Marlene Winell, Ph.D coined term Religious Trauma Syndrome
Are you experiencing an existential crisis because you don’t believe what you were taught anymore? Are you afraid you’re a bad person, will be damned or are going to hell because you no longer follow the religion you were raised in? Do you question what’s true because it feels like everything you were taught was a lie? Do you experience crippling anxiety outside of the religious institution? Or do you feel depressed because you don’t know the meaning of life anymore?
Are you afraid that you won’t be able to move past shame and fear from what you were taught? Are you worried that you won’t ever feel safe outside of the religious community but also can’t go back and try to fit in anymore? Are you questioning who you are as a person outside of the gender and sexuality rules you were taught from your upbringing? Do you feel ashamed when you explore sexuality/gender because of the religious messages? Do you face constant religious guilt? Do you wish you could move on and just “feel normal” but don’t feel understood by most people outside of religion?
Many people have adverse religious experiences but they might not classify it as trauma unless they have specific memories of abuse. Adverse Religious Experiences is defined as any experience of a religious belief, practice, or structure that undermines an individual's sense of safety or autonomy and/or negatively impacts their physical, social, emotional, relational, or psychological well- being. These experiences can result in trauma to that person.
Adverse Religious Experiences can include:
And much more.
These adverse religious experiences can result in trauma to the brain, body, and deeper sense of self. This can look like overwhelming self-doubt, confusion, constant fear and shame, fears of people and places outside the religious system, depression, anxiety, self-medicating with substances, dissociation and disconnect from the body, a freeze response, lack of purpose and a felt sense that life is meaningless, hopelessness, distrust in self, distrust in others, and more.
Thankfully, you are not alone. There are research proven strategies that can support you to reprocess trauma so you have the freedom to explore what you want in life now. Meeting with a trained religious trauma therapist for individual counseling can provide you the space to explore the harmful messages you were given, receive tools for helping the body process distress, and access your own ability to heal from trauma and move forward.
Another way to overcome religious trauma is through group religious trauma therapy where you will receive the support of peers who have had similar experiences and a trained therapist that can provide guidance and reflection. See the Group Therapy tab for more info.
Many people who are questioning the faith system they were raised in or left it entirely feel worse before they feel better. Especially if the religion said that questioning makes you a bad or “unfaithful” person, or you risk harsh consequences for doing so, this can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. At the same time, there often is some shift that has happened in that person’s life, whether it was a single incident that caused them to change their beliefs or prolonged experiences of something feeling not quite right, which makes it nearly impossible to go back to how things were before.
This can lead to being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Try to fit in and ignore the feelings of cognitive dissonance or face the confusion and uncertainty head on?
Meeting with a therapist that is familiar with religious trauma can make all the difference in navigating this. Many therapists are not educated on religious trauma and therefore do not understand it’s deep and significant impacts.
A trained counselor can offer emotional support for navigating these distressing feelings in a way that allows you to move through the feelings and not stay stuck there. It is a normal part of the process to feel lost and confused. With the support of a knowledgable therapist, you can heal the parts of yourself that feel trapped, shamed, and fearful while exploring what makes sense to you now and rewriting your story.
This process is powerful for shifting the relationship with shame and fear, rewiring the brain so that instincts based in past beliefs decrease or even go away entirely, and increasing the person’s trust in themself and confidence in the new path they are headed down.
Every person’s experience with religious trauma is different. Your therapist will tailor the process to what makes sense for you and your goals. In general, therapy will start with exploring what you are experiencing in the present moment that is causing distress, getting curious about what past experiences may be linked to this distress, and finding tools to manage the trauma responses outside of session. There is a mix between body-based practices to support healing as well as processing the thoughts/beliefs to find what helps you move past adverse experiences.
Sarah Kate has supported people to heal their trauma throughout her 8 years of being a therapist. She personally is passionate about helping with religious trauma as she is a survivor of religious trauma herself. Check out her about me page to learn more of her story.
At Mindful Connection Counseling, we believe you have the power to heal from the experiences that led you to believe you are unworthy or unlovable. Even though it doesn’t often feel like it, facing these existential crises is incredibly brave. You deserve the support of a trained professional who can assist you in reclaiming your story.
