Portrait of young woman folding her hands in desperation. Praying concept.

What is Religious Trauma Syndrome?

A large body of research has tied being religious with better well-being and overall mental health. Devout religious people tend to have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as a better ability to cope with stress. Certain religious practices may even change the brain in a way that boosts mental health. Religion can give people a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that helps them to make sense of negative things that happen to them. A person’s religious community can also provide support and encouragement through hard times.

However, this is not always the case. Negative religious beliefs have been linked with harmful outcomes, including higher rates of depression, lower quality of life, greater emotional distress, and even an increased risk of an earlier death. Believing in a god who is punishing or abandoning you, or following a religion that advocates hatred of non-believers instead of love and compassion, negatively affects the individual and the way the brain works.

Leading expert in the psychology of religion and spirituality, Kenneth Pargament, explains that if people have a loving, kind perception of God and feel God is supportive, they seem to experience benefits. But there’s a darker side to spirituality. If you tend to see God as punitive, threatening or unreliable, then that’s not very helpful to your mental health.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

Indoctrination into an authoritarian, fundamentalist religion or cult can be hugely damaging and traumatic. Making a break from such a religion involves a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, others, life and the future.

Dr Marlene Winell has worked with people in recovery from these types of religions for many years. She explains that the symptoms of religious trauma syndrome are quite similar to those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury and causes feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror. This can be a single event or chronic abuse of some kind.

People can also be traumatised when they are controlled and prevented from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Religions that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. This can result in:

  • Suppression of normal childhood development across cognitive, social, emotional and moral domains;
  • Damage to thinking and feeling abilities when information is limited and controlled, dysfunctional beliefs are taught, and independent thinking and feeling is condemned;
  • An external rather than internal locus of control in which knowledge is revealed not discovered, a hierarchy of authority is enforced and self is not a reliable or good source;
  • Physical and sexual abuse justified through patriarchal power, unhealthy sexual views, and punishment used for discipline.

Doctrines such as original sin, judgment day and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face God’s 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 or pray to be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite a complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually be saved.

The Road to Recovery

Religious groups and cults that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave. The difficulty is greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference, no other self or way of being in the world. The common personality type is someone who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and tends to be wholeheartedly devoted. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more emotional pain than those who simply went to church on Sunday. Leaving the faith can cause further trauma when it results in being shunned and estranged from friends and family. This compounds feelings of confusion, shame, guilt, anger and grief, and the individual may be left without a social support network.

Letting go of the need to conform is a huge relief. There is a sense of freedom and excitement about new information and experiences, new-found self-respect, and the sense of an emerging identity. But there are also huge challenges. The psychological damage does not go away overnight. In fact, because indoctrination in childhood is so powerful, the fear of judgment can last a lifetime, and the damage to self-esteem and basic self-belief can be crippling. However, trauma-informed psychotherapy can help those who leave their religion to heal the emotional pain, and begin to develop a positive sense of self and create a fulfilling life.

References:

Magyar-Russell, G., & Pargament, K. (2006). The Darker Side of Religion: Risk Factors for Poorer Health and Well-Being. In P. McNamara (Ed.), Where God and Science meet: How brain and evolutionary studies alter our understanding of religion: The psychology of religious experience (pp. 105–131). Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.

Winell, M. (2006). Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Apocryphile Press.

 

Brendan Turner

Brendan Turner

Psychologist & Body Psychotherapist

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