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What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome?

September 30, 2022

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The Meadows

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By Anna McKenzie

What is religious trauma syndrome (RTS)? This is a term for the trauma disorder that develops as a result of suffering mental or physical abuse in religious environments or under the guise of religion. Because religion is often very personal and has a strong structure for authority, it has been used by certain individuals and communities as a means by which to wield power over others. Like toxic political or cultural systems, toxic religious systems can cause a great deal of personal and social harm. However, those who have survived this toxicity can recover, even to the point of rediscovering and thriving in healthy spiritual beliefs. 

Like toxic political or cultural systems, toxic religious systems can cause a great deal of personal and social harm

Religious Trauma Syndrome: Why Does It Happen?

To some people, religion is not a vehicle for spiritual connection, but a weapon for gaining power over other people. When these individuals (or even communities) come untethered from moral accountability, they use social status, religious principles, the semblance of personal connection, and even the name of God for their own ends. This is especially evident when leaders or adherents reinforce the idea that they should not be questioned or held accountable to anyone; unchecked power can cause unchecked damage.

Spirituality serves an important function for human beings. Many of us want to be connected to that which is greater than ourselves and to have transcendent experiences. To be connected requires a certain degree of vulnerability on our part. This is one of the main reasons why the abuse of religious systems can cause deep hurt and trauma, because the trust that is required for belief and connection is violated by manipulation and power plays. 

Abuse enacted in the name of God can cause deep disruption related to a person’s core beliefs about the nature of God. But it’s very important to understand human nature in this context. In the recent Meadows Behavioral Healthcare Recovery Replay podcast, “Rachel Margolis: Maintaining Faith Through Trauma (Part 1),” Margolis, a certified life coach from Texas, discusses her experience with religious abuse.

“Human nature is human nature,” says Margolis, “and human nature is not always spiritually-minded for the good of the other, and can be very selfish.” Margolis explains how it’s not uncommon for selfish people to “hide behind an identity of church authority” to spiritually abuse others. For those who have been traumatized, Margolis says, “It can really be difficult and almost heroic to reclaim a spiritual connection after something like that has happened. And when people do it, it’s beautiful to see, and it’s usually very authentic, very real, and true to themselves.”

Trauma happens when we experience or witness life-threatening events, from acts of violence to negligence or abuse. Religious trauma can occur as a result of toxic relationships, shaming, and physical, sexual, or emotional harm. However, people can recover from religious trauma syndrome and go on to lead fulfilling lives that do not have to be void of spiritual connection. 

Religious Trauma Syndrome Symptoms

Religious trauma syndrome symptoms are similar to those of other trauma disorders, but fear, confusion, and shame may be specifically heightened due to the nature of religious abuse. Here are some signs of religious trauma syndrome:

  • Deep feelings of guilt and shame
  • Intense mood swings
  • Nightmares or sleeping disorders
  • Disordered eating
  • Feelings of loneliness and hopelessness
  • Mental fog and confusion
  • Restlessness or fatigue
  • Extreme anxiety or panic attacks
  • Severe depression or suicidal ideation
  • Bouts of intense anger
  • Difficulty understanding how to set appropriate boundaries
  • Deep-seated fear of rejection or criticism

These symptoms are a result of one-time or chronic incidents in which a person or people have threatened or coerced you under the banner of apparent religious beliefs. In toxic relationships, abusers speak about their “love” as they commit acts of manipulation and violence; in toxic religious relationships, abusers use religious terminology the same way. The reliance on power dynamics often gives away that true nature of a religious abuse situation.

The reliance on power dynamics often gives away that true nature of a religious abuse situation.

Religious Trauma Syndrome Recovery

If you’re suffering from the symptoms listed, your religious trauma syndrome recovery can start today. Like other trauma disorders, this condition can cause extreme distress that may lead you to question yourself, God, and the world around you; it may also propel a desire in you to self-medicate through drugs, alcohol, or risk-taking behaviors. Abusing substances or harming yourself does not solve the problem.

You can recover from this kind of trauma and rediscover yourself. You can develop healthy boundaries and habits that will allow you to have positive relationships, even a healthy relationship with God if you want one. You can untangle the knot of pain that has kept you feeling ashamed and fearful. 

If you would like to embark on this journey, The Meadows has treatment options that can help you restore your mental health and heal from trauma. Our research-backed programs are evidence-based, and we focus on both time-tested and innovative techniques for resolving trauma and mental health distress. Contact us today to learn more about what we can do for you. You may not have been in control of the situation that caused your trauma, but you can choose how you respond. Decide to embrace a fulfilling life in recovery; we can help you take the first step!