What is Trauma?

What is Trauma? May 6, 2024

What is Trauma?

(From our new book, Evolving From Religious Trauma. June 4th)

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When I first started to learn about trauma, it wasn’t very clear to me. We didn’t talk about trauma; we talked about sin. We certainly believed that there were things in life that were traumatic. Still, we ignored all the symptoms that are now becoming apparent because we assumed that we just needed to pray more, read the Bible, and dedicate ourselves to the Christian narrative.

First, we assumed the root problem was that we were all sinners. When we committed ourselves to Christ, we assumed that God fixed everything. After all, scripture told us that we were new creations when we submitted to the right belief system. When we saw evidence contradicting that assumption, we employed the age-old strategy of spiritual bypassing.

According to Robert Augustus Masters, “Spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. It is much more common than we might think and, in fact, is so pervasive as to go largely unnoticed, except in its more obvious extremes.[1]

As religious institutions, we certainly experienced those that were victims of traumatic events, including all kinds of abuse, rape, neglect, and all forms of mistreatment. But we didn’t understand how these people’s experience had left them with permanent damage that needed attention, and we certainly didn’t know how to help them.

When we love bombed them on the way in the door, it helped them to regulate, even though we didn’t know what that word meant. When we told them we had hope for them and that God had a purpose for them, it made it easy for them to believe in our doctrine that promised to recreate them. We hugged and prayed with them, but unfortunately, that didn’t strike at the root of their issues.

We occasionally considered therapy by a licensed counselor. Still, usually, that got pushed aside because all of our effort and a lot of our money was invested in this other solution. As a pastor, I struggled with who I could tell and what people would think of me if I needed counseling.

What do you do when your solutions are not helping? What do you do when you realize that all the solutions you thought were from God are not having the impact you hoped they would? We have a habit of attributing all good things to God, and when things don’t go how we think they should, we blame it on ourselves and try to ignore the obvious.

Laura and I have realized that part of the blame lies squarely on our shoulders as clergy. We sold a belief system that didn’t even understand trauma, yet we proclaimed it as complete and perfect. Considering this, I realized that I was responsible, and along with healing myself, I purposed to help others as well.

We can’t push down, minimize, and hope it will magically improve. When I went through my dark night of the soul, I realized trauma didn’t go away just because I denied it was there. It demanded to be acknowledged. This weekend, which I described in my book, Being, changed my life.

What is Trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association, “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock, and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.[2]

In his book Walking the Tiger, Dr. Peter Levine says, “A traumatic event is defined as an event that causes a long-term dysregulation in the autonomic and core extrapyramidal nervous system.[3]

Every day, we are defining and clarifying these definitions of trauma and how they affect us. But please notice how they use the word event and response. Trauma is not just that something happened to us, but it is how we responded to it or how we were not able to respond to it that causes trauma to persist.

Trauma events are also not just sexual events. Sexual abuse is a big problem in the church, but it’s not our only problem. Many times, trauma comes from a caregiver who wasn’t able to respond in a way that would have regulated us and avoided the wound becoming stuck.  

Beliefs like Eternal Conscious Torment (hell) often cause the issue. Our wrestling with terrifying beliefs causes a response that wounds us. This is also not our fault, but it needs to be addressed.

It’s in the Body 

In the past, I got mad at myself for not understanding this sooner. But then I realized that it wasn’t that long ago that Carl Jung helped us begin to understand things like shadow, inner child, and archetypes. We can now scan the brain and the body, so we know much more about what makes us tick.

Another very recent understanding is the work of Bessel A. van der Kolk concerning where our trauma is stored.

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, he states: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is playing out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

He continues, “The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.”[4]

As we discuss later in the book, Eugene Gendlin (who discovered Focusing) explains why this matters that trauma is stored in our bodies, and we must make a mind/body connection. He states, “What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people don’t know this! They think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways, they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change. If there is in you something bad or sick or unsound, let it inwardly be and breathe. That’s the only way it can evolve and change into the form it needs.”[5]

I have discovered the usefulness of these understandings along with some of my good friends. When I could be with the part of my body that was trying to help me, my life changed for the better. I will discuss focusing on these ideas in more detail later in the book.

What About Religious Trauma?

Therapist.com says, “Religious trauma occurs when a person’s religious experience is stressful, degrading, dangerous, abusive, or damaging. Traumatic religious experiences may harm or threaten to harm someone’s physical, emotional, mental, sexual, or spiritual health and safety.[6] Just like the standard definition, it is not just the event but how the organization and the survivor respond.

It may be that a religious leader perpetrated the trauma, such as sexual assault or direct attacks by those in power. The event may have religious implications, such as being deemed that the person’s spiritual standing is threatened. To make matters worse, the response of the spiritual community might make matters worse if there is an overemphasis on shaming ideas about what God thinks or did or a minimizing of the event’s impact.

Survivors may withdraw from sharing to avoid shaming, shunning, or separation from the group.

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the catalyst is a belief that may or may not be attached to an event. Beliefs about hell and human depravity can set the table for further trauma. Because religion is also an organization, the needs of the individual can be easily overlooked.

The website lists ten symptoms of spiritual abuse:[7]

  1. Self-hatred – Some religions assert we are inherently evil, untrustworthy, or unworthy of love.
  2. Shame – Occurs when we equate a negative action with who we are as a person.
  3. Perfectionism – Some religious communities may identify specific actions or behaviors as indicative of a person’s moral value.
  4. Hypervigilance – Some religions paint a picture of a vindictive god who punishes people whenever they fall short.
  5. Difficulty with making decisions  Many who experience religious trauma are accustomed to making decisions in the context of a certain doctrine and/or hierarchy.
  6. Loss of community – If a person changes or leaves their faith, they may lose contact with many friends, family members, and acquaintances. Loneliness or Isolation.
  7. Lack of boundaries  Being part of a religious community often means accepting some amount of feedback regarding how you live your life.
  8. Delayed social milestones  Purity Culture is a religious concept that focuses on ideas about gender, sexuality, sex, virginity, marriage, and procreation.
  9. Sexual dysfunction – Religions that overemphasize purity culture may not prepare their followers for healthy sex lives, even in the context of marriage.
  10. Mental health disorders – Religious trauma can cause, contribute to, or otherwise worsen mental health disorders. Commonly associated mental illnesses include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Eating disorders, Addiction.