Absolutely not! A pivotal part of exploring traumatic events in general and that includes adverse religious experiences is that the therapist can hold space for nuance and what matters to each person they are working with. Your therapist is invested in empowering you to find your own answers to your questions. The intention is to support you to create the relationship with faith, beliefs, non-beliefs, religious community, community outside of religion etc. that you want while helping you heal from distressing messages and experiences.
Yes, definitely! Counseling can help with the instinctual body responses that may be linked to trauma messages like “I don’t matter”, “I am a bad person” and “I’m not enough”. These often show up as body sensations and feelings instead of specific memories. There are multiple counseling methods that support working through these thoughts and feelings.
Therapy does not have to be a lifetime commitment. Your therapist can support you with tools and resources to empower you outside of the session to improve your mental health and wellness. This can be a more brief approach to therapy.
Or if you’re looking to do deeper work in processing religious trauma, your therapist will tailor the approach to those intentions. Using effective trauma techniques, clients can have improvements in even 2-8 sessions of trauma specialized therapy sessions (see EMDR specialty).
Some clients stay in therapy for a long time but shift frequency when they’ve gotten what they wanted from it to a more maintenance phase. Some start, make progress and pause then come back, and some do continued therapy over the course of a longer period of time. What matters most is that you get the support you are looking for whether it be short term or long term. You get to decide what fits for you.
Increasing your awareness of how your past affects your present is helpful even if trauma isn’t a word that fits for you. From attachment research, which essentially is the study of how we relate to ourselves, others, and communities, we have learned that we tend to repeat patterns. But with reflection, we can bring awareness to this which allows us to have choices. We can choose what we want to continue from our past and what we want to change. So it is totally okay that you don’t resonate with the word trauma and therapy can still help you to have more choices, freedom, happiness in relationships and self confidence.
No problem! Let’s do a video session. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Florida, Colorado, and Idaho. That means I am licensed to treat anyone in these locations. Online therapy provides convenience, cuts travel costs, and makes scheduling easier so you can get the help you deserve. Call or email me today to set up an appointment.
If you’re struggling to recover after adverse religious experiences or leaving your faith community, help is available.
One way to define trauma is too much, too soon, too fast; such as a car accident. Or it can be not enough for too long; such as neglect. In a religious context, this can look like specific instances of violation, harassment, abuse or ongoing experiences where fear and shame were used to gain control or compliance. We help adults stuck in panic, anxiety, or depression resulting from these experiences.
The intersection of identities (gender, sexuality, race, ability, size, neurodivergence, etc. etc. and religious setting/teachings) creates a wide range of messages we receive about who we are and how the world works. For many LGBTQ+ people, there are specific painful experiences/teachings within religious contexts that have taught them they are unworthy. Our therapists at MCC believe in everyone's worthiness as humans. We are experienced in helping queer people heal harmful messages while honoring the diversity of spiritual/religious beliefs or nonbeliefs in the queer community.
Many people don't resonate with the word trauma. Spiritual hurt is a painful experience that takes place in a spiritual or religious context that a person may or may not consider as traumatic. It can also be hurts that shake a person to the core of who they are as a human being. Our therapists are trained in holding space for these types of distressing experiences. We know how to explore and validate the complexity and diversity of spiritual hurts.
A helpful term for the experience of dismantling the beliefs and ideas, especially from evangelical christianity, a person was taught. We provide therapy to support the exploration of anyone questioning, changing or dismantling their belief system. We believe every person has the right to come to their own conclusions about the mysteries of the world.
IMPACTED BY PURITY CULTURE
As writer Linda Kay Klein describes, "The term “purity culture” is generally associated with the white, American, Evangelical Christian Purity Movement and the corollary Purity Industry launched in the early 1990s. However, evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on the ethics that undergird purity culture. The specifics vary by religion and culture, but gender- and sexual-control upon which purity culture stands is global, cross-religious, and cross-cultural."
GRIEF & IDENTITY LOSS
The experience of leaving an organized religion or the decision to stay in one following a shift in belief system can result in loss of community, familiarity, and even identity. We can feel grief even when we know we are making the best decision we can at that time. If you have moments of inexplicable sadness, loneliness, regrets about your past, or are confused about who you are now, our therapists can support your grief process to help you recover after these losses.
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