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Religious and Spiritual Trauma

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Even though religious trauma has existed for a long time, we’ve only recently started to discover what it encompasses and how deeply it impacts people. Religious trauma refers to the psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical harm caused by religious beliefs, teachings, and practices, often instituted by people who hold positions in power within churches. Religious trauma affects a person’s mental health, relationships, autonomy, ability to make decisions and apply critical thinking skills, and often comes with behaviors that mimic complex trauma (CPTSD), like emotional flashbacks, depression, low self-esteem, difficulty trusting others or over dependence on others’ opinions to make decisions, guilt, fear, shame, and anxiety induced by rigid beliefs, authoritarianism, and spiritual abuse. Religious trauma and complex trauma typically overlap; people who have religious trauma are living with a form of complex trauma. 

There are a few ways religious institutions perpetuate trauma through various doctrines and practices:

  1. Authoritarianism - It’s common for religious institutions to enforce strict hierarchical structures where people in positions of authority dictate beliefs and practices within the institution, leaving little to no room for questioning or individual autonomy. This can cause feelings of powerlessness and fear among members, especially if doubt or questioning is met with punishment, ostracism, or spiritual bypassing (i.e. “if you’re going through something really hard, it’s because Satan is attacking you for doing what God wants you to do”)

  2. Dogmatic Beliefs - When religious teachings are presented as absolute truths with no room for interpretation or questioning, it can create a rigid belief system that enforces fear of punishment or condemnation for deviation from orthodoxy. This can lead to cognitive dissonance and psychological distress for people whose personal beliefs or experiences conflict with the doctrine in their religious institution. 

  3. Exclusivity and Judgment - Religious institutions promote an “us vs. them” mentality. They teach that only people who adhere to a particular faith are worthy of salvation, which can create feelings of superiority among members and judgment towards outsiders. This exclusivity tends to alienate people who don’t fit into the prescribed norms, contributing to feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy. 

  4. Fear-Based Teachings - Many religious traditions, especially Christianity, emphasize themes of divine wrath, eternal damnation, and apocalyptic scenarios to motivate compliance to religious laws and practices. These beliefs are intended to promote obedience within the group. Constant exposure to fear-inducing rhetoric can have detrimental effects on mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and trauma. 

  5. Spiritual Abuse - Religious leaders and institutions may engage in spiritually abusive behaviors, such as manipulation, coercion, emotional blackmail, or sexual misconduct. Victims of spiritual abuse typically experience profound trauma resulting from betrayal of trust and violation of boundaries within a sacred context; within a space they were groomed to believe would always be safe. 

  6. Cultural and Social Pressures - Religious communities often have significant influence over members’ personal and social lives, including their relationships, careers, and identity formation. It’s typical for members to feel as though they need to get the opinion or permission of leaders within their institution in order to make a decision. Pressure to conform to religious expectations and norms, particularly in matters of sexuality, morality, and gender roles, can create internal conflicts and contribute to feelings of guilt, self-doubt, and shame. 

The Difference Between Healthy Spirituality & Religious Trauma

Healthy spirituality refers to a positive and enriching relationship with one’s spiritual beliefs, practices, and community. It promotes resilience, personal growth, compassion, and empathy, and it can be cultivated through various practices such as self-reflection, prayer, meditation, and participation in supportive spiritual or religious communities. While healthy spirituality fosters personal growth and well-being, religious trauma can have detrimental effects on a person’s mental health and overall functioning. It’s important to recognize the distinction between the two, especially while nurturing a healthy spiritual life. 


Healthy spirituality plays an important role in mental well-being, however it can be challenging for people with religious trauma to differentiate between healthy spirituality and abusive religious beliefs/practices. When someone is living with religious trauma, the idea of “healthy spirituality” is something they don’t have a frame of reference for. For many, it takes intentional time away from religious beliefs and/or the church to learn to form their own individual healthy spirituality. 


FAQ About Religious Trauma:

What are the signs of religious trauma?

Religious trauma is a very individualized experience, but there are overlapping symptoms people with religious trauma experience, such as shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, difficulty navigating their religious beliefs and identity, spiritual crisis, and difficulty trusting others or placing too much trust in the opinion and viewpoint of others, specifically those within their religious institution. 

