• Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

How Does Religious Trauma Affects You (And How Can You Heal)?

Updated: Jan 10


Woman praying in church; religious trauma
While not all religions are dogmatic, some can lead to religious trauma

First off, I think religion and spirituality can be a very healthy, meaningful, supportive part of your life. Obviously, not everyone who participates in religion has religious trauma. It is also important to note that there is no one religion or spiritual tradition that is more abusive than others. Any authoritarian, close-minded religious group can lead to religious trauma, a.k.a. spiritual abuse. In this article, I will describe how religious trauma affects people, along with some ideas about how to heal from it.


There are positive aspects of religion. These are a sense of belonging, healthy humility, and connectedness to other living beings and to nature. When religious groups think that they are better than others, it seems to violate the principles of most of the world’s religions. When any ideology or group of people takes on authoritarian and fundamentalist characteristics, it becomes dangerous.


What is Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)?

People standing in a line at church; religious trauma
What is religious trauma? Photo by Pedro Lima

Religious Trauma Syndrome is not an official disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5), but it has been researched and there are real victims of this type of abuse. Some writers and researchers avoid calling it a syndrome, because it is not the same for everyone who suffers at the hands of a religious group.


You might have undergone different suffering from another person from your religion, but both of your experiences might still be categorized as religious abuse. The main risk factors of religious trauma are insistence on conformity to the religious group; pressure to abandon your own opinions and ideas; and motivation by fear and manipulation. If you were indoctrinated when you are very small, you did not have the ability to think critically and so were more vulnerable to internalizing negative beliefs.


Religious Trauma Can Be Subtle

Folded Caucasian hands on the Bible; religious trauma
Religious scripture can be used to justify religious trauma

When I first heard this term, I thought of priests sexually abusing children. While that is certainly traumatizing, there are more subtle forms of religious trauma as well. For example, being continually shamed for questioning the authority of your religion might prevent you from critically evaluating everything.


This would make you very susceptible and vulnerable. If you fear being ostracized from your family and friends in the church, you might go along with things you find morally wrong. You might even commit violence against your own family members if you have been led to believe that the religion supports or commands it.


When extreme, religious trauma can make you forget who you are because you are told that you don’t know anything; the leader of the group has all the knowledge. Thus, your ability to think for yourself and your identity were severely impaired. You grew dependent on the leaders to make all the decisions, so you don’t develop normal social and cognitive abilities to trust your own knowledge and experience.


Extreme Religions Support Oppression and Exclusion

African-American child; religious,
Racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression might be rationalized by extreme religion

Many extreme religious groups support various types of oppression, including sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. If you are in a relationship with an abusive partner, your faith can be used against you as well. Abusive partners might insult your religious beliefs if they are different, use your spiritual beliefs to shame manipulate you, use your religious scripture from to rationalize abusive behavior, or demand that your children be raised in the faith that you don’t agree with.


To illustrate, I recently saw a video about Katie Holmes’ daughter Suri being raised outside of the Scientology faith after her divorce from Tom Cruise. Katie did not want her daughter to be forced to believe what her ex-husband believed. Unfortunately, her daughter had very little contact with her father because of religion.

Asian girl lying on floor, unhappy; religious abuse
Children can be very negatively impacted by religious trauma

In your religion, you may have been forced to give the majority of your financial resources to the religion, which is financial abuse. Your religion may have justified abusing your child or other family members because of a warped interpretation of spiritual beliefs. Any belief that would rationalize mistreatment of another living creature does not seem very spiritual to me.


I have also seen clients whose religious parents disowned them because they are a member of the LGBTQQIA community. The result can be devastating for both the child and the parents, leading to unresolved grief, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.


What Are the Symptoms of Religious Trauma?

Person with blue hair standing by ocean; spiritual abuse
Isolation from your loved ones can be a symptom of religious trauma; photo by Darshan Gajara

If you suffer from religious trauma, your symptoms may resemble Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Some of the symptoms include:

· Poor critical thinking skills;

· Low self-esteem;

· All-or-nothing thinking;

· Difficulty making decisions;

· Sexual problems;

· Exclusion from your social network or family;

· Social immaturity or awkwardness;

· Depression, grief, loneliness, or anxiety;

· Feeling out of place outside your religion;

· Detachment from culture and social norms.


How To Heal From Religious Trauma?

Woman with arms spread out in the sunshine; religious trauma
It takes hard work, but you can recover from religious trauma

If you believe you suffer from religious trauma, it is important to establish contact with people who are supportive, kind, and do not reinforce the thinking patterns of your religious group. It may be hard, but you might take a long break from participating in the group at all. Unfortunately, this might mean giving up friends, family, and community if they are too rigidly religious.


Starting Over After Spiritual Abuse

Recovering from spiritual abuse can take a while. You need to rediscover who you are, what you believe in independently from how you were raised, and strengthen your interpersonal boundaries. It’s almost like starting over and relearning how to live outside that insular group.

People running in the park; religious trauma
Find a community outside your religion to make connections

To begin, you need to acknowledge that religious trauma happened to you. While your parents and religious leaders might not have intended harm, they did cause you harm. It might help to find a group or community that supports victims of spiritual abuse, so you can feel less alone and different.


With that support, you can explore and discover who you are without the fundamentalist indoctrination. What do you believe in or value most? What are your interests and hobbies? Unfortunately, some people were so programmed by their religions that they don’t know themselves very well.


If that’s the case, you might start off with a therapy group or individual therapy. EMDR therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy can be helpful in healing from religious trauma. If you want help with this healing, please call me today at 661-233-6771.

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