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WHAT IS RELIGIOUS TRAUMA?

Religious trauma is an intense psychological response to religious experiences that provoked overwhelming fear and helplessness. It can negatively impact a survivor's physical, emotional, cognitive, and social well-being, making it hard for them to cope, feel safe, and experience healthy spirituality afterward.

Many people with experiences in high-control religious groups will notice symptoms of religious trauma afterward. Controlling group dynamics emphasizing conformity and exclusivity often lead to fear, shame, rigidity, suppression, and social dysfunction. Read more on the impacts of religious trauma.

ARE ALL RELIGIOUS GROUPS HARMFUL?

No. Lots of people have positive, non-traumatic experiences in faith communities. Recognizing and addressing religious trauma isn't an indictment against all religious beliefs and practices. When someone is harmed in a religious setting, it doesn't necessarily mean that the group is toxic or that harm was intended. It is, however, cause for concern, curiosity, and accountability.

HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED RELIGIOUS TRAUMA?

IMPACTS OF RELIGIOUS TRAUMA

The teachings, practices, and social norms of high-control religious groups can have some very harmful impacts on their members. These are some examples of common ways that someone can be affected emotionally, cognitively, developmentally, and socially.
FEAR + ANXIETY

  • Generalized Anxiety: Recurring worries, intrusive thoughts, difficulty relaxing or feeling safe (especially in spiritual settings); may also include panic attacks, nightmares, and phobias.

  • Afterlife Anxiety: Fear about death, heaven and/or hell, the rapture, eternal separation from loved ones, and obsessive worries about witnessing or ensuring salvation.

  • Fear of Evil: Intense dread or paranoia about spiritual threats like sin, temptation, demonic possession, spiritual warfare, and secular influences. 

  • Punishment Anxiety: Fear of being punished or accused of wrongdoing, obsessive rule-following, and paranoia about determining right from wrong.

  • Superstitions (Scrupulosity): Magical thinking and/or compulsions to use religious rituals to prevent bad things from happening (OCD).

SHAME

  • Low Self-Worth: Negative belief that we're bad, broken, inadequate, insignificant, etc.

  • Helplessness: Powerlessness, a sense of defeat, low motivation, and cynicism about the future.

  • Perfectionism: Attempts to compensate for one’s perceived inadequacy by overworking and using harsh self-criticism to stay focused on achievement.

  • Self-Distrust: Lack of confidence in one’s own instincts and desires, self-doubt, self-sabotage, and overreliance on others.

  • Self-Neglect: Poor self-care, unaddressed physical and mental health issues, and compulsively serving others rather than tending to personal needs.

RIGIDITY + SUPPRESSION

  • Black & White Thinking: Moralistic or binary thinking, rejecting nuance, drawing a clear line between good and bad, right and wrong, etc.

  • Poor Critical Thinking: Suppressed curiosity, clinging to existing biases and opinions, rejecting contradictory evidence, poor decision-making. 

  • Emotional Suppression: Habitually invalidating or denial of unacceptable emotions like anger and sadness. This causes depression, avoidance, numbness, and stunted empathy.

  • Identity Suppression: Efforts to deny or change the traits that we view as “deviant". Long-term, this can lead to anger issues, poor self-awareness, depression, and suicidal ideation.

  • Sexual Suppression: Emphasis on sexual conformity and purity, intense guilt or shame about sex, denial of one’s sexual attractions, stunted sexual development, and inability to enjoy sex.

  • Suppression of Autonomy: Difficulty identifying one’s needs and wants, lack of independence, enmeshment (trouble separating one’s own thoughts and feelings from others), and disregarding personal discomfort.

  • Spiritual Cynicism: Distrust of most or all forms of spirituality and religious leadership.

  • Somatic Symptoms: Suppressed feelings and needs can eventually convert into physical pain or illness (ex. fibromyalgia, headaches, high blood pressure, pain during sex, etc.)

RELATIONSHIP DYSFUNCTION

  • Social Anxiety: Fear of being judged or excluded, high rejection sensitivity, social avoidance, loneliness, performative relationships, and lack of vulnerability in relationships.

  • Codependency: Normalized unhealthy interreliance with others, overhelping due to guilt, and resenting others while feeling obligated to them.

  • Trauma Bonding: Normalized obligation to protect and be loyal to others who have experienced trauma despite unhealthy relationship dynamics; oversharing (trauma dumping) as a means of bonding.

  • Authority Fawning: Excessive submission to authorities, fixation on honoring, leasing, and asking permission from authority figures. 

  • Authority Defiance: Contempt for authority figures, suspicion or paranoia about their intentions, and refusal to comply with rules.

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