journey to recovery.
CTPSD & Religious Trauma
CPTSD is caused by ongoing, repetitive trauma that lasts for months or years, usually a result of childhood trauma and abuse (emotional, verbal, physical, mental, or sexual). Symptoms of CPTSD and PTSD can be similar, but they also differ in that CPTSD usually involves feelings of worthlessness, shame, or guilt, depression, anxiety, emotional flashbacks, a loud inner and outer critic, problems controlling emotions, and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.
Religious trauma is trauma that occurs within religious institutions that stems from harmful psychological beliefs. Examples of psychologically harmful beliefs that stem from the Christian religion include the belief in hell (and that those who don't believe in Jesus will spend eternity in hell, regardless of their character), the belief that humans are sinful and unworthy and always will be without Jesus, the belief that Jesus had to die on the cross as an atonement for the sins of humanity and without his death, we would perish in hell forever, the belief that when we experience negativity in life, Satan is attacking the person for 1. following God's will and living in a right relationship with God or 2. God is allowing the person to be attacked to bring that person closer to Him (the cognitive dissonance is real with that one.) There are plenty of other psychologically harmful beliefs within Christianity, but those are a few prominent ones. Symptoms of religious trauma can include difficulty building relationships with others, anxiety, depression, decreased self of self-worth, sexual dysfunction/sexual issues, poor critical thinking skills, nightmares or night terrors, loneliness, and grief symptoms.
The symptoms of CPTSD and religious trauma often intersect. Both childhood and religious settings can be breeding grounds for complex trauma, and it can be difficult to separate religious teachings from traumatic childhood experiences.
The Unique Challenges of the Intersection of CPTSD & Religious Trauma
1. Conflict Between Faith and Trauma - People may struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs and teachings with the traumatic experiences they endured in their religious settings and their childhood. This can create an intense inner conflict, causing people to feel torn between their faith and their need to address their traumatic experiences, both religiously and in childhood.
2. Guilt and Shame - Many religious traditions emphasize guilt and shame as a means of control or as a response to perceived moral failures. Survivors of trauma may experience heightened guilt and shame related to their trauma, feeling like they've failed morally or spiritually.
3. Fear of Isolation or Excommunication - Leaving a religious community or questioning one's faith can lead to fears of being shunned, living in social isolation, or being excommunicated from their religious community. This fear can prevent survivors from speaking openly about their trauma or seeking help.
4. Difficulty in Identifying Trauma - Religious teachings often frame traumatic experiences as tests, trials, or punishments from a higher power. Survivors may struggles to identify these experiences as trauma, which can delay their acknowledgement of the need for healing.
5. Interference with Coping Mechanisms - Religious communities often have coping mechanisms like prayer, communal support, or rituals. When one leaves their religious community, they may reevaluate these coping mechanisms, causing them to feel vulnerable and unable to cope with their own reality.
6. Loss of Identity - Religion plays a massive role in one's sense of self. The process of leaving a religion or reevaluating one's faith can lead to a profound loss of identity, leaving survivors struggling to redefine who they are.
7. Fear of Hell of Divine Punishment - Some individuals may have been taught to fear eternal damnation or divine punishment for questioning their faith or leaving their religious community. This fear can be a significant barrier for seeking help to exploring other healing options.
8. Judgement & Stigmatization - Individuals who leave religious communities or challenge religious norms may face judgement and stigmatization from former leaders, peers, and friends. This can exacerbate feelings of rejection and isolation.
9. Complex Family Dynamics - Family members who remain embedded in their religious community may cause pressure for survivors to conform to religious beliefs or norms, further complicating their healing journey.
Healing Strategies for CPTSD & Religious Trauma
Healing from CPTSD and religious trauma is a challenging journey, but there are effective strategies and approaches that help people find peace, resilience, and a sense of identity again. Below are some healing strategies for people who have CPTSD and religious trauma:
Trauma-Informed Therapy: Find a therapist who is trained in trauma-informed care, specifically complex trauma, religious trauma, and attachment. Therapists with these specialities can help you explore and process the trauma associated with CPTSD and psychologically harmful beliefs adopted through religion. Therapeutic modalities such as EMDR or somatic experiencing are designed to specifically address trauma, which can be helpful for people who are on these journeys.
Safety & Self-Care: When we're living with complex trauma and religious trauma, one's physical and emotional safety is paramount. Create a safe space for yourself where you can practice self-care and relaxation techniques. Establish a daily self-care routine that include mindful activities like meditation, yoga, or spending time in nature.
Set Healthy Boundaries: Establish boundaries with people, communities, or environments that are triggering for you or have the potential to retraumatize you. Maybe for you right now, finding a new church isn't something you feel safe doing but it's something you'd like to find down the road. That's okay. Allow yourself to create a routine that serves you on Sunday mornings until you feel ready to explore new church options.
Find a Spiritual or Religious Belief System that Works for You: If you're still wanting a spiritual or religious belief system, explore different philosophies, religions, or practices that align with your values and feel safe. Abandoning spiritually altogether isn't the only option.
Embrace Self-Compassion: Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Release any self-blame or guilt associated with religious trauma. It wasn't your fault.
Forgiveness and Release - Forgiveness can be a healing act. It doesn't mean we don't acknowledge the pain and harm done to us, but rather it allows us to emotionally let go of the people who contributed to our trauma, not for their safe, but for your own emotional freedom.
Celebrate Small Wins: Acknowledge and celebrate your progress, no matter how small. Healing is a journey, and each step forward is victory.
Remember that healing from CPTSD and religious trauma is a highly individualized process. Practice patience with yourself, and remember: you're never alone.
At Root Counseling, we work with clients who are healing from complex trauma and religious trauma, holding space for each individualized experience and story. To schedule a session with one of our therapists, you can learn more about us here.