The Global Center for Religious Research (GCRR) gives us another definition of Religious Trauma:

“Religious trauma results from an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”[8]

They also report some alarming news in their study titled, Percentage of U.S. Adults Suffering from Religious Trauma: A Sociological Study.

“This sociological study aimed to ascertain the percentage of adults living in the United States who have experienced religious trauma (RT) and what percentage presently suffers from RT symptoms. After compiling data from 1,581 adults living in the United States, this study concludes it is likely that around one-third (2733%) of U.S. adults (conservatively) have experienced religious trauma at some point in their lives. That number increases to 37% if those suffering from any three of the six major RT symptoms are included. It is also likely that around 1015% of U.S. adults currently suffer from religious trauma if only the most conservative numbers are highlighted. Nonetheless, since 37% of the respondents personally know people who potentially suffer from RT, and 90% of those respondents know between one and ten people who likely suffer from RT, then it could be argued that as many as one-in-five (20%) U.S. adults presently suffer from significant religious trauma symptoms.”[9]

In most definitions of trauma, religious and otherwise, we usually see an event. As we mentioned before, there is an event and an experience of that event. Please resist the religious urge to point fingers at the survivors, telling them, “See, it’s all about how you took it!” Because we tend to blame the victim (better named “survivor”), we should probably talk about these events, sometimes called Adverse Religious Experiences or AREs.

According to GCRR, “AREs are 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, sexual, or psychological well-being. These experiences have the potential of resulting in religious trauma.”

Interestingly, AREs are generally divided into Abuse, Neglect, and Communal Practices. The first two are obvious and can be subdivided into emotional, verbal, physical, and spiritual. So, an obvious ARE could be sexual abuse or sexual neglect, verbal abuse, verbal neglect, etc.

But it surprised me to discover communal practices as an ARE and that many descriptions or variations exist to notice. GCRR lists the following as ARE examples in Communal Practices:[10]

  • Community Violence
  • Bullying / Threats / Intimidation
  • Terrorism
  • Public Outing / Stigmatizing / Branding
  • Forced Confessions
  • Shunning / Excommunication
  • Brainwashing / Forced Indoctrination
  • Social / Familial Isolation
  • Information Privation
  • Scapegoating / Othering
  • Identity Disruption
  • Emotional Manipulation
  • Phobia Induction
  • Dress / Behavioral Control
  • Segregation
  • Love Bombing / Trauma Bonding
  • Stalking / Harassment
  • Forced Conversion
  • Conversion Therapy
  • Forced Ritual Performance
  • Substance Abuse
  • Financial Fraud
  • Financial, Sexual, or Other Exploitation

I believe it helps to know that these ARE don’t always cause experiences of religious trauma like anxiety, depression, nightmares, self-harm, etc. Still, many religious people will experience religious trauma responses.

How Religion Becomes Traumatic

As we listened to people’s stories in the desert, we noticed the commonality of most of them discussing a common diagnosis of PTSD from their religious trauma and what they experienced trying to address it. If you want to learn more about this, see the work of Dr. Marlene Winell (Religious Trauma Syndrome) or Judith Herman (Complex PTSD).

The CPTSD Foundation describes How Religion Becomes Traumatic by referencing Herman’s Prism of Captivity, domination, and personality erosion. The author believes these concepts clearly illustrate there is a clear connection between the symptoms of religious trauma and Complex PTSD.[11]

For me, it didn’t take any imagination at all to see captivity, domination, and personality erosion in most, if not all, of the stories of the religious trauma survivors we talked to.

But just understanding the problem doesn’t get us to healing. The criticism we hear about talk therapy is that it typically only engages the mind. What we need is something that familiarizes us with our bodies so that instead of only understanding and regulating our trauma, we can engage with the body and integrate those wounded parts of us.

May I introduce you to somatic therapies? These experiences “explore how the body expresses deeply painful experiences, applying mind-body healing to aid in trauma recovery.”[12] Our primary healing process was Focusing, which was developed in the 1970s, but you will find what is best for you. More information follows in the chapters ahead.

I hope this gives you some introductory information, and I wish you well as you dive deeper!


Be where you are, Be who you are

Karl Forehand


[1] Masters RA. (2010) Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books

[2] https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma

[3] Levine P. A. (1997). Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

[4] Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking

[5] Gendlin, Eugene T. (1986). Let tour body interpret your dreams. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications

[6] https://therapist.com/trauma/religious-trauma/

[7] https://therapist.com/trauma/religious-trauma/

[8] https://www.gcrr.org/religioustrauma

[9] Slade, Darren M. (2023) Adrianna Smell, Elizabeth Wilson, and Rebekah Drumsta. “Percentage of U.S. Adults Suffering from Religious Trauma: A Sociological Study.” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry 5, no. 1: 1–28.

[10] https://www.gcrr.org/post/adversereligiousexperiences

[11] https://cptsdfoundation.org/2023/02/02/when-religion-becomes-traumatic/

[12] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-somatic-therapy-202307072951


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Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Out into the Desert, Leaning Forward,  Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart, The Tea Shop and Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authenticity.  He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary podcast and community.  He is married to his wife Laura of 35 years and has one dog named Winston.  His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply! You can read more about the author here.



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