In the context of religion and the church, many people find peace with prayer, service, or spirituality. For others mental health though, this has also been a place of painful and traumatic experience and memories. When you have endured hurt, rather than healing in this context, how do you begin to work through processing the difficulties that come with such experiences? For some, religion has led to extensive trauma that brought about a diagnosis for PTSD.
In this post, we'll introduce the concept of religious trauma and the various types of trauma that one may endure while growing up in, or exploring religion as a whole. While there is a plethora of feedback regarding the benefits of religion and mental health, there are also recorded experiences of those from diverse backgrounds that correlate to higher levels of distress.
In many avenues of religion, spirituality has been directly tied to these experiences. Because one opens their heart to this journey through love and healing, some also find that they are directly pushed away or hurt by their religious ties to spirituality; but, the more you learn about spirituality, the more we begin to understand that it is not always tied directly to a spiritual figure or religious beliefs. In this way, some individuals cut ties with religion, and move to embrace their own spirituality and other methods of connecting to the world around them.
So, what is religious trauma?
We can look at religious or spiritual trauma as harmful psychological, physiological, or emotional impacts within an individual's house of worship or religious journey. While symptoms vary from person to person, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) classifies particular symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome as confusion, difficulty making decisions, dissociation, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal ideations, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, interpersonal dysfunction, or struggles with relationship dynamics, to name some of the symptoms. This brief overview of RTS helps us grasp the extent to which trauma may be experienced in this journey.
In religious trauma, individuals have faced struggles with dogmatism and indoctrination, facing the ongoing difficulty of embracing their own autonomy and critical thinking capacities within the religious context. This experience may have provided a sense of meaning that shapes the individual's life, and having to make that decision to leave the church, for example, can create new lines of distress in the individual's journey.
It is quite possible that these experiences often involve the component of spiritual bypassing, or the inclusion of spiritual practices that dismiss the processing of difficult emotional experiences. In this sense, an individual could learn that anger or fear are "not okay," and they then learn to disconnect from their own emotions and are driven solely by reactions. Other effects of bypassing include repression, struggles with boundaries, self-esteem concerns, powerlessness, isolation, or even spiritual obsession.
According to a 2011 study, from negative experiences of participants in the study, Doctor David Ward categorized six themes for religious abuse:
Leadership Representing God (a symbolic authority)
Spiritual Bullying (manipulative behaviors)
Acceptance via Performance (approval from leadership or group)
Spiritual Neglect (omission from leadership)
Expanding of internal/external tension (dissonance from one's inner and outer worlds)
Manifestation of Internal States (Bio/Psycho/Spiritual repercussions of the abuse)
Looking at the various themes categorized in this study, an individual who attaches meaning to their spiritual and religious experiences faces a sense of betrayal in this abuse. "I thought I had comfort in this environment, but I guess I do not."
For example, an individual comes out as a gay, and the church proceeds to ostracize them from the group. Or, a leadership figure within the congregation tells a woman, who has suffered ongoing abuse at the hands of her husband, to return to him, because it's her "role" to respect his decisions and authority.
Working through the Healing
As mental health counselors, we provide a pathway of change for those who have suffered from religious traumas. We begin to rebuild safety and security, through embracing the individual as a whole. We start to unravel false beliefs or messages that have reshaped the inner workings of the individual in this space.
When we begin to untangle the indoctrination of hurtful or damaging patterns, we can move into grieving the loss of this meaning that has shaped the individual's life. It is quite possible to process this trauma through understanding the underlying experiences and emotional needs that were unmet through these experiences. We can begin to reframe through powerful empathic changes that occur in the context of a safe and secure attachment experiences with the counselor.
We can also validate the decisions around leaving religion, and when the client embraces themselves as a whole, start to establish their own identity, understand their sense of self, and reintegrate new, secure connections within their thoughts, emotions, body, and relationships.
If you're struggling with the grips of shattered religious experiences, we're here to embrace these experiences and cultivate a space of healing in your trauma. Please reach out and schedule an appointment with us today. This could be the biggest decision for yourself and your relationships.
Cornah, D. (2006). The impact of spirituality on mental health: A review of the literature. London: Mental Health Foundation.
Hoffman, F. M. (2012). Spiritual bypassing: When spirituality disconnects us from what really matters. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 44(1), 103–105
Ward, D. J. (2011). The lived experience of spiritual abuse. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(9), 899–915. https://doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2010.536206
Winnel, M. (n.d.). Religious Trauma Syndrome. Retrieved from https://journeyfree.org/rts/