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Religious Trauma Syndrome: It’s Time To Recognize It (Part 1 of 3)

By Marlene Winell, Ph.D. ~ 

A version of this article was published in the May 2011 issue of the professional journal, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy Today in the UK.
I’m really struggling and am desperate never to go back to the religion I was raised in, but I no longer want to live in fear or depression. It seems that I am walking through the jungle alone with my machete; no one to share my crazy and sometimes scary thoughts with.
After years of depression, anxiety, anger, and finally a week in a psychiatric hospital a year ago, I am now trying to pick up the pieces and put them together into something that makes sense. I’m confused. My whole identity is a shredded, tangled mess. I am in utter turmoil.
These comments are not unusual for people suffering with Religious Trauma Syndrome, or RTS. Religious trauma? Isn’t religion supposed to be helpful, or at least benign? In the case of fundamentalist beliefs, people expect that choosing to leave a childhood faith is like giving up Santa Claus – a little sad but basically a matter of growing up.
But religious indoctrination can be hugely damaging, and making the break from an authoritarian kind of religion can definitely be traumatic. It involves a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, the future, everything. People unfamiliar with it, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create and the recovery needed.
My own awareness of this problem took some time. It began with writing about my own recovery from a fundamentalist Christian background, and very quickly, I found out I was not alone. Many other people were eager to discuss this hidden suffering. Since then, I have worked with clients in the area of “recovery from religion” for about twenty years and wrote a self-help book called Leaving the Fold on the subject.
In my view, it is time for society to recognize the real trauma that religion can cause. Just like clearly naming problems like anorexia, PTSD, or bipolar disorder made it possible to stop self-blame and move ahead with learning methods of recovery, we need to address Religious Trauma Syndrome. The internet is starting to overflow with stories of RTS and cries for help. On forums for former believers (such as, one can see the widespread pain and desperation. In response to my presentation about RTS on YouTube, a viewer commented:
Thank you so much. This is exciting because millions of people suffer from this. I have never heard of Dr. Marlene but more people are coming out to talk? about this issue. Millions–who are quietly suffering and being treated for other issues when the fundamental issue is religious abuse.
Barriers to Getting Help for RTS
At present, raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo, even with helping professionals. In society, we treasure our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Our laws and mores reflect the general principle that if we are not harming others, we can do as we like. Forcing children to go to church hardly seems like a crime. Real damage is assumed to be done by extreme fringe groups we call “cults” and people have heard of ritual abuse. Moreover, religious institutions have a vested interest in promoting an uncritical view.
But mind-control and emotional abuse is actually the norm for many large, authoritarian, mainline religious groups. The sanitization of religion makes it all the more insidious. When the communities are so large and the practices normalized, victims are silenced.
Therapists have no real appropriate diagnosis in their manual. Even in the commonly used list of psychological stresses, amidst all the change and loss and disruption, there is no mention of losing one’s religion. Yet it can be the biggest crisis ever faced. This is important for therapists to be aware of because people are leaving the ranks of traditional religious groups in record numbers1 and they are reporting real suffering.
Another obstacle in getting help is that most people with RTS have been taught to fear psychology as something worldly and therefore evil. It is very likely that only a fraction of people with RTS are even seeking help. Within many dogmatic, self-contained religions, mental health problems such as depression or anxiety are considered sins. They are seen as evidence of not being right with God. A religious counselor or pastor advises more confession and greater obedience as the cure, and warns that secular help from a mental health professional would be dangerous.
God is called the “great physician” and a person should not need any help from anyone else. Doubt is considered wrong, not honest inquiry. Moreover, therapy is a selfish indulgence. Focusing on one’s own needs is always sinful in this religious view, so RTS victims are often not even clear how to get help. The clients I have worked with have had to overcome ignorance, guilt, and fear to make initial contact.
What is RTS?
I suffer with guilt and depression and struggle to let go of religion. I am also battling with an existential crisis of epic proportions and intense heartache. . . I feel like I am the only person in the world that this has happened to. Some days are okay, but others are terrible. I do not know if I will make it through this.
Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. The symptoms compare most easily with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury which causes feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror. This can be a single event or chronic abuse of some kind. With RTS, there is chronic abuse, especially of children, plus the major trauma of leaving the fold. Like PTSD, the impact of RTS is long-lasting, with intrusive thoughts, negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, and other problems.
