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INTRODUCTION

Religious Trauma Timeline

 Adapted: Brian Peck, 2022, Room to Thrive

TERMS

Spirituality: Subjective sacred experience

Vaughan, F. (1991) Spiritual issues in psychotherapy.

Religion: A system of beliefs and practices

Argyle, M., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2013) The Social Psychology of Religion.
 

Abuse: Perpetrated by an abuser

Trauma: Experienced by a survivor

Religious Trauma: A physical, emotional, or psychological response to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

The Religious Trauma Institute

Spiritual Abuse: Misuse of power in a spiritual context where spiritual authority is distorted to the detriment of those under its leadership. It is a multifaceted and multilayered experience that includes acts of commission and omission, aimed at producing conformity.  

Ward, D.J. (2011) The lived experience of spiritual abuse.

Religious Abuse: The mistreatment of someone in need of spiritual empowerment resulting in the weakening and undermining of their empowerment.

 Johnson D. & VanVonderen J. (2005). The subtle power of spiritual abuse.

PART 1: CONCEPTUALIZATION

UNIQUE CONSIDERATIONS

  • Survivors are impacted in multiple ways, producing complex trauma. 
  • The deity is often seen as a secondary attachment figure.
  • Healthy coping skills are often discouraged.
  • Many survivors perpetuate the abuse as a survival skill, resulting in complex grief.

FRAMEWORKS + ASSESSMENTS

  • Religious Trauma Syndrome - Marlene Winell, 2011
    • Cognitive
    • Affective
    • Functional
    • Social
    • Developmental
  • Spiritual Abuse Questionaire - Kathryn Keller, 2016
  • Spiritual Harm + Abuse Scale - Dan Koch, 2022
  • Spiritual Power Inventory - Reclamation Collective

IMPACTS OF RELIGIOUS TRAUMA

FEAR + ANXIETY
  • 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 Punishment: Scrupulosity (obsessive rule-following), fear of authorities, fear of being caught or falsely accused, obsession with determining right from wrong, etc.
  • Fear of the Supernatural: Intense dread or paranoia about spiritual threats like sin, temptation, demonic possession, spiritual warfare, and secular influences. 
  • Superstitions: Magical thinking, compulsions, paranoia, using spiritual rituals to prevent bad things from happening, etc.

SPIRITUAL SHAME
  • Learned 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-Criticism: Harsh or abusive self-talk, attempts to motivate self with internal punishment
  • Self-Distrust: Lack of confidence in one’s own natural instincts and desires, self-doubt, 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
  • Moralizing: Making oversimplified judgments about what is good/bad or right/wrong.
  • Absolutism: Black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking; rejecting or attacking any other perspectives; viewing a subjective belief as an absolute truth.
  • Spiritualizing: Assuming there’s a religious/spiritual explanation instead of a natural one; compulsively looking for a moral lesson to be learned. 
  • Afterlife Preoccupation: Fixating on the afterlife, downplaying present experiences; neglecting current-day concerns.
  • Impaired Decision Making: Difficulty making decisions when the situation doesn’t fit into a preexisting religious template.
  • Impaired Critical Thinking: Difficulty determining fact from opinion, clinging to existing biases, rejecting nuance or contradictory evidence.

SUPPRESSION
  • Emotional Suppression: Habitual invalidation of unacceptable emotions leading to depression, avoidance, numbness, and stunted empathy (see also: Spiritual Bypassing).
  • Identity Suppression: Denial of traits viewed as “deviant", efforts to convert or change identity, and low self-awareness.
  • Sexual Suppression: Emphasis on sexual purity, intense guilt or shame about sex, denial of one’s sexual attractions, stunted sexual development, and inability to enjoy sex.
  • Autonomy Suppression: Difficulty identifying one’s needs/wants, lack of independence, enmeshment, and disregard for personal discomfort.
  • Spiritual Cynicism: Distrust of most/all forms of spirituality or religious leadership.
  • Somatization: Suppression that’s converted into physical pain or illness (ex. fibromyalgia, headaches, high blood pressure, pain during sex, etc.)
  • Spiritual Bypassing: Sidestepping emotionally complex issues with spiritualization.
  • Placating: Offering a spiritual quick-fix for discomfort; downplaying or invalidating, focusing on the spiritual “silver lining”.
  • Appealing to the Greater Good: Excusing, covering up, or defending something negative because of a positive big-picture outcome.
  • Silencing: Admonishing someone for using critical thinking and curiosity.
  • Victim Blaming: Interpreting someone’s suffering as a deserved consequence.
  • Dissociating: Detaching emotionally or cognitively to avoid internal incongruence.

