Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a very real mental health condition. It can contribute to depression, anxiety, and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Indoctrination can do significant mental harm, most especially when coupled with an institution’s dependence on fear-driven religious messaging. Strong religious communities with authoritarian teachings are often the culprits of this trauma.
Someone experiencing RTS is not only experiencing difficulty with removing themselves from an authoritarian environment. They also have to cope with a loss of faith and possibly a loss of community. The causes of religious trauma syndrome can range from sexual or physical assault to mental and emotional abuse.
What Causes Religious Trauma?
The causes of religious trauma vary from person to person. Some people have a higher tolerance for trauma than others, so everyone experiences it differently. The authoritarianism which guides a religious institution makes space for a lot of potential trauma.
- A person who experiences same-sex attraction being demonized by their religious community
- Someone who contributes most of their finances to the institution under the advisement of a religious leader
- Parents who believe in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” model of discipline
- Being assaulted by a religious leader
Some of these examples are extreme, but religious trauma can occur anytime you experience severe stress related to a religious belief.
Symptoms of Religious Trauma
The symptoms of RTS often mimic PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and they often co-occur with one another. Thus, this means that having RTS often means you have one of these other disorders. Symptoms can include:
- Difficulty with decision-making
- Lack of self-worth
- Unfamiliar with mainstream culture
- Problems sleeping
- Sexual dysfunction
- Feelings of isolation.
- Feeling like you don’t belong
It’s challenging to confront your religious beliefs. The mental and emotional struggle can feel overwhelming. It’s important to stay mindful of your symptoms. Developing self-awareness sets you up to follow a path of healing.
How to Cope with Religious Trauma
1. Acknowledge what’s happened to you.
This is often the hardest part for victims and survivors of religious trauma. The institution’s teachings are ingrained. They are particularly hard to face if they have indoctrinated you through fear. Examples of that would be:
- Being told you’re going to hell for questioning your faith
- Experiencing punishment, emotionally, physically, or mentally for having doubts
- Being manipulated into isolation based on religious beliefs
Facing this trauma is hard, but it’s the first step to recovery. It’s very important to look at your trauma with a sense of compassion. Healing takes time and patience, but it’s possible.
2. Learn to create healthy boundaries.
Religious trauma often means you have little or no experience with boundaries. Decisions might have been made for you or without your consent. It’s important to understand your personal limits and protect your mental health. Moreover, setting boundaries will allow you to experience the world more independently. This may involve putting physical distance between yourself and those who attend the institution you’re trying to escape.
Know that you are well within your rights to assert these boundaries. You are allowed to live a life with autonomy, even though it might be hard for others to understand. Making a promise to yourself to enforce your boundaries is how you strengthen your resolve to heal.
3. Seek a therapist.
Finally, therapy can provide a safe space for you to speak freely about what’s happened to you. A professional therapist will help you develop coping mechanisms that you can use as you unpack your trauma. This is a tough experience, but there’s no reason you should handle it by yourself. Reach out to a mental health professional and overpower your trauma with the support you deserve.