Healing From Religious Trauma | Inspired Happiness Therapy & Wellness (2023)

, Mental Health

Healing From Religious Trauma | Inspired Happiness Therapy & Wellness (2)

“No one’s ever sat me down and taught me what empathy is or why it matters more than power or patriotism or religious faith.”
Zak Ebrahim

“Christ the man died long ago, but Christ the idea of love, still exists, not in any church, rather in the mind of humans.”
Abhijit Naskar

Religion and Trauma

The idea that religion, religious beliefs, or the practicing of our religion might lead to harm for those we love probably sounds ridiculous to many people.

Unfortunately, religious trauma is a reality for many in the United States and around the world. I hope that if you have a knee-jerk reaction of offense at this subject you will read on with an open mind! It is definitely not a judgement on all religious people or an attack on religion as a whole.

Most people in the world practice some form of religion. Only 15% of the population identify as secular, atheist, agnostic, or similar. 56% of the world’s population practice either Christianity or Islam – both of which have both liberal and more fundamentalist believers.

(Video) 10 Best Trauma Books for Healing Your Past

I grew up here in the “Bible Belt” the ultra-religious, mostly Christian section of the United States. Like many if not most, I grew up attending church with my family. Neither of my parents attended church regularly prior to moving to Mississippi but one evening some people knocked on our front door and invited them to come to the Southern Baptist church down the street, so we went. Eventually we joined a non-denominational Christian church before returning to the same Southern Baptist church several years later.

Who Is Negatively Effected by Religious Beliefs?

The LGBTQ population, women, children, racial minorities, blended families and people who have been divorced are just a few examples of those that might be negatively impacted by religious beliefs. That is not to say that men cannot also be negatively impacted because they can be.

While certainly those who have been sexually abused or assaulted within the church have absolutely been traumatized, this post is not about that. We will focus more on how the attitudes of religion as an institution impacts those that are “othered” rather than overt abuse that some individuals within the church perpetrate.

For the sake of brevity, this will be the first in a series of posts so please be sure to read the rest of the series! I will link them at the end of the post as they are available.

Healing From Religious Trauma | Inspired Happiness Therapy & Wellness (3)

Religious Trauma Syndrome

Dr. Marlene Winell, a researcher with a PhD in Human Development, coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) in 2017. RTS is: “a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.”

RTS is not currently a DSM diagnosis, it is rather a collection of symptoms that Winell and others have identified. It’s important to keep in mind that not being a diagnosable illness does not mean that RTS is not legitimate and real. For example, codependency is something most professionals recognize and treat and it has never been in the DSM.

Whether one might meet the criteria of having a syndrome versus simply needing to heal the wounds that their traumatic experience has left is irrelevant. What is important is that as a society and as mental health professionals we are recognizing that people are both damaged by the beliefs that they are taught within religion and that leaving that religion, if they choose to, can also negatively impact their emotional well being.

The Pain of Alienation

Few things are as personal to us as our spiritual and religious beliefs. Because many people in the United States are raised within a religious tradition, finding one’s self hurt by the teachings of that religion can cut deeply. The pain of not fitting into the framework of a “good Christian” or “good Muslim” begins as soon as a person realizes that they are different than they feel the should be. Whether someone is LGBTQ, contemplating a divorce from an abusive spouse, or questioning things they have been taught that no longer make sense, additional pain is caused by believing that one is “going against God.”

(Video) 6 ways to heal trauma without medication | Bessel van der Kolk | Big Think

The idea that one’s personal safety or emotional well-being is not important to a loving creator does not seem to play a part in most people’s thinking. We hear “God is love” and yet believe that because of who we are or what we do he will not love us anymore. As an adult, I have found the idea that God can love you if you stay in an abusive marriage but not if you divorce to be impossible to accept. I have had clients say “perhaps God wants me to be unhappy.” People who genuinely believe that God is testing them or wants them to be in pain will make the active decision to stay in situations that are unhealthy or even dangerous.

For some, it is easier to accept being unhappy for 80-90 years if it means the promise of “eternal salvation” and the potential for happiness in heaven. In practice, it is very difficult to live in emotional turmoil and pain, whatever the motivation.

