Religious Trauma

Woman sitting on couch, holding face in hands

What Is Religious Trauma? 

Religious trauma is often the result of spiritual abuse, a type of emotional mistreatment that operates within the framework of a strict adherence to dogmatic theology.  In a healthy setting, devout faith has been found to correlate with hope and optimism, purpose and meaning in life, higher self-esteem and a greater sense of well-being.  In some environments, however, the line between devout faith and religious fanaticism (also called religious extremism) may consciously or unconsciously become blurred, and this often leads to spiritual abuse which, in turn, results in religious trauma.

This type of psychological abuse utilizes blind allegiance, obedience, coercion, control, exploitation and humiliation.  While the imagery may call to mind an obscure cult led by a false prophet, it is essential to recognize that respected spiritual advisors from various faiths are more often the perpetrators.  In many cases, these advisors, which run the gamut from well-intentioned to sinister, are members of one’s community, family or home environment, where religious teachings and scripture are used both as instruments of ethical and spiritual growth and tools to wield manipulation and control.

When raised in a community or household of strict religious observance, some individuals may experience extreme guilt, shame, unworthiness, and alienation when faced with feelings and/or situations that go against their upbringing and teachings.  Out-of-wedlock and/or terminated pregnancy, same-sex attraction, questioning one’s faith, pressure to tithe despite financial difficulties, divorce…  Feelings and circumstances that should be acknowledged and accepted as a part of life, the human condition, are oftentimes ridiculed, suppressed, or ignored altogether.  Sadly, it is not uncommon for a woman to remain in a physically, emotionally and/or sexually abusive relationship, forced into submission by a partner’s misinterpretation of doctrine to justify misogynistic practices and assert authority and control.  When this happens, religious trauma is certain to manifest.

Symptoms of Religious Trauma

The resultant symptoms of religious trauma closely resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex PTSD (c-PTSD), and the emotional responses caused by any number of severely distressing events.  

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impaired decision-making skills
  • Low self-confidence or self-esteem
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Difficulty forming healthy adult relationships
  • Self-hatred
  • Hypervigilance…

Once recognized and acknowledged, these unwelcome manifestations of underlying psychological suffering can be effectively managed and overcome with supportive therapy and appropriate treatment modalities.

Where to Seek Help?

If you are experiencing symptoms of unresolved religious trauma and feel you may be a survivor of spiritual abuse, please know that there is hope.

A therapist skilled in treating trauma will be qualified to objectively identify false beliefs imposed upon you by others.  In a safe, supportive space where you may express your thoughts, emotions, and experiences in a warm, welcoming, inclusive atmosphere, your therapist will guide you through evidence-based approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), among others.  As you work through the trauma at a comfortable pace, you and your counselor will constructively communicate and collaborate to rediscover your authentic self. 

You are worthy and deserving of a fulfilling life, and working with the appropriate therapist can help you re-claim the self-acceptance, confidence, and joy that is your birthright.  

Contact Erin Pallard Therapy to schedule an appointment today.

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