With RTS, the trauma is two-fold. First, the actual teachings and practices of a restrictive religion can be toxic and create life-long mental damage. In many cases, the emotional and mental abuse is compounded by physical and sexual abuse due to the patriarchal, repressive nature of the environment.
Second, departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with leaving what amounts to one world for another. This usually involves significant and sudden loss of social support while facing the task of reconstructing one’s life. People leaving are often ill-prepared to deal with this, both because they have been sheltered and taught to fear the secular world and because their personal skills for self-reliance and independent thinking are underdeveloped.
Individuals can experience RTS in different ways depending on a variety of factors. Some key symptoms of RTS are:
• Confusion, difficulty making decisions, trouble thinking for self, lack of meaning or direction, undeveloped sense of self
• Anxiety being in “the world,” panic attacks, fear of damnation, depression, thoughts of suicide, anger, bitterness, betrayal, guilt, grief and loss, difficulty with expressing emotion
• Sleep and eating disorders, substance abuse, nightmares, perfectionism, discomfort with sexuality, negative body image, impulse control problems, difficulty enjoying pleasure or being present here and now
• Rupture of family and social network, loneliness, problems relating to society, personal relationship issues
These comments from people going through it may be the best way to convey the intensity of RTS:
I get depressed and upset. Jesus no longer saves me. God no longer created me. What purpose is there? What am I left with? What do ex-Christians fill the hole with? So we are here for no reason, no divine plan. From nothing—into nothing; reality is harsh. Plus I’m pissed that I was so brainwashed for so long – smashing CDs, burning books, rebuking Satan. . . it’s like having your entire world turned upside down, no, destroyed.
There is a lot of guilt and I react to most religion with panic attacks and distress, even photos, statues or TV. . . I guess although I was willing it was like brainwashing. It’s very hard to shake. . . It’s been a nightmare.
I felt despair and hopelessness that I would ever be normal, that I would ever be able to undo the forty years of brainwashing.
My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found “my place in the universe.”
I feel angry, powerless, hopeless, and hurt—scars from the madness Christianity once had me suffering in.
It took years of overcoming terrific fear as well as self-loathing to emancipate myself from my cult-like upbringing years ago. Still, the aftermath of growing up like that has continued to affect me negatively as a professional (nightmares, paranoia, etc.).
The world was a strange and frightening place to me. I feared that all the bad, nasty things that I had been brought up to believe would happen to anyone who left the cult would in fact happen to me!
Even now I still lack the ability to trust very easily and becoming very close to people is something I still find very alien and hard to achieve.
After 21 years of marriage my husband feels he cannot accept me since I have left the “church” and is divorcing me.
My parents have stopped calling me. My dad told me I’m going to hell (he’s done this my whole life!).
I had to move away from my home because I just could not be in the environment any more. My entire family is Christian and I struggle to explain to them what I am going through. I feel extremely isolated and sometimes I wonder if I am going insane. I am extremely lonely and I suffer from intense depression at times.
I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I’m losing my country. I’ve lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely.
Many of us feel that we cannot relate to the ‘outside’ world as the teachings we were brought up on are all we know and our only frame of reference.
My new secular friends wouldn’t understand. My Christian friends either have abandoned me or keep praying for me.
My attempts to think outside the Christian box are like the attempts of a convict to escape Alcatraz prison– tunnel through hundreds of feet of stone and concrete, outsmart gun-carrying guards, only to maybe make it to the choppy freezing cold water and a deadly swim to safety. This may be a little dramatic, but true to my heart. I now continue to try to rebuild my soul from the abuse it’s endured.
RTS can range in severity, depending on specific teachings and practices of particular churches, pastors, or parents. Persons most at risk of RTS are those who were:
• raised in their religion,
• sheltered from the rest of the world,
• very sincerely and personally involved, and/or
• from a very controlling form of religion.
The important thing to realize is that Religious Trauma Syndrome is real. While it may be easier to understand the damage done by sexual abuse or a natural disaster, religious practices can be just as harmful. More and more people need help and the taboos about criticizing religion need to be questioned.
Coming up:
Part 2: Understanding RTS
Part 3: Why RTS is So Invisible
1 The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) from 2008 indicates that Americans by the millions are making an exodus from their faith. The number of people who affiliate themselves with “No religion” has nearly doubled from 1990 to 2008. The 18.7 million people who fall in this gap have presumably come from mainline Protestant, Baptist, and Catholic churches, which have lost 12.7 million believers during the same time frame.
For information about recovery services, please go to A recovery retreat is scheduled for July 29-Aug. 1, 2011.