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Surviving Religious Trauma: Common Struggles




My practice specializes in helping people (especially LGBTQ+ or neurodivergent people) who are struggling with religious trauma. People who have experienced religious trauma may encounter various challenges that can affect their mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. Although everyone's experience is a bit different, it's common to experience shame, isolation, difficulty making decisions, a fear of punishment, and other struggles. You may also downplay the severity of these symptoms or gaslight yourself into thinking they're not real if your religious group taught you that religious trauma isn't real. If you're living with religious trauma, you're not alone. Some common struggles include:


Guilt and Shame


Shame is an essential component of the “control” in high control religious groups. In high control religious environments, people are often taught that they are inherently bad and their spiritual work is to overcome their innate “badness.” People who are living with religious trauma may experience intense feelings of guilt and shame associated with perceived moral failings or violations of religious teachings. In many high control religious environments, people are taught that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, which leaves them feeling like they’re a bad person when they experience normal human adversity.


This belief system can lead to low self-esteem and a negative self-image. In therapy, we start to try to instill the idea that you were never actually bad at all. This isn’t fast or easy work, but as people move towards it, it’s one of the most powerful changes that comes as the result of processing religious trauma.


Depression and Anxiety


People with religious trauma often struggle with anxiety or depression. In fact, before they realize they have religious trauma, they may just believe that there's something biochemically wrong with them, and that they have depression or anxiety that is just a problem with their neurobiology. This is often related to believing they were born bad or something is inherently wrong with them, described in point 1. 


For people with religious trauma, anxiety or depression may stem from fear of punishment or divine retribution, uncertainty about one's beliefs or identity, or social isolation. For LGBTQ+ people, even those who are quite secure in their identity, some people struggle with the feelings that they are transgressing by even existing. For others, there is a feeling of grief associated with the belief that they have “lost time” when they were in the religious group. It is also common for people with religious trauma to develop other mental health challenges, such as eating disorders, panic disorder, etc.


Trust Issues


For many people with religious trauma, their ability to trust may be damaged as a result of betrayal or exploitation by religious leaders or community members. This can make it challenging to form new relationships or seek support from others, even when feeling lonely and isolated. For many of my clients who came out as LGBTQ+ and were then rejected by their religious group or spiritual community, there’s a fear that now matter how loving a relationship seems, rejection or abandonment are inevitable. Trust is especially damaged for those who have experienced manipulation, coercion, gaslighting, or shaming tactics used by religious leaders or institutions to control people or suppress dissent. For people who have experienced spiritual abuse, an early focus of therapy is often learning to trust your own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs as valid.


Loss of Identity


Religious trauma can disrupt a person's sense of identity, particularly if their religious beliefs were deeply intertwined with their sense of self. This can lead to feelings of confusion, existential crisis, and a loss of purpose or meaning. LGBTQ+ people may have spent years suppressing or hating parts of their identity. After being told how to feel and what to believe for many years, many people recovering from religious trauma find a great deal of relief in discovering their own value system, and pursuing interests, relationships, and connection to communities in ways that feel meaningful to them. At the same time, this can be a highly anxiety-provoking process, and many of my clients say they benefit from safe, non-judgmental support as they start to explore their own identities outside of the religious group.


Faith and Spirituality


After leaving a high control religious community, many of my clients experience a crisis of faith or a loss of belief in a higher power as a result of their traumatic experiences. This can be accompanied by feelings of grief, anger, or profound disillusionment. Many people feel lost when confