Religious trauma syndrome is not an official DSM diagnosis at this point in time, BUT more research is being done to make this possible. Religious trauma symptoms can be similar to complex post-traumatic stress syndrome (or C-PTSD). This happens because the person is often in a high control or high demand religious environment for prolonged periods of time often beginning in childhood.
Criteria of Religious Trauma Symptoms
Religious Trauma Syndrome symptoms include:
Poor decision making skills
Poor critical thinking ability
Negative beliefs about self, others, and the world
Signs of depression and anxiety
Feeling apathy, grief, anger
Loss of direction, purpose, and sense of aloneness
Lack of pleasure and interest in things you used to enjoy
Loss of community (friends, family, romantic relationships)
Isolated from others or lack of belonging
Out of touch with cultural references or events
Nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, and difficulty managing emotions
These symptoms develop over a period of time in an authoritarian religious community. They develop for different reasons for different people. Black and white thinking doesn't allow for the nuance of the situation, which prevents deep relationships or understanding a situation. It effects decision making by making it hard for you to trust yourself. Beliefs, like sin, and high religious control lower self esteem. These communities make you feel like you owe something to them.
Environments That Create Religious Trauma
Toxic religious communities reject modern or secular culture. This can lead to a sense of separateness and create an in group/out group mentality. High control, high demand religious groups tend to control these areas of secular involvement:
Music–they often have their own songs or radio stations. Secular music is “worldly.”
Dancing of any kind is a BIG no-no. The reasoning goes that dancing leads to sex and uncontrolled sex, or sex outside of marriage, is a sin.
Pop culture—tv, movies, theater or art exhibitions. They believe that these encourage “sinful” behavior or place too much value on the physical world when the spiritual world is what matters.
Fundamentalist or Cultish Religious Groups
Toxic, cultish, and fundamentalist Religious communities have some things in common. There is one authoritarian leader who is the go-between for God and humanity. They have strict rules for women and sexuality. Toxic religious communities use fear to urge people into right action. They also stress the separation of they physical and spiritual and say that the physical is bad.
Fundamentalist religious groups believe that pleasure is worldly or sinful. They believe that pain or suffering is a holy thing that prepares a person for God.
Personal Story: Signs That You’re in a Toxic Religious Group
Here's a personal example of what this might look like. One time when I was in Cambodia, I struck up a conversation with a guy from Laos. We talked about how different it was to be raised Christian in completely different cultures (USA, Laos). This guy had actually heard of the tiny, fundamentalist Christian denomination that I had grown up in. Read: my shocked reaction in the dimly lit room. He said to me, “Oh so you don’t believe in drinking or dancing or women having a role in church.” Read: shocked expression a second time!
I was so sad and disappointed. The only thing a guy on the other side of the world knew about the tiny church I grew up in was the things that they were against. (That should have been my first clue, but I wouldn’t take the hint until years later)
Guilt is a Tool of Toxic Religious Groups
This is the trouble with toxic religious groups: they talk more about what they are against and about the negative. They use fear and guilt to motivate people into submission or “right action.”
There are others, but this is the biggest one. It’s so big that it deserves a whole section to itself.
Religious Trauma Symptoms Feel Like
Okay, now onto what you really care about. You may be thinking, “Yeah those symptoms check out and yeah my religious community sounds toxic, but how is this going to make me feeeeeel?
I hear you.
The impact of religious trauma symptoms stretches far and wide. I can give you a bullet point list but each story and situation is unique. So it might feel different for you than it does for me.
Religious trauma symptoms may effect your sex, gender, and sexuality. It feels like you can't make a decision without the approval of others. Religious trauma makes it hard to control your emotions. Relationships are conditional. There's no sense of self because religion has told you that you need to be and act a certain way.
We often think of religious trauma as the big, bad stuff, like physical or sexual abuse. And it can, of course, happen from physical or sexual abuse. However, religious trauma syndrome is much more common than those big, bad events.
Religious trauma syndrome is hard to recognize because it is subtle.
Religious communities use fear and guilt tactics. Toxic religion uses the fear of hell or separation from god to discourage people from acting in a way that is contrary to the community. It is also hard to get help for your religious trauma symptoms because the consequences are grave. Fundamentalist or cultish groups discourage therapy. Therapy could threaten the sanctity of the in group because the therapist might disagree with the religious leader.
Some other examples of these fear and guilt tactics are:
Teaching that girls and women are responsible for men's sexual behaviors
LGBTQ folks who are sent to conversion camps. (P.S.This is not only an example of how fear tactics are used but is an example of psychological and potentially physical abuse.)
Not being allowed to date, or dating in the wrong way, as an LDS member.
Get Help With a Religious Trauma Syndrome Quiz
Are you still wondering if the symptoms you are feeling are related to religious trauma? I can help with that! We have a FREE quiz for you to take all about this. It shouldn’t take you more than 5 minutes to complete. After you complete the religious trauma syndrome quiz, we will recommend some resources for you to find support.
Religious trauma symptoms are tough! It can even be hard to find a trusted person in your community or a therapist who specializes in religious trauma to talk to about what is going on.