“I know what a year feels like. What about 100 of those? But then instead of dying after 100 years, there are 100 more…and 100 more…and 100 more…” These were my ten-year-old self’s anxious musings on eternity as I tried to fall asleep at night. My heart raced, I felt nauseous, and at times, these thoughts would keep me up for hours. For years I had been taught that people who sinned too much would end up in hell and, even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t in that camp, the alternative was an eternity in heaven, which was also difficult to grasp. It was hard to imagine anything that I wanted to do for 100 years, much less one hundred 100 years, much less…
Experiences like these contribute to what a small, but growing, number of experts call Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). This concept reflects a broader understanding of trauma, in which trauma is our whole-person (i.e. mental, emotional, and physical) response to an event or series of events that overwhelm our ability to cope, or our ability to understand and integrate an experience into the larger narrative of our life. In RTS, people experience these overwhelming events within a religious setting, which can include a variety of practices, beliefs, and formal or informal religious communities.
People with RTS have often experienced two forms of harm: the harm that resulted from participation in a religious community and the harm that resulted from leaving that community. RTS usually includes some combination of acute and chronic trauma. Many discussions of trauma focus on on extreme, life-threatening events, but trauma can also take the form of chronic abuse, neglect, instability, or toxic stress. Religious trauma often stems from beliefs and experiences encountered over the course of years or decades in the form of sermons, rituals, and individual devotion, punctuated by more significant events, such as sexual or physical abuse, disconnection from one’s community, or the disorientation that results from abandoning a set of values and beliefs.
These harmful experiences are not unique to any particular religion, religious community, religious beliefs, or religious practices. Like all forms of trauma, they are experienced differently by different individuals. Much attention has been given to extreme examples of “cults,” often cases of high-control, closed groups with unusual sexual practices centered on charismatic individuals, but these groups are not the only ones that cause harm to participants. Religious communities fall on a spectrum in terms of how open or closed off they are to the world at large, how formal or informal their rituals are, how strictly or loosely they hold their beliefs, and how highly focused they are on authority figures. Religious trauma can occur all along this spectrum.
What RTS looks like for a person depends on the characteristics of their harmful religious community. An individual raised in a community with strictly held beliefs that inform every decision might struggle to use flexible or critical thinking skills and may not know how to make decisions for themselves. If they choose to leave their religious community, they may not know how to craft their own set of values that inform their ethics and their interactions with the world. People who leave more closed-off religious communities may experience intense social isolation and grief at the loss of their primary social group. Additionally, people with RTS or adverse religious experiences may experience issues like depression, anxiety, panic, anger, guilt, or grief that overlap and intersect with their religious experiences. Struggling to cope, they might experience substance use disorders, sexual dysfunction, sleep problems, or eating disorders. Lastly, as is the case with most trauma, people who hold marginalized identities in terms of race, gender or gender identity, and sexuality are usually most negatively affected by their experiences of religious trauma.
If you think you’ve experienced religious trauma, you are not alone in your experiences. I hope that you have found some relief from just having these experiences named. The good news is that therapy can help, and that these specific issues are being discussed and researched by professionals, making treatment increasingly available. I will share more about treatment of RTS in a future post. In the meantime, you can read more at the links below, and, if you are interested in therapy to address your religious experiences or religious trauma, reach out for a free consultation today.