Turning One’s Back on God

For some, the idea of leaving the church is tantamount to turning their back on God. They believe that to disagree with a teaching of their religion or denomination is to literally disagree with God. The more evangelical or fundamental the church one belongs to is, the greater the potential that questioning teachings will be seen as just short of evil. It seems antithetical that a creator who gives humanity the potential to think and reason would expect blind acceptance of the 783,000+ words in the Bible. Faith is not based on ignorance. To have faith is to make a choice without evidence which is not the same as making a choice without critical thought.

When a person is faced between living their life with freedom or living a lie, it may be easier to imagine living a lie than losing their family. Many who leave organized religion run the risk of being ostracized from their family of origin. I had a client who described a parent crying, inconsolable at the idea their adult child would be “going to hell” because they no longer believed what the parent believed.

“I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal my bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.”

~ Valerie Tarico

Learning to Heal

Whether you are still practicing your religion, have chosen to leave, or are contemplating leaving, there may be no personal journey more alienating. There may also be no personal journey more agonizing. Even if you are now atheist or agnostic, the wounds left behind may be long-lasting and deeper than you can process alone.

I chose to add healing from religious trauma to my specializations for two reasons: in part because of my own deep, painful wounds inflicted by my time in the Southern Baptist faith and because of a story that a client told me about their child who is LGBTQ. The trauma inflicted on their child by those in the church damaged not only that child but the entire family and impacted the client’s own faith. I saw the need for this, especially in the state of Mississippi. I believe that in the helping field that if we are able to meet a need that is not currently being met, it is our duty to do so.

If you have experienced religious trauma, in any capacity, you are not alone. There is nothing wrong with who you are. I have no desire to “lead you back to God.” Therapy is a journey of healing. If you need help healing, you are safe in the office of a mental health professional.

Healing From Religious Trauma | Inspired Happiness Therapy & Wellness (5)

Stacey ALdridge, LCSW

Stacey is a therapist in private practice and the owner of Inspired Happiness Therapy and Wellness in Ridgeland, MS. If you are in the state of Mississippi and are interested in seeing Stacey for therapy, please visit the Appointments page.


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Healing From Religious Trauma | Inspired Happiness Therapy & Wellness (6)

Author: StaceyAldridgeLCSW

Healing From Religious Trauma | Inspired Happiness Therapy & Wellness (10)

I am a therapist in private practice in the Jackson, Mississippi area. My passion is helping women become inspired to make positive changesso they can lead happier, healthier lives!

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(Video) Dr. Paul Conti: Therapy, Treating Trauma & Other Life Challenges | Huberman Lab Podcast #75


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What type of trauma is religious trauma? ›

Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) occurs when an individual struggles with leaving a religion or a set of beliefs. It often involves the trauma of breaking away from a controlling environment, lifestyle, or religious figure.

Is religious trauma a form of PTSD? ›

Religious Trauma Syndrome is in the early stages of research and is gaining traction as a legitimate diagnosis. Below are some symptoms commonly experienced by people suffering from Religious Trauma Syndrome. And many other symptoms of PTSD including nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, emotional difficulty, etc.

What does religious trauma feel like? ›

Symptoms of Religious Trauma affect all areas of life.

This includes experiencing flashbacks, trouble sleeping and having nightmares, restlessness, lack of pleasure in things you used to enjoy, hypervigilance, avoidance, and more.

How long does it take to mentally recover from trauma? ›

People affected by trauma tend to feel unsafe in their bodies and in their relationships with others. Regaining a sense of safety may take days to weeks with acutely traumatized individuals or months to years with individuals who have experienced ongoing/chronic abuse.

How do you heal emotionally from trauma? ›

Self-Care and Recovery After Trauma
  1. Surviving a Traumatic Experience. 1/15. ...
  2. Don't Isolate Yourself. 2/15. ...
  3. Seek Professional Help. 3/15. ...
  4. Join a Support Group. 4/15. ...
  5. Face It (Don't Avoid It) 5/15. ...
  6. Exercise. 6/15. ...
  7. 7/15.
  8. Listen to Your Body. 8/15.

What are the 3 E's of trauma? ›

The keywords in SAMHSA's concept are The Three E's of Trauma: Event(s), Experience, and Effect. When a person is exposed to a traumatic or stressful event, how they experience it greatly influences the long-lasting adverse effects of carrying the weight of trauma.

How do I know if I have religious trauma? ›

Signs and Symptoms of Religious Trauma

Impeded development (social, emotional, sexual, etc.) Depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. Poor decision-making skills. Lack of self-confidence and self-esteem.

