Religious Trauma Syndrome

You do not need to look far to find articles and studies that highlight the mental health benefits that come from adherence to religion, such as benefits from a deep sense of community and belonging to a common group, teachings that emphasise compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude, and rituals that provide structure and consistency. Although these studies bring light to the innate human need for belonging and to make sense of the world, it is overlooked that certain dynamics that are often present in religious communities - specifically those that follow dogmatic theology, indoctrination practices, and authoritarian leadership - can actually have the opposite affect and cause lasting damage and symptoms similar to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A growing amount of research is being done into the dynamics around this phenomenon, where the exact opposite of mental health is experienced through religious adherence. Dr. Marlene Winell - founder and director of Journey Free, which helps people who are struggling with mental health issues after leaving fundamentalist religion - has studied this for much of her professional life and has coined the term 'Religious Trauma Syndrome' (RTS) to describe the patterns that she sees. RTS is most likely to be present in religions where normal child development is suppressed, where information is limited or censored, when control comes from outside the individual, and where there is assumed patriarchy.

Within many fundamentalist religions a cycle that can be compared to the abuse cycle plays out, where the doctrine causes a 'double bind' that is impossible to satisfy. Winell gives the example of the doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation in fundamentalist Christianity:

"You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it. You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven."

This causes a cycle where you feel extreme shame and then 'prove' your commitment and then feel relief, but then feel shame when you cannot continually uphold the tenants of the teaching. Added to this, the community affirms the shame/relief cycle by normalising the the shame as a 'sign to get right with God' and then offering belonging in response to adherence.

RTS typically occurs in individuals when they deconstruct the belief system that they were highly invested in. During this time, they often experience an uncomfortable shattering of beliefs that once provided stability and support. This can be an extremely overwhelming and unbearable experience that leaves them feeling isolated, lost, and in grief and deep turmoil. Unlike regular PTSD, there is often not a definitive 'event' that can be pointed to and many religious communities will point to their lack of or faltering religious belief as the root of their problems. This can be further traumatising in itself, as it affirms that the community and support system is no longer safe; furthermore, the belief that the problem lies internally rather externally puts the onus on the individual to change.

What are the symptoms of RTS?

Cognitive:

  • Poor ability to think critically
  • Lack of self-worth or trust in their abilities
  • Black and white thinking about the world
  • Perfectionism
  • Unable to make decisions

Emotional:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • Difficulty with pleasure
  • Loss of meaning

Social:

  • Loss of social network
  • Family dysfunction
  • Social awkwardness
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Behind developmentally

Cultural:

  • Unfamiliar with secular world
  • Difficulty belonging, feeling 'other'

Do you wonder if you are carrying the burden from leaving a fundamentalist belief system? Would you benefit from seeing a therapist who understands these dynamics and who is equipped to respond? I would be happy to chat about whether we are a good fit.

Send me an email at info@kelseyhoffcounselling.com to book a free 20-minute consultation.

For more on Religious Trauma Syndrome, check out Winell's full article here.

Posted November 30, 2020

By Kelsey Hoff

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