What is Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)?

Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. 

~ Marlene Winell

The term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) was first published by Marlene Winell in 2011. While some therapists and researchers had acknowledged the unique challenges presented by people with developmental trauma specifically related to religious indoctrination, there previously had not been a name associated with it. Winell recognized the benefit of publicly identifying the disorder and the symptoms affiliated with it to help lessen the shame of those living with the condition by giving it a recognizable descriptor as well as presenting hope for healing.

What causes RTS

Similar to Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), Religious Trauma Syndrome results from prolonged exposure to a traumatic environment from which the person experiencing it lacks the ability to remove themself from. In the context of RTS, that environment may include the home where religious-based teaching and rules are enforced, place of worship, religious services & activities, and within the very institution of religious dogma itself.

RTS develops in two phases. The first occurs while inside of the organization and being actively exposed to abusive tactics of indoctrination. The second phase takes place upon leaving.

Phase 1

Authoritarian religions use high control methods which inhibit the natural progression of developmental milestones related to cognition, emotional regulation, establishing a personal moral code, forming an autonomous sense of identity, as well as social skills needed to navigate the outside world.

These religions seek to stifle independent, critical thinking and minimize the exploration of personal feelings. This essentially corrupts the ability to identify feelings and form opinions outside of those imposed upon the person.

Dogmatic religions use knowledge as a source of control. They tend to have a hierarchy of authority, those at the top are considered to be the only reliable source of information. The message received is that you must not trust yourself.

Physical abuse remains an ongoing issue within these organizations. In child-rearing, consequences to actions rarely involve teaching moments for self-regulation or empathy. Instead, obedience is key and corporal punishment is used to enforce it. Biblical verses such as “spare the rod, spoil the child” are used to justify these methods as divinely ordained.

Sexual abuse can be observed in many different forms. Patriarchal systems create a shift in power which leaves women and children vulnerable to predatory behaviors. Leaders within the organization can use their power to prey on this vulnerable population and then prevent the victim from speaking out of fear of becoming isolated from their community. These groups also promote extremely unhealthy views on bodily autonomy and sexuality. This can create a lifelong struggle with establishing boundaries regarding personal space and desires as well as provoke a sense of shame or even disgust in natural, healthy behaviors such as masturbation or sexual desire.

Additionally, there are the strict fundamentalist teachings themselves to contend with. The opposing ideas of an all-seeing, all-knowing, wrathful God whose vengeance is to be feared for even minor infractions or thoughts simultaneously taught alongside the concept of an all-loving, merciful God creates confusion in a developing mind. Unhealthy concepts of love and trust take root, which will manifest in different detrimental patterns until recognized. Concepts like: being born sinful and unworthy; thoughts not being private and subject to be used against you; the expectation of an unwavering belief at all times, despite what may be occurring in your life; apocalyptic events such as Armageddon; or the eternal damnation of hell are ideas that condition a person to always be on high alert while also giving a sense of despair that there is no ability to ever be in control of your safety.

Phase 2

The trauma doesn’t end the day a person walks away from the abusive religion. Whether leaving by expulsion or free will, there is still much to contend with. Essentially, one’s worldview is completely lost leaving a void behind that the individual will seek to fill. Lacking many necessary tools to make healthy decisions on how to replace the harmful ideology, the emptiness that is felt can often be replaced with destructive coping skills.

After leaving, there is typically a lack of support system in place. The restriction on autonomous thoughts and freedom to make personal decisions previously enforced suddenly disappear. With no experiences to use as guidance, a support system becomes crucial for insight on navigating new challenges. Without it in place, there is a sense of loneliness, isolation, and abandonment that takes hold. People finding themselves in this situation will search for a sense of community. However, due to their inexperience with boundaries and recognizing potentially harmful situations, these individuals easily end up in other abusive environments.

Once in a safe place, the trauma continues to manifest in the form of intrusive thoughts and irrational fear. Indoctrination methods used throughout the developmental years remain deeply embedded. By this time, logical reasoning may have progressed enough to objectively research and validate suspicions that the information that had been taught is false. However, after years of programming, the mind and body’s automated responses to the pre-set trauma triggers continue their hold.

Further distress takes place after beginning to comprehend the damage that was done by the religious indoctrination. Recognizing the systemic destruction of self and totality of that breaking down of your true nature, anger naturally follows. A lifetime of experienced fear and suffering now has a clear origin story and it can be destabilizing. Grief for lost time and opportunities also presents itself. A sense of hopelessness may also arise as the challenge of recovery can feel too great at times.

What is the effect of RTS?

The fear-based teachings used to indoctrinate a person into a high control group materializes in many different areas of the body and mind. There can be long-term consequences of the abusive methods utilized. Adverse Childhood Experiences have been proven to lead to chronic illness, poor immunity, inflammation, increased cancer risk, as well as mental health complications.

Research shows that exposure to extreme fundamentalism can cause damage to several different parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the emotion-regulating center of the brain. After exposure to trauma, there is a deficit in adaptability and problem-solving abilities. The amygdala becomes hyperactive causing a heightened fear response, difficulty sleeping, and poor self-regulation. The effects on the hippocampus cause problems differentiating between past memories and present. Subsequently, the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response jumps into action believing safety is jeopardized when there is no immediate threat. These responses continue until interventions are introduced.

Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) may include:

  • lack of emotional regulation
  • depression, grief, anxiety
  • undeveloped critical thinking
  • decision-making complications
  • undeveloped social skills
  • black & white thinking
  • substance abuse
  • sexual difficulty
  • a feeling of not belonging
  • difficulty relating to people
  • knowledge deficit in current cultural trends or events
  • loss of community
  • sense of identity loss
  • poor self esteem

The Journey to Recovery

The trauma that occurs in this particular environment could not ever be truly understood without having lived through it. Very few therapists and mental health professionals have a direct personal history of experiencing religious trauma first-hand. It can be very challenging to find someone within the psychology field who is even familiar with Religious Trauma Syndrome and its complex nature.

However, there is beginning to be a wave of those with this shared trauma background furthering their education and participating in programs to learn evidence-based methods of recovery taught by leading doctors and experts in the field of trauma. The traditional model of trauma therapy is being replaced by a growing number of modalities that have been proven to be effective in helping people with RTS begin to move forward in the healing process. This is done utilizing a holistic approach with a focus on connection, compassion for self and others, and community support.

With this current awakening of people recognizing the harm being caused by these organizations, there is an opportunity to begin trying to make meaningful change and begin to break the cycle of generational trauma they’ve created.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.