What are the 7 stages of trauma? ›

7 Stages Of Trauma Bonding
  • Stage 1: Love bombing.
  • Stage 2: Get you hooked and gain your trust.
  • Stage 3: Shift to criticism and devaluation.
  • Stage 4: Gaslighting.
  • Stage 5: Resignation & submission.
  • Stage 6: Loss of sense of self.
  • Stage 7: Emotional Addiction.
  • Breaking Free of a Trauma Bond.

How do I stop religious intrusive thoughts? ›

How to Overcome Religious OCD
  1. #1 Find Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) ...
  2. #2 Pay Attention to Reassurance. ...
  3. #3 Manage Your Reading Time. ...
  4. #4 Avoid Repetitive Prayer. ...
  5. #5 Avoid Black-and-White Thinking. ...
  6. #6 Include Your Religious Leaders. ...
  7. #7 Find Treatment.
10 Feb 2022

Does God heal PTSD? ›

God heals PTSD in many different ways, such as: Hope of eternal peace in heaven. Soothe emotions, distress, and worries through prayer. Peace knowing that our past and future is in Gods hands.

What causes people to lose their faith? ›

Faith, like love, is an element that bonds together relationships. And we lose faith like we lose love — for many reasons. Loss comes from misunderstandings, personality conflicts, tragic circumstances, ill treatment and our own ignorance, to name a few.

What type of therapy is used for religious trauma? ›

Religious trauma therapy

Trauma of any kind can be difficult to process without the help of a mental health professional. Many therapies have proven helpful for survivors of trauma, including religious trauma, such as: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

Why do I have religious trauma? ›

RTS occurs in response to two-fold trauma: first the prolonged abuse of indoctrination from a controlling religious community, and secondly the act of leaving the controlling religious community.

What mental illness is associated with religion? ›

Active and adaptive coping skills in subjects with residual schizophrenia are associated with a sound spiritual, religious, or personal belief system.

What are the 3 stages of trauma recovery? ›

The recovery process may be conceptualized in three stages: establishing safety, retelling the story of the traumatic event, and reconnecting with others. Treatment of posttraumatic disorders must be appropriate to the survivor's stage of recovery.

Do people ever fully heal from trauma? ›

The most important thing to remember is that whether you do it with the support of friends and family or the support of a mental health therapist, it is 100% possible to completely heal from trauma and continue on to live a meaningful life.

How do I heal myself emotionally and mentally? ›

  1. Value yourself: Treat yourself with kindness and respect, and avoid self-criticism. ...
  2. Take care of your body: Taking care of yourself physically can improve your mental health. ...
  3. Surround yourself with good people: ...
  4. Give yourself: ...
  5. Learn how to deal with stress: ...
  6. Quiet your mind: ...
  7. Set realistic goals: ...
  8. Break up the monotony:

How do you heal deep root trauma? ›

3 steps to help overcome childhood trauma
  1. Recognize the trauma. The adult must acknowledge this certain childhood experience as trauma. ...
  2. Be patient with yourself. Self-criticism and guilt can be very common when it comes to adults who have lived through a traumatic childhood. ...
  3. Reach out for help.
29 Dec 2021

How do you rebuild self esteem after trauma? ›

Here's how to fix low self-esteem if you are recovering from childhood trauma:
  1. 1-Eliminate negative self-talk for a better self-esteem. ...
  2. 2-Know what you're dealing with by looking into your past. ...
  3. 3-Accept how you feel and who you are. ...
  4. 4-Don't blame yourself. ...
  5. 5-Learn to take care of yourself. ...
  6. 6-Reclaim control of your life.
22 Dec 2020

How is emotional trauma stored in the body? ›

Because our bodies and emotions can only safely handle a limited amount of stress, trauma results whenever an experience exceeds our abilities to handle and cope with its consequences. The energy of the trauma is stored in our bodies' tissues (primarily muscles and fascia) until it can be released.

What are the 4 R's in trauma? ›

The trauma-informed approach is guided four assumptions, known as the “Four R's”: Realization about trauma and how it can affect people and groups, recognizing the signs of trauma, having a system which can respond to trauma, and resisting re-traumatization.

What are the 4 F's of trauma? ›

Rather than only using trauma responses to answer threats, we constantly feel threatened, and become unable to exit that state of mind. Psychologists generally recognize “The Four Fs” as the altered-states that make up the trauma response – fight, flight, freeze and fawn.

