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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

Effects, Symptoms, & Recovering from Religious Trauma

Updated: May 30, 2023


Religious trauma is a type of trauma that can occur within religious institutions and/or religious beliefs that cause someone's religious experience to be stressful, abusive, damaging, or degrading. Religious trauma has a massive affect on an individual's self-worth, self-esteem, and sense of identity. In general, religion plays a role in how we see the world, but this can be an issue due to religion's high emphasis on putting faith in God when going through hard things, which can lead to a denial of the existence of issues in life, further perpetuating the toxic positivity that runs rampant in religions.


Because I grew up in the Christian faith, I'll be writing about religious trauma from that perspective, however all religions have the ability to cause religious trauma. To read more about religious trauma, you can check out the blog post I wrote on the topic by clicking here.


Examples of Religious Trauma in the Christian Faith

When we can recognize signs or beliefs of religious trauma, it can help us gain greater awareness and insight. Religion in and of itself is not a negative thing. It has a lot of positive effects, such as helping us connect to others, giving us the ability to connect to a higher power, serve others, and gain greater self-awareness.


But there are some damaging things about religion that negatively impact a lot of people, and it's worth noting what a few of these negative beliefs are in the Christian faith:

  • A person may be told to tithe (give to the church) 10% of their paycheck each week because God will bless them even more if they give money to Him. This belief can cause someone to experience financial hardship.

  • A person may believe that if someone doesn't believe in the Christian God, they'll spend eternity during in hell. Because of this belief, they tell everyone they know about Jesus in an attempt to "save their souls". Many churches report yearly numbers on how many souls they've saved.

  • A person who is experiencing same-sex attraction may be told that what they're feeling is sinful and repentance to God is required. Some churches take this a step further and provide "Christian counseling" to that person, also known as conversion therapy, which is illegal in some states and has been deemed by the American Counseling Association as harmful.

  • A person who is expressing their opinion about a topic, and that opinion does not align with the overall Christian opinion, may be emotionally beaten into submission to "save their soul".

  • A woman who gets pregnant before she's married may be forced to stand up in front of the church to admit her sin. She may also be kicked out of the church, or if she's attending a Christian college, she may be kicked out of college.

  • A person is taught not to listen to their feelings or their intuition because it can't be trusted. Only God is to be trusted. Humans are sinful.

These experiences are so immensely damaging to a person. It creates a false narrative that one must strictly follow and adhere to a set of rules in order to make it to heaven or to have a great reward in heaven. There's a lot of emphasis on "making the Kingdom come to earth" (meaning that what God wants in heaven needs to be done now), which is why we're seeing a lot of Christian evangelical politicians attempting to change laws in favor of their religious preferences, eliminating many of the freedoms people of other faiths have the right to have. We're seeing a massive push on making America a "Christian" nation because of these indoctrinated beliefs.


Basically, we're seeing a lot of people, who have religious trauma but don't see it, take leadership roles in churches and politics, and continue to religiously traumatize others. It's a dangerous cycle, and it's hard to get out.


Symptoms of Religious Trauma

Religious trauma comes with its own set of symptoms, and when someone is stuck in the indoctrination, they'll view these symptoms as an attack of the devil, "the enemy", or Satan. It's usually not until the person steps away from religion that they realize they were never under attack of a spiritual kind; they were in the middle of spiritual abuse. Here a few symptoms of religious trauma:

  • difficulty making decisions

  • anxiety symptoms

  • depression symptoms

  • decreased sense of self-worth

  • nightmares or night terrors

  • sleeping issues

  • difficulty building strong relationships with others

  • grief symptoms

  • eating issues

  • sexual dysfunction/sexual issues

  • loneliness

  • poor critical thinking skills

  • struggling to fit in or belong

When trying to break away from indoctrination or your belief system, it's normal for you to experience significant emotional and mental anguish, and even cognitive dissonance, between what you've been learning, experiencing, and exploring in the world as an adult versus what you were taught as a child. It might be difficult for you to trust yourself, because you've always been taught that "the heart is deceitful above all else", and your feelings or intuition can't be trusted because you're "inherently sinful."


There are lasting mental health effects from religious trauma. Many people who start healing experience ostricization from their religious community. They lose friends, and some lose family. They experience guilt, hopelessness, and fear as they start to create more distance from their religiously abusive community or environment. It can feel scary to realize that the beliefs you've been indoctrinated with as a child no longer line up with what you've been experiencing and exploring as an adult. So, once we're here, how do we start recovering?


Recovering from Religious Trauma

  1. Recognize that it's happened to you. It's easy to make excuses about what happened to you as a child. To heal, we have to acknowledge that certain beliefs we were indoctrinated with were not okay. They were harmful and damaging. Some beliefs may have been racist, homophobic, and/or misogynistic

  2. Separate your religious beliefs from your personal value. There are people in this world who are good people and do good things, and they are not religious. Find those people and listen to their stories. Observe their community. It will help you learn that you are not your religious beliefs.

  3. Explore what you believe. Personally, I believe this step to be one of the most freeing. For the first time in probably ever, you have the freedom to explore what you want to explore. There's no one making sure you "stay in line"; you can go where you want to go and see what you want to see. You can explore the beliefs you've held for a long time; keep what serves you and let go of what doesn't.

  4. Create healthy boundaries. In religious settings, healthy boundaries aren't commonly practiced. You now have the freedom to create healthy boundaries and explore what those look like in relationships. You can express your needs and wants without feeling like a burden to others. You can tell people no.

  5. Seek support! Find friends who make you feel safe to show up authentically. Share your experiences with these people. Therapy with a therapist who specializes in religious trauma is also another great way to find support and start recovering.

References:

Powell, A. (2021). Religious trauma syndrome: Examples, symptoms, & 7 ways to cope.

 

At Root Counseling, our therapists are here to help you every step of the way as you recover from religious trauma. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.


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