RELATIONSHIP DYSFUNCTION
  • Social Anxiety: Fear of being judged, rejected, or excluded by others; avoiding attention or being vulnerable in relationships.
  • Codependency: Relationship obligation and resentment; helping or relying on others out of a sense of guilt or responsibility.
  • Enmeshment: Difficulty separating one’s thoughts and feelings from others’. 
  • Trauma Bonding: Feeling obligated to be loyal to or defend someone (even when it’s unhealthy) because of intense shared experiences.
  • Authority Fawning: Being overly reliant, submissive, or accommodating of authority figures; leaning heavily on them for wisdom or help.
  • Authority Defiance: Suspicion or contempt for authority figures; refusal to comply; distrusting their intentions.

DIAGNOSTIC CONSIDERATIONS & COMPLEXITIES

  • A religious trauma client may meet diagnostic criteria for:
    • PTSD / Complex-PTSD

    • Anxiety Disorders

    • Mood Disorders

    • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

    • Dissociative Disorders

  • Other complexities to consider include:
    • Comorbid mental health issues
    • Co-occurring traumas
    • Family of origin issues
    • Somatic symptoms and possible past misdiagnosis
    • Developmental impacts for those raised in high-control groups

PART 2: ETIOLOGY

​HIGH-CONTROL SYSTEMS

High-control religious groups maintain power by:
Creating fear and shame
Demanding conformity
Enforcing hierarchy
Insulating from outside influences

LIFTON’S 8 CRITERIA FOR THOUGHT REFORM

 Lifton, R. (1961) Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China.

  1. Milieu of Control

    • Communication is strictly controlled within the group

    • Access to outside information or media is limited, isolating the group from society

    • Members are taught to self-monitor and police one another

  2. Mystical Manipulation

    • Events are orchestrated to appear mystical or portrayed as signs/prophecies

    • The leader makes authoritative displays of power 

    • History is rewritten to demonstrate the group’s exceptionalism 

  3. Demand for Purity

    • Members are required to conform to group standards

    • Black-and-white thinking is taught and encouraged

    • Behavior is controlled through the use of guilt and shame

  4. Confession

    • Members are required to routinely confess their sins/failures

    • Demonstrations of self-surrender or public shaming are celebrated

    • Personal privacy and confidentiality are devalued

  5. Sacred Science

    • Group doctrine is elevated above all other sources of truth 

    • Criticism of group doctrine is forbidden and reverence is required

    • Nuance and subtlety are disregarded in favor of dogma

  6. Loading the Language

    • Habitual use of group-specific words, phrases, or thought-stopping clichés 

    • Words and ideas are redefined or reinterpreted to fit the group’s ideology

  7. Doctrine Over Person

    • Ideology is valued above personal experiences

    • Members are encouraged to distrust and ignore contradictory feelings 

    • Nonconforming interpretations are pathologized

  8. Dispensing of Existence

    • Outsiders are depicted as evil, unworthy, and unenlightened

    • Outsiders are denied the right to exist as equals

    • Members who leave or reject the doctrine are completely rejected and excluded

RELIGIOUS POWER & CONTROL WHEEL

Adapted The Duluth Model (1993) Power and Control Wheel; Domestic Abuse Intervention Project
Adapted from Laura Anderson, LMFT with the Religious Trauma Institute.

Religious Power and Control

COERCION + THREATS

  • Fear of punishment, God’s wrath, eternal torment

  • Abandonment and exclusion by the group

  • Temptation, spiritual warfare, possession, etc.