What are the 5 BS of trauma? ›

Document: 5 B's of trauma: Brain, biology, behavior, body, & beliefs #AOTApeds.

What is religious psychosis? ›

Individuals experiencing religious delusions are preoccupied with religious subjects that are not within the expected beliefs for an individual's background, including culture, education, and known experiences of religion. These preoccupations are incongruous with the mood of the subject.

What does religious abuse look like? ›

Religious Abuse

You may be experiencing religious or spiritual abuse if a religious leader has: Used scripture or beliefs to humiliate or embarrass you. Coerced you into giving money or other resources that you didn't want to give. Forced you to be intimate or have sex that you didn't want.

How do you know if an event traumatized you? ›

Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression. Unable to form close, satisfying relationships. Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks. Avoiding more and more anything that reminds you of the trauma.

How do you break a trauma cycle? ›

These five tips can help you in your journey toward healing and breaking the patterns of unhealthy behaviors that stem from trauma:
  1. Acknowledge that what happened to you was traumatic.
  2. Find support to do the inner work.
  3. Take inventory of your areas for growth.
  4. Find space for self-compassion every day.
1 Feb 2022

How long does trauma last in the body? ›

Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic. A doctor who has experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose PTSD.

Which symptoms are most likely to appear in a person who has been traumatized? ›

Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better.

How long does religious OCD last? ›

The ERP process is challenging and requires dedication from both the person with Scrupulosity OCD and the ERP therapist. Luckily, symptoms can decrease within 10 weeks – which is a brief period of time compared to how long someone with Scrupulosity has probably lived with their symptoms.

What is the root cause of intrusive thoughts? ›

Intrusive thoughts are often triggered by stress or anxiety. They may also be a short-term problem brought on by biological factors, such as hormone shifts. For example, a woman might experience an uptick in intrusive thoughts after the birth of a child.

What triggers scrupulosity? ›

Repeatedly seeking reassurance from religious leaders and loved ones. • Repeated cleansing and purifying rituals. • Acts of self-sacrifice. • Avoiding situations (for example, religious services) in which they believe a religious or moral error would. be especially likely or cause something bad to happen.

What is the fastest way to cure PTSD? ›

Get enough rest, eat a healthy diet, exercise and take time to relax. Try to reduce or avoid caffeine and nicotine, which can worsen anxiety. Don't self-medicate. Turning to alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings isn't healthy, even though it may be a tempting way to cope.

Who experienced trauma in the Bible? ›

These three personalities include King David, Naomi, and the Apostle Paul. through the ages deal with pain and suffering with his songs, written in the book of Psalms. traumatic experiences.

Can you heal PTSD on your own? ›

Treatment for PTSD is essential—this is not a condition that will resolve on its own. People with PTSD require professional support, especially therapy, to see improvements.

How do I gain my faith back? ›

Engaging in genuine acts of kindness, like volunteer work or donations, may help put a little faith back into humanity. Acts of kindness are associated with life satisfaction. 6 With acts of kindness, people are able to get out of their own heads and be reminded that they are a part of a bigger picture.

How do you regain faith in yourself? ›

10 Ways To Believe In Yourself Again When Life Gets Rough
  1. Accept Your Current Situation. ...
  2. Think About Your Past Success. ...
  3. Trust Yourself. ...
  4. Talk with Yourself. ...
  5. Don't Let Fear Stop You. ...
  6. Let Yourself Off the Hook. ...
  7. Go with a Positive Attitude. ...
  8. Let a Life Coach Help You.
16 Mar 2022

How do you reverse a religious trauma? ›

8 Ways to Recover from Religious Trauma
  1. Recognize That It Has Occurred. ...
  2. Separate Your Personal Values From Your Religious Beliefs. ...
  3. Get Connected to Healthy Supports & Community. ...
  4. Explore What You Believe & Why You Believe It. ...
  5. Create Healthy Boundaries in Relationships. ...
  6. Identify Your Hopes for the Future.
12 Aug 2021

How do you heal religion trauma? ›

Breathwork, meditation, dance, yoga, and other physical exercises are all great ways to process stored trauma in the body. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) While we know that one cannot just think away trauma, reaching out to talk with a mental health counselor is always a good step in the healing journey.

Which therapy is best for past trauma? ›

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

CPT is often a first choice when treating PTSD, especially when addressing the long-term effects of childhood traumas in adults. For PTSD, the American Psychiatric Association recommends treatment over 12 sessions.

