RELIGIOUS TRAUMA SYNDROME
Article 1 of 3 by Dr Marlene Winell
Understanding Religious Trauma Syndrome: It’s Time to Recognize It
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 book1 on the subject.
In my view, it is time for the mental health community 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
treatment, 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 exchristian.net), 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 treating RTS
At present, raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion
seems to be violating a taboo. 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.
As therapists, we have no real appropriate diagnosis in our manual. Even in the commonly
used list of psychosocial stressors, 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 us because people are leaving the ranks of traditional religious
groups in record numbers2 and they are reporting real suffering.
In assessment, we seem to have a blind spot. Psychotherapists do not traditionally ask
a new client much about religious background. We delve into family, medical,
educational, occupational, and other areas of personal history, including alcoholism
and mental illness in the extended family. Yet if a person had to attend a
mind-controlling church several times a week, go to a religious school, perhaps
be home-schooled, and conform to strict codes of belief and behavior for years
on end, this is hugely important.
Another obstacle in treatment 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 sufferers 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
curative, and warns that a secular interpretation 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 do it. 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.
RTS 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 PTSD, which results from experiencing or being
confronted with death or serious injury and causing 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 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.
Key dysfunctions in RTS are:
Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking,
dissociation, identity confusion
Affective: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger,
grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning
Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction,
substance abuse, somatization
Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues,
financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction
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
pull-rightening 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 pull-rightening 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
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.
The severity of RTS ranges and depends on a number of factors. 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 for us to realize is that Religious Trauma Syndrome
is real. While it may be easier to understand the damage done by
sexual abuse or natural disaster, religious practices can be just as
harmful. More people are needing help and the taboos about criticizing
religion need to be questioned.
Leaving the Fold - A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others
Leaving Their Religion, Apocryphile Press, 2007
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