 
SPIRITUAL INTIMIDATION

  • Leaders claim divine appointment & authority

  • Elitist treatment and lack of leadership accountability

  • Forbiddance of questioning the group’s ultimate truth

 
EMOTIONAL ABUSE 

  • Shaming for not meeting unrealistic expectations

  • Emotional suppression and invalidation

  • Pathologising of self-love, confidence, imperfection (“sin”, “pride”, “selfish”)

 
ISOLATION

  • Limited access to outside supports (family, healthcare, education, media)

  • Control of information and media access

  • Propaganda dehumanizing, mocking, & inciting fear of outsiders

 
MINIMIZING, DENYING, BLAMING

  • Spiritual bypassing and gaslightining

  • Denial of mistreatment or any unintended inpacts

  • Justification of abuse based on divine order

  • Blaming members for their own suffering (victim-blaming)

  • Required forgiveness & reconciliation

 
LOSS OF AUTONOMY

  • Suppression of critical thinking

  • Required reliance on the group for all needs

  • Denial of privacy & individual agency

  • Required submission to authority

 
DEFINING GENDER + SEXUALITY

  • Rigid/binary gender roles & expectations

  • Shame & exclusion for non-conformance

  • Patriarchy, subjugation of women

  • Pathologizing of queer identities, fear mongering

 
ECONOMIC CONTROL

  • Required financial investment from members

  • Shaming for “worldliness” or enjoyment of material things

  • Demands of total trust in divine provision and reliance on the group

  • Restrictions on education & employment of women

  • Exploitation of free labor from members

THE CYCLE OF RELIGIOUS ABUSE

 Adapted from The Cycle of Abuse by Walker, L.E. (1979) The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row.

  1. Indoctrination: The member is trained to conform and their fear of displeasing God, spiritual leaders, or the group builds.

  2. Rebuke: The member is shamed, punished, or publicly humiliated for a spiritual failure.

  3. Reconciliation: The member is blamed or invalidated and told to forgive.

  4. Belonging: The member is showered with love and promises of unconditional acceptance, reinforcing the continued cycle.

Cycle of Abuse

CONVERSION PRACTICES

Conversion practices (aka. Conversion “therapy”) are extremely damaging.

Definition: Programs designed to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

PART 3: THERAPEUTIC INTERVENTIONS

TREATMENT MODALITIES

Research-validated treatment modalities include:

Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)

Internal Family Systems (IFS) 

Somatic Experiencing

Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy 

Trauma-Focused CBT

THERAPEUTIC RELATIONSHIP

  • Your top priorities are to show acceptance and encourage autonomy

  • Model healthy boundaries and be intentional about how you use self-disclosure

  • Be attentive to the client’s readiness to change

  • You may need to slow down and anticipate reactivity when challenging biases

  • Things to Avoid:

    • Don’t inadvertently recreate guru/teacher dynamics

    • Acknowledge when you don't understand or don’t know

    • Set goals that aren’t performance-based

    • Watch out for retraumatization or potentially triggering interventions

      • Journaling, meditation, yoga, EMDR, even self-affirmation

  • Check-in when discussing taboo subjects

MANAGING COUNTER-TRANSFERENCE

  • Prioritize your self-care and know your limits

  • Process your own adverse religious experiences separately

  • Notice your automatic disgust responses related to beliefs and religion

  • Notice any impulses to rescue or instruct the client

  • Challenge your personal biases about what "healthy" spirituality looks like

MANAGING RISK

  • Retraumatization in therapy (including religious-based counseling) 

  • Perpetuating abuse as a survival mechanism

  • Repeated cycles of abuse because of normalized relationship dysfunction

  • Consequences of leaving the group and high risk of returning

  • All of the above risks can lead to increased suicide or self-harm risk

STAGES OF RELIGIOUS TRAUMA RECOVERY

Based on Judith Herman’s Stages of Trauma Recovery:

  1. Establishing Safety

  2. Remembrance + Mourning

  3. Reconnection

SAFETY + AUTONOMY

  • Ask for consent at every juncture to reinforce their autonomy.

  • Educate on nervous system responses to threats: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Appease.

  • Identify what physical and psychological safety feels like and encourage the client to listen to their body for signs of activation. 