What are common sources of religious trauma?

Religious trauma stems from various sources, including religious institutions, spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse from religious figures, fear-based teachings (i.e. the belief in hell), exclusivity, judgment, authoritarianism, and pressure to conform.


How does religious trauma impact mental health?

Religious trauma and complex trauma (C-PTSD) overlap significantly. Religious trauma contributes to conditions such as anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, and religious compulsions. It can also lead to existential crises and affect a person’s ability to form healthy relationships. 

Is religious trauma recognized by mental health professionals?

Religious trauma is not yet officially recognized as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is what mental health professionals use to diagnose clients, however, as attachment-based therapists experienced in complex trauma, we’re very aware of the limitations of the DSM-5 and its inability to fully capture the complexity of human beings. With that being said, mental health professionals are acknowledging the validity and impact of religious trauma on an individuals’ overall well-being. 

Can religious trauma be healed?

Short answer, yes! Through a variety of therapeutic approaches, such as attachment therapy, person-centered therapy, EMDR, and internal family systems, a person can start their journey towards healing. Healing often involves processing past experiences, challenging harmful beliefs, and rebuilding a sense of self and spirituality.

How can therapy help me with religious trauma?

Therapists can help individuals with religious trauma in a variety of ways:


  • Therapists provide a safe space for people to share their experiences and validate their feelings. Many people suffering from religious trauma typically feel isolated or invalidated due to fear of judgment or pressure from society, so therapy can offer a supportive environment where people can express themselves without fear. 

  • Therapy gives people the platform for them to examine and challenge their harmful or distorted beliefs instilled by religious teachings or experiences. Therapists can help identify negative thought patterns, develop beliefs that are more adaptive to the individual, and foster self-acceptance and self-compassion. 

  • Religious trauma often involves violation of boundaries and trust by authority figures within religious institutions or personal relationships. Therapy can help rebuild the process of trust in the person and others, as well as establish and teach healthy boundaries, which can assist the person in asserting their own autonomy. 

  • Therapists can teach people coping skills and relaxation techniques to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, or C-PTSD and PTSD associated with religious trauma. Learning effective coping strategies can empower people to navigate triggers and distressing situations more effectively. 

  • Therapy can help people explore and redefine their relationship with spirituality outside the confines of their previous religious experiences. This can involve rediscovering personal beliefs, values, and practices that resonate with that individual while promoting well-being and authenticity. 

Is it possible to maintain a spiritual or religious identity after experiencing religious trauma?

​Absolutely! Many people are able to find ways to redefine and reclaim their faith or spiritual identity after experiencing religious trauma. This process looks different for each person, but it often involves experiencing alternative belief systems, participating in practices that align with their values, and creating a sense of empowerment and autonomy in their spiritual journey. ​

What if I leave my church community and I lose my friends and family?

This is a common fear for people who have religious trauma. Churches serve as places of community, and oftentimes, it’s common for people to only have friends who are associated with their church or their religion. The fear of losing their community if they leave is valid because the main bridge between the individual and their church community of friends is their belief system. We can’t say for certain that someone will or will not lose their friends and family if they leave their church community, but what we can say is that the freedom found in learning to be your authentic self will draw in deeper, more authentic friendships. 

What are some self-care strategies for coping with religious trauma?

We're huge advocates of mindfulness practices, always! But for religious trauma specifically, mindfulness practices can be super helpful when learning to cope with religious trauma. It can help us become centered with our own selves and reflect on the emotions we’re feeling and where they’re coming up in our bodies. Other self-care strategies include journaling, seeking social support from friends or family who understand what you’re going through, and setting boundaries for environments or people who are triggering. 

How can I support a loved one experiencing religious trauma?

Educating yourself about religious trauma is the first step! It can help you better understand your loved one’s perspective so you can provide compassionate support. Empathy, validation, and non-judgmental listening to your loved one’s experiences will go a long way. Learn to respect their boundaries and beliefs, and encourage them to seek professional support (outside of the church) if needed. 

Are you ready to take a step towards recovery?

If so, we offer a free 15 minute consultation to see if we're the right fit for you!!

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