If You Struggle With PTSD From Your Previous Religion, There’s Finally Help For You

If You Struggle With PTSD From Your Previous Religion, There’s Finally Help For You October 7, 2019

A while ago on Twitter, I asked people what the worst part of leaving religion was for them. While many were happy to reply that they’d not experienced much hardship, far too many replied with harrowing stories that have sat with me ever since.

One person told me, for instance, that their atheism was used against them during divorce proceedings. Others said they lost friends over it. Some people explained that they were fired from their jobs for it.

The stories that hit me hardest, though, were stories of lost family and community. One reply went on for several tweets about how they had lost their entire family when they left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and due to this experience, this person now struggles with PTSD.

Since asking this question and hearing all of your responses, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with Dr Marlene Winell, who specializes in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of religion. In fact, she coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome”.

According to Dr Winell,

RTS is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. The symptoms compare most easily with PTSD, which results from experiencing or being confronted with death or serious injury and causing feelings of terror, helplessness, or horror. This can be a single event or chronic abuse of some kind. With RTS, there is chronic abuse, especially of children, plus the major trauma of leaving the fold. Like PTSD, the impact is long-lasting, with intrusive thoughts, negative emotional states, impaired social functioning, and other problems.

Symptoms of RTS include:

  • Confusion,
  • Difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking
  • Dissociation
  • Identity confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Anger
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Lack of meaning
  • Sleep disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Nightmares
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Substance abuse
  • Somatization
  • Rupture of family and social network
  • Employment issues
  • Financial stress
  • Problems acculturating into society
  • Interpersonal dysfunction

As someone entering this conversation five years ago having never belonged to religion or had religious beliefs, I wanted more than anything to be able to understand the experiences of my fellow atheists who had lost their faith. As time moved forward and I got to know more and more of you, there were so many shocking things I learned about you. I couldn’t believe that some of you, out and open and proud atheists, still struggled with an irrational fear of eternal damnation. I was surprised to learn just how many of you have gone on, well past leaving your religion, feeling intense shame and guilt for your sexuality and for who you are. I can’t tell you how many of you have disclosed to me the severe pain and grief you feel over the family that shunned you simply because you no longer share their faith.

These things are bonafide trauma. They’re not easy to overcome. I have never lived this, but I have heard from so countless many of you that I know, this is so hard to overcome.

The absolute worst part, too, is how taboo it is to suggest that Religious Trauma Syndrome is even a thing. You’re struggling with your own mind, and now you have to fight to have the people around you even recognize it as a real struggle. From Dr Marlene Winell, again:

At present, raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. In society, we treasure our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Our laws and mores reflect the general principle that if we are not harming others, we can do as we like. Forcing children to go to church hardly seems like a crime. Real damage is assumed to be done by extreme fringe groups we call “cults”, and people have heard of ritual abuse. Moreover, religious institutions have a vested interest in promoting an uncritical view.

But mind-control and emotional abuse is actually the norm for many large, authoritarian, mainline religious groups. The sanitization of religion makes it all the more insidious. When the communities are so large and the practices normalized, victims are silenced.

What you are suffering is real, and Dr Winell has been fighting for decades to have RTS recognized and brought into the mental health discourse. In that time, she’s also offered her professional services to sufferers of RTS and most recently, that has taken the form of a 3-day retreat in California.

The retreat is described as “3 days of activities for healing from harmful religion”. It’s affordable, but for those who are a little bit more budget-conscious, there are financial aid options available. In fact, if you’d like to pitch in a buck or two to help pay for someone who may not otherwise be able to afford it, you can click here.

Testimonials from the last retreat included:

“This was such a fun, safe, and constructive weekend. I got so much out of this in terms of community and understanding myself.”

“It felt amazing to deeply connect with other people who get it.”

“One of, if not the greatest, experiences of my life. I’m so glad I could come. It exceeded my expectations.”

“I appreciated how safe the environment felt, no pressure to share or feeling of judgment. Good balance between activities, teaching, conversation, etc.”

“It’s been a very powerful experience. Exceeded my expectations. Being with others with similar experiences was very healing.”