  • Affirm their right to be sad, angry, or afraid, prioritize their safety and comfort, make autonomous decisions, and set protective boundaries.

REMEMBRANCE + REFRAMING

  • Encourage the client to tell their story and acknowledge the wound

  • Take time for them to mourn the losses

  • Use appropriate terms like grief, abuse, manipulation, etc.

  • Identify abusive cycles, power dynamics, triggering words or phrases

  • Identify coping mechanisms they developed in order to survive

  • Investigate their internal narrative that may be trauma-based

 

CONNECTION WITH SELF

  • Explore the client’s identity, values, and roles apart from the group.

  • Normalize having likes and dislikes and expressing needs and wants.

  • Increase body awareness and integrate feelings and sensations.

  • Help them develop and practice self-affirmation.

  • If they want to, help them reimagine what spirituality could look like.

 

CONNECTION WITH OTHERS

  • Redefine what healthy relationships look like (family, friends, marriage, etc)

  • Experiment with new ways of relating to others; create new templates.

  • Educate on dysfunctional relationship patterns and attachment styles

  • Practice setting and upholding boundaries instead of making requests

  • Build skills of assertiveness and communication

  • Normalize what it looks like to slowly build trust over time

 

DECONSTRUCTION

  • Religious deconstruction is a process of breaking down and analyzing the various parts of a belief system and its practices. 

  • Deconstruction CAN be therapeutically beneficial for some clients but not all

  • Raise the client’s awareness of their gut reactions and biases

  • Differentiate the client’s values from the group's values

  • Investigate any incongruence between their beliefs and personal values

  • Identify patterns of spiritual bypassing that come from religious beliefs

  • ALWAYS: Connect cognitive processing with the client’s emotional experiences

FINAL THOUGHTS

Take a stance of non-judgmental curiosity.

Spirituality can be an important part of someone’s well-being.

The most valuable thing you can offer a religious trauma survivor is AUTONOMY to think and feel for themself.

SOURCES

  • Abrams, Z. (2021) Improved treatment for developmental trauma. Monitor on Psychology, 52(5).

  • Argyle, M., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2013) The Social Psychology of Religion (Psychology Revivals) Routledge.

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

  • American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Abuse. In APA dictionary of psychology.

  • Blosnich, J. R., Henderson, E. R., Coulter, R., Goldbach, J. T., & Meyer, I. H. (2020). Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and Suicide Ideation and Attempt Among Sexual Minority Adults. American journal of public health, 110(7), e1–e7.

  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1976). The experimental ecology of education. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

  • Herman, J.L. (1993) Trauma and recovery: From domestic abuse to political terror.

  • Johnson D. & VanVonderen J. (2005). The subtle power of spiritual abuse. Bethany House.

  • Keller, K; Stabb, S; Harri, J; Marshall, D; Mollen, D. (2016) Development of a Spiritual Abuse Questionnaire.

  • Lifton, R. (1961) Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China.

  • Religious Trauma Institute: https://www.religioustraumainstitute.com/ 

  • Reclamation Collective: https://www.reclamationcollective.com/ 

  • Rotter, J.B. (1954) General principles for a social learning framework of personality study. Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

  • The Duluth Model (1993) Power and Control Wheel; Domestic Abuse Intervention Project.

  • Van Deusen, S. & Courtois, C. A. (2015) Spirituality, religion, and complex developmental trauma. In Spiritually oriented psychotherapy for trauma (pp. 29–54). American Psychological Association.

  • Vaughan, F. (1991) Spiritual issues in psychotherapy. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 23(2), 105-119.

  • Vieten, C; Lukoff, D. (2022) Spiritual and religious competencies in psychology. The American psychologist, 77(1), 26–38.

  • Walker, L.E. (1979) The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row.

  • Ward, D.J. (2011) The lived experience of spiritual abuse, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14:9, 899-915.

  • Winell, M; Allen, S. (2016) Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Los Gatos California: Smashwords Edition.

  • Winell, M. (2011) Religious Trauma Syndrome (Series of 3 articles), Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Today; British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies, London.

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