Religious Trauma Syndrome

Religious Trauma Syndrome March 27, 2013

by Calulu

Several days ago a link to an article written by Valerie Tarico at arrived on my Facebook page. The piece was about a newly named syndrome – RTS – Religious Trauma Syndrome and I knew that this is something everyone here at NLQ could benefit reading.

The definition of RTS by Dr. Marlene Winell, who is the one that coined the name after twenty plus years treating people suffering from spiritual abuse.

Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.

This type of spiritual abuse is one of the main subjects we’ve been discussing at NLQ since the first few posts Vyckie Garrison wrote. It forms of the core of what we’ve been seeking to expose and help other spiritual abuse survivors realize that they are not alone. That is is hope and recovery.

What is most interesting about Dr. Winell’s research is her assertion that controlling religion creates mental illness.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.

How many of us here has talked about being ‘triggered’ or having ‘flashbacks’?

Some survivors, who I prefer to call “reclaimers,” have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights.

And why it hurts so much to simply walk away.

Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.

Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.

Read the entire article at at Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems

Comments open below

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • texcee

    I can relate to this because I had an incident just today. Many of my friends on Facebook, both gay and straight, support same sex marriage and have changed their profile photos to a red box with a lighter colored equal sign. I had hesitated because I was afraid of letting my religious relatives and neighbors see that I am supportive of same sex marriage. I am straight, married and have a child. However, I actually thought, “I can’t ‘come out’ — what will other people think of me?!” Then I decided I was being a complete coward, worrying that people I no longer respected would think badly of me for standing up for my beliefs. These are the dregs still in my soul that remain after leaving an abusive religion. I changed my Facebook photo in solidarity with the friends who really matter to me.

  • Persephone

    I read the article a day or so ago, and it was very good. Please read the comments. They’re blowing up with people talking about their personal religious traumas.

  • suzannecalulu

    The comments are mind blowing. I’m just happy to see a name for this and abusive theology being officially called out. The stories are heartbreaking in the comments.

  • Tori

    I am really struggling at the moment, I moved away for a decade, but then had to return to my fathers home. In that decade I moved on mentally so VERY much, and I am not going to go back to harmful beliefs. But being here, and refusing to go along with their ideas (and the subsequent ill treatment of myself and my little one, when I refused) Has finally robbed me of all/any trust I had for them. I feel almost bereft. I am grieving, my daddy, my hero, has turned out to be little more than a facilitator of the bullying and pressure I am experiencing. My brother, just a liar and an alcoholic. I so wish I hadn’t come back.

  • Alexis

    Tori, does your state have any resources you can use to get yourself and your little one out of that toxic environment

  • Betty Crux

    I can relate to the nightmares: mine are almost always religious in nature. I had one a month or so ago that the tiny little “Old Betty” on my shoulder is still trying to convince me could be forshadowing of my downfall for leaving the faith.

    I dont remember details vividly, other than to say it was a dream in first person and it felt like actual events. In it, I woke up in our bedroom in the dark to a demon in the corner ceiling across from where I sleep, looking at me. It then started moving closer and though I tried to wake up my dogs and boyfriend, they were fast asleep. The demon began harassing me for what felt like hours when the Blessed Mother appeared and chased it away. Before it left, it said “you havent seen the last of me. I won’t come alone next time.” The Blessed Mother then told me I needed to repent and get right with God before I woke up in cold sweat.

    Any amateur psychologist could look at my upbringing and break down root of this dream: being told that demons and the Devil are actively targeting us & my extended family’s insistance that leaving Roman Catholicism for “Evangelical/Non-denom” church was a bad move.

    Yet still, knowing full well it was just a dream, there’s still that tiny part in my head telling me “…but what if?” I feel like i’ll never be able to shake the superstition.

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  • Sikora Lynn

    Yup. I totally get it. There is nothing more embarassing than being a grown ass woman who checks behind the shower curtain to see if a denizen of hell is waiting on the other side to get her. I hate the the dark, hate thumps in the night, deplore being alone, take scary movies too personally, and I am just too creeped out for my own good. Honestly, I want to support some of you by replying, but your own nightmares are too scary for me to read! I wish this would end.