Is religious trauma a form of PTSD? ›

Religious Trauma Syndrome is in the early stages of research and is gaining traction as a legitimate diagnosis. Below are some symptoms commonly experienced by people suffering from Religious Trauma Syndrome. And many other symptoms of PTSD including nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, emotional difficulty, etc.

What are religious coping strategies? ›

Religious coping encompasses religiously framed cognitive, emotional, or behavioral responses to stress. It may serve many purposes, including achieving meaning in life, closeness to God, hope, peace, connection to others, self-development, and personal restraint (Pargament, 1997).

What is spiritual trauma? ›

Spiritual trauma occurs as a result of events that threaten and damage our core spiritual values and goals. This can be a result of either abuse by religious/spiritual figures or being raised with a toxic and overbearing interpretation of that religion or spiritual belief.

What is Religious Trauma Syndrome? ›

Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) occurs when an individual struggles with leaving a religion or a set of beliefs. It often involves the trauma of breaking away from a controlling environment, lifestyle, or religious figure.

What is a Jesus complex? ›

A messiah complex (Christ complex or savior complex) is a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that they are destined to become a savior today or in the near future. The term can also refer to a state of mind in which an individual believes that they are responsible for saving or assisting others.

Is spirituality a form of psychosis? ›

The language and form of spirituality and religion are endemic in expressions of psychosis, even for the non religious; meaning and purpose become distorted in psychosis with the loss of a coherent narrative.

Do the effects of trauma ever go away? ›

No, but with effective evidence-based treatment, symptoms can be managed well and can remain dormant for years, even decades. But because the trauma that evokes the symptoms will never go away, there is a possibility for those symptoms to be “triggered” again in the future.

Can a person fully recover from trauma? ›

There are degrees of trauma. It can be emotional, mental, physical or sexual. It can occur once, or repeatedly. However, it is possible to fully recover from any traumatic experience or event; it may take a long time, but in the end, living free from the symptoms of trauma is worth every step of the journey.

Can you heal from generational trauma? ›

Though intergenerational trauma can have deep, complex, and far-reaching effects, it's possible to heal — not to mention minimize your chances of continuing the cycle. You'll find more details on intergenerational trauma below, including key signs, causes, and tips for getting support.

How is trauma stored in the body? ›

Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response.

What happens to your body when you are traumatized? ›

Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect. Most responses are normal in that they affect most survivors and are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited.

What does unresolved trauma feel like? ›

The symptoms of unresolved trauma may include, among many others, addictive behaviors, an inability to deal with conflict, anxiety, confusion, depression or an innate belief that we have no value.

What are the 3 stages of trauma recovery? ›

The recovery process may be conceptualized in three stages: establishing safety, retelling the story of the traumatic event, and reconnecting with others. Treatment of posttraumatic disorders must be appropriate to the survivor's stage of recovery.

What are the 6 trauma responses? ›

In the most extreme situations, you might have lapses of memory or “lost time.” Schauer & Elbert (2010) refer to the stages of trauma responses as the 6 “F”s: Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright, Flag, and Faint.

What are the 17 symptoms of complex PTSD? ›

What are the 17 Symptoms of PTSD?
  • Intrusive Thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are perhaps the best-known symptom of PTSD. ...
  • Nightmares. ...
  • Avoiding Reminders of the Event. ...
  • Memory Loss. ...
  • Negative Thoughts About Self and the World. ...
  • Self-Isolation; Feeling Distant. ...
  • Anger and Irritability. ...
  • Reduced Interest in Favorite Activities.
14 Jun 2021

Which generation has the most trauma? ›

Statistics. Research also indicates that Gen Zers are currently the most stressed demographic of people. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that: 90% of Gen Z experienced psychological or physical symptoms as a result of stress in the last year.

How do you break the cycle of generational trauma? ›

Building resilience through open and loving communication between generations is one of the best ways to loosen generational trauma's grip. Healing happens when family members speak up and work through any hurt, pain, or abuse from the past.

How do you break cycles of trauma? ›

These five tips can help you in your journey toward healing and breaking the patterns of unhealthy behaviors that stem from trauma:
  1. Acknowledge that what happened to you was traumatic.
  2. Find support to do the inner work.
  3. Take inventory of your areas for growth.
  4. Find space for self-compassion every day.
1 Feb 2022


1. Childhood Trauma and the Brain | UK Trauma Council
(Anna Freud NCCF)
2. How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris
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