May 29, 2024

When Tradition Turns to Trauma: Religious Trauma and What to Do About It

Izzie Beaulieu 24'

Photo Courtesy of Izzie Beaulieu

 

Disclaimer: This article is not trying to destroy religious belief or disparage the church. This article’s intention is to educate and empower those experiencing religious trauma. If you are feeling emotions of anger, frustration, sadness, or pain while reading this article, I invite you to sit with those emotions for a few moments. Ask yourself why those emotions come up for you, and what this information means to you. How can you lean into these feelings and press forward with this knowledge? In any case, take care of yourself, friend. Mental health resources will be mentioned at the end of the article if you need them.  

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Recently it seems as though waves of people have not been attending church anymore, especially after the pandemic forced us all to stay at home. There are a variety of reasons one may have for this departure, but for some it boils down to a matter of safety and security within their mind and body. They may feel their heart race and sweat bead on their forehead as worship music blasts through the speakers. They might feel angry but remember that same anger bubbling up can only mean that God will not favor them, so they ignore it and choose “joy” instead. They might be worried about questioning their faith in fear of being cast out by their congregation for “not listening to authority” or “being unfaithful.” “What,” they might think, “is the problem with me?” 

If you’ve felt this way, you are not alone. This experience is called religious trauma, or Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). RTS is defined as psychological suffering rooted in religious beliefs or experiences (Downie, 2022). In the United States, researchers estimated that at least one third of people have experienced religious trauma at some time in their life (Slade et al., 2023). Religious trauma can manifest itself in similar ways to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with similar experiences such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. However, many of those with RTS will experience distress in religious environments or around religious iconography, struggle with black-and-white thinking, and battle negative beliefs concerning self-worth or self-ability.  

Religious trauma is often caused by two main factors: abusive religious/spiritual systems (R/S systems) and shame. In terms of abusive R/S systems, it is often characterized by leaders who enforce compliance within the community through unspoken rules, extreme religious views, and placing a high importance on loyalty and adherence to certain values within the community. This rigidity invites black and white thinking into the community; however, it leaves a traumatized individual’s mind stuck in a rigid state of evaluating themselves and the world around them.  

There is much overlap between religious trauma and spiritual abuse, which is when someone’s religious or spiritual beliefs are used to exert control over another in an abusive manner (therapist.com). Spiritual abuse can look like a parent using religion to perpetuate abuse, or a religious leader using their position in the church to coerce and abuse community members. The key difference between spiritual abuse and religious trauma is that spiritual abuse is between two people, while religious trauma is a series of traumas spanning multiple people within the community setting.  

Shame is the other half of the religious trauma equation, as it can be perpetuated by both religious leaders and community members. Often, community members will alienate those who are “different” or “wrong” from the rest of the group to maintain group compliance and loyalty to religious leaders. Shame can be so pervasive in the group that it can lead the community itself to prohibit negative emotions and thoughts. Additionally, this teaches mistrust in their physical feelings, which further stunts many individuals’ emotional growth. Shame can be disguised in the community as “love,” where individuals are told that shaming is being done “out of love” and ultimately serves as a means of normalizing and even legitimizing abuse (Downie, 2022). This type of “love” can especially be weaponized against LGBTQ+ members of the community, which can lead to further self-loathing and isolation. 

With all this information, I would be remiss to leave people in a state of confusion as they try to navigate this new concept by themselves. I believe there is a high likelihood that people at Gordon have experienced religious trauma, which means that there are a lot of people who will need help with practical next steps in this process of grief and pain. What do you do with this information, especially if you have experienced religious trauma? 

First, I will reiterate that you are not alone. One of the hardest parts of dealing with religious trauma is the isolation that comes from grappling with those experiences and perhaps even breaking down your belief systems because of it. At an institution where so many people identify as Christian, it can be hard to have conversations with people about these topics. The judgement, the fear, the shame — it can be too much for someone to admit to themselves, never mind their friends or professors. My recommendation would be to contact the Center of Student Counseling and Wellness (CSCW) on campus and admit your feelings. They can help you navigate these changes in your life, as they are mental health professionals equipped to help people through their struggles. Alternatively, reach out to a counselor off-campus or a trusted person you know and confide in them about how you are feeling. I recognize that sharing your traumatic experiences is scary, but people are not meant to always deal with pain alone.  

Next, connect with yourself in a way that is fulfilling to you. You can journal, read, paint, walk, run, hike, dance, sing, scream, breathe, create beautiful works, smash plates – whatever it is to help you feel safe in your body. Understanding your own trauma and how it has affected you is no simple task and might lead you to dark places. However, finding these activities that assist you in calming down from the emotional highs and grounding yourself can help you out of the pain you may be feeling.  

Finally, know there is hope. It can be easy to blame yourself for this anguish, but in truth: it is not your fault. You are not any less of a Christian, or any less of a person, because of hurt and pain from the trauma you have experienced. Your faith and relationship with Jesus are just that – yours. It is so important to allow yourself time and space to heal, even if that means taking steps back. No matter the circumstances, you deserve healing and wholeness in the ways that are most authentic and fulfilling to you.  

Resources: 

Center for Student Counseling and Wellness (CSCW) – Email [email protected]  

References: 

Downie, A. (2022). Christian shame and religious trauma. Religions, 13(10), 925. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13100925 

Slade, D. M., Smell, A., Wilson, E. M., & Drumsta, R. (2023). Percentage of U.S. Adults Suffering from Religious Trauma: A Sociological Study. Socio-historical Examination of Religion and Ministry, 5(1), 1–28. https://doi.org/10.33929/sherm.2023.vol5.no1.01 

therapist.com. (2024, February 12). Religious trauma: Signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment. https://therapist.com/trauma/religious-trauma/  

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