Religious and spiritual beliefs are important parts of life for many people. Practicing religion is a great way for people to discover their faith, feeling a sense of peace and belonging.
With that said, authoritarian religious institutions can be much more intense than most indoctrinations. These can be extremely stressful and inundating for those who practice. However, leaving a dogmatic religious institution can cause just as much stress, trauma, and psychological damage.
Religious Trauma Syndrome is a fairly new term, though the syndrome has likely been around for as long as religious institutions have.
If you or someone you love seems to be struggling after severing their connection with faith, here is everything you need to know.
*Content warning: this article mentions information related to sexual violence.
What is Religious Trauma Syndrome?
Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by those who are having difficulty leaving an authoritarian religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. The individual may be struggling to come to terms with the loss of their connection to faith, or they may be trying to respond to a potentially controlling community and lifestyle.
It presents itself in similar ways to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). The main difference between PTSD and C-PTSD is that the latter involves repeated traumas over a series of months or years, rather than a single event.
Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome
Authoritarian institutions that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure combined with strict theology are usually the causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome. If these mindsets are reinforced at home or school, the symptoms can be worsened.
Authoritarian religious practices might suppress normal child development if the teachings begin at such a young age. When religion becomes a mainstay of a child’s life, cognitive, social, and emotional stages can become diluted or skipped.
Also, dogmatic religious institutions might condemn the idea of independent thought, resulting in damage to normal thinking and emotional capability. When dysfunctional beliefs are taught, especially at a young age, it may force a child to produce linear thoughts that harm their ability of feeling appropriate emotions or engaging in acts of free will.
Authoritarian institutions also preach hierarchies of control that can skew a person’s perception of knowledge. In controlling communities, knowledge is revealed rather than discovered, which can cause individuals to believe unreliable sources as factual information.
Finally, physical and sexual abuse can play a large role in causing trauma upon exiting a religious affiliation. Physical punishment being used as discipline or sexual harassment within a church can lead to development of Religious Trauma Syndrome.
There is also a paradoxical element of Religious Trauma Syndrome that can cause the abuse to be cyclical. In teachings of fundamentalist authoritarian religions, individuals are often blamed as the one solely responsible for their sins. However, the power structures make it seem like nothing can be done about it. The neverending cycle of confessing and apologizing for sin, only to know that it may happen again, can be psychologically draining.
Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome
Symptoms of trauma may present themselves differently depending on the severity, length, and frequency of the abuse. However, the symptoms of this syndrome can often mimic the symptoms of other mental disorders.
Those with Religious Trauma Syndrome might exhibit abnormalities in the following:
- Cognition: Individuals may feel confused, have poor critical thinking ability, or have difficulty making decisions on their own. Similarly, they may have negative self-image and feel little self-worth.
- Emotions: Severing ties with faith might cause an individual to go through grief in a similar manner to losing a loved one. This can result in depression, anxiety, anger, and a sense of hopelessness.
- Culture: Individuals may feel disconnected from society, having difficulty belonging to a particular group. Depending on the nature of the institution, some individuals may have information gaps in popular culture, current events, or trends.
- Social: After disaffiliation, individuals may feel a rupture in their social network and feel that they’ve let someone down. They may experience social anxiety and have trouble engaging in appropriate situations.
In addition, individuals may experience learned helplessness as a result of their religious institution. For examples, some religions preach that followers are weak and dependent on divine entities. Repeated exposure to seemingly uncontrollable stressors may result in a person failing to use any control options that may later become available.
Because of the nature of this syndrome, it’s likely that its symptoms will be co-occurring with the symptoms of another mental illness.
Common co-occurring illnesses related to Religious Trauma Syndrome include, but are not limited to:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Sexual and marital dysfunction
Why Does Disaffiliation Sometimes Lead to Religious Trauma Syndrome?
For many, disconnecting from faith can be done fairly easily without any of the symptoms related to Religious Trauma Disorder. However, some people might be more susceptible to long term effects than others.
One reason can be traced back to something called trauma bonding. Trauma bonding occurs when an abusive entity and the person being abused form an emotional connection. It most often happens when a victim displays empathy or affection for the abuser.
While people can be abusive, so can the ideologies and practices of an institution as a whole. Although not everyone develops a trauma bond, it can do quite a bit of psychological damage.
The reason that someone may feel affection towards an abuser is complicated, but it can usually be traced to attachment and dependence. Someone who has spent their entire lives devoted to a particular faith can have a naturally unhealthy attachment. Religion might be the main source of comfort that a person has, which will cause them to turn to faith in times of need.
An individual may then become dependent on their faith, or members of a church’s hierarchy, for fulfillment of emotional needs.
Trauma bonding may also become stronger if the abuse is cyclical, as an individual may feel false hope that their abusive institution will one day change their ways. Likewise, someone may believe that the abuse is the price they have to pay in order to receive something in return from the abuser.
Additionally, there may be a fear that upon disaffiliation, an individual will be punished for trying to disassociate with a given institution. Some may worry that they will be damned to hell, physically abused, or further punished by members of their church if they were to try leaving.
How To Help Someone with Religious Trauma Syndrome
Someone who is experiencing the aftermath of religious disaffiliation may be undergoing an immense amount of stress as they try to cope. As a bystander, family member, or friend, you can approach the situation with compassion.
It is important to respect the boundaries of someone struggling with this disorder, but you can still be there to lend a hand:
- Be patient: The trauma that fundamentalist institutions may have on an individual is intense, so they won’t heal overnight. Although you may be eager to hear about their situation so that you can offer more assistance, allow the individual to open up when they are ready. Maintain a positive and supportive attitude, understanding that progress will come with its own setbacks.
- Respect boundaries: There may be certain details that a loved one feels embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Rather than trying to lead them down your version of recovery, allow the individual to set their own limits to ensure their own comfort and safety.
- Manage triggers: Similar to PTSD, someone struggling with Religious Trauma Syndrome may become stressed or upset by certain images or sounds. Religious symbols or holy texts may cause an adverse reaction in certain individuals. Be cognizant of the things that might be causing them stress and talk to your loved one about how you can help them work through triggers should they arise in the future.
Religious Trauma Syndrome is a fairly undocumented form of trauma that likely affects more people than we know. It’s a condition experienced by people who are having difficulty leaving an authoritarian institution, or are facing the stressors of having disaffiliated.
Abusive and unethical practices within a religious regime can cause someone to feel cognitively dissociated, socially inept, and emotionally unstable. Religious Trauma Syndrome can also mimic the symptoms of many other mental disorders, primarily PTSD and depression.
Some people may feel great stress in attempting to leave an institution because of trauma bonding. This occurs when an abused person feels affectionate towards an abusive entity.
If you or someone you know is struggling with this issue, just know that help is out there. Consulting a doctor or mental health professional can set you on the right path.
YANA matches you with a mental health professional who can tailor a treatment plan based on your experiences, lifestyle, and symptoms. They can even prescribe medication if necessary that can be shipped directly to your door, at no additional cost.
Mental healthcare has never been so convenient. If your feelings and emotions are ever getting the best of you, just know you are not alone. YANA is here for you whenever you need.