“I cannot make a statement that would adequately capture the level to which attending a Journey Free retreat with Dr Marlene Winell helped me. I would highly recommend that anyone who is struggling with issues related to leaving their faith or the damage caused by religion consider attending one of these retreats. For me, it was an insightful, therapeutic and challenging yet relaxing and much-needed experience. There is great safety in exploring issues related to religious trauma with others who have shared similar experiences with the moderation and direction of an experienced professional. It was a weekend I will never forget and will always have fond memories of.”

If you struggle with trauma as a result of your previous religion, this could be a life-changing experience for you. Just finding out it existed filled me with hope. I have known for a long time that many of you suffer as a result of losing your faith. For just as long, I have felt absolutely helpless. Now, I finally feel like I have an answer for you. Now, I can send you to Dr Marlene Winell.

Check out the retreat: RTS Retreat

Follow Dr Winell on Facebook: Journey Free

Have you or anyone you know suffered from RTS or something similar? Let me know about your experiences in the comments!

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  • Milo C

    Excellent news; I’m glad that people are getting the resources they need to recover.

    On the other hand, we need to be aware that religious members and groups work to actively discredit these victims and attack the psychiatrists who aid them, even here on Patheos.

  • Jim Jones

    When the religious harm humans they are evil. Splitting up families and friends is the sign of a cult.

  • Kelley Gaither

    Even though I’ve given up organized religion,I still find myself having niggling thoughts of terror that have me in cold sweats at times,wondering what if I’m wrong,and I wind up in Hell. I’m so very glad that programs run by professionals are coming online to help people.

  • Good points and a great read, Courtney.

  • Jim Jones

    FWIW, gods are impossible, Jesus never existed, and the bible is fiction from the first page to the last.

    Religious faith is just wishful thinking.

    If you doubt this, see The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidences of His Existence


    Read chapter 2.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Getting out of an authoritarian religious group must be similar to getting out of jail. You have to learn how to organise your own life and make your own decisions. If you never learned this while growing up it must be very, very difficult. Particularly in parts of the US where religion seems to dominate everything. My sympathies and I’m glad someone is helping out.

  • jacqueline misera

    Great article. I run a site for PTSD and Spiritual Abuse now for nearly ten years. http://www.askjacqueline.life
    Most of our participants were abused in Jehovah Witnesses, Bible Students.
    So I would be glad to help, I am a Holistic Psychotherapist using triggerpoint and massage therapy as an added Modality.

  • persephone

    I’m one of those ex-JWs who lost my entire family due to leaving. The cult has kept pushing for stronger and stronger shunning levels against former members. My parents got into it when I was 12. I was pushed to become a member at 13 and get baptized. 13 is too young for a decision like that, but that’s a common age for it. Then you’re punished when you become an adult and shake off the lies and abuse.

    I haven’t spoken to my parents in years, but I can verify the common topic that arises every time someone who is out contacts family members are who still JWs: When are you going to come back? Armageddon is right around the corner, and we don’t want to lose you forever.

    *Armageddon has been right around the corner since 1914. The Governing Body keeps moving the date, and the sheep just accept that that’s the way things are. My parents are now in their 80s, and their plan to live through Armageddon while still young is decades behind them. They’re going to die without ever getting what was promised.

  • Jim Jones

    Always refer to the JW as a cult. Any religion that splits friends and families by order is a cult.

    And this super shunning is the sure sign of the end of this cult.

    BTW, something like this is worth remembering:

    “The rapture came and went. You missed it. One little old lady, a spinster ex-school teacher, in Topeka Kansas was raptured up to meet her savior. The rest of you were judged and found wanting. Too bad.”

  • Jim Jones

    Of course, but I like to see that. I regard them as sparring partners to practice on. It makes me less angry and more knowledgeable.

  • persephone

    I know of kids who were severely abused. There was a woman who was murdered by her husband, but nothing could be proved. The emotional abuse is what sticks. You can’t physically dig into your brain and remove the slime they put there; it has to erode. It takes years, sometimes decades.

  • ginger_katz

    Survivors of religious trauma can also see http://www.recoveringfromreligion.org for referral to secular therapists.

  • MelindaF

    My husband suffered with combat related C-PTSD. It is one of the most awful things you can think of. He would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched n sweat, and screaming at the top of his lungs. He fought against it until he passed away this past August (cancer). Nothing helped him more than talking to other vets and a medication named Cymbalta. And he he said losing his faith, at first, was as difficult as what he went through in Lebanon. And friends – that is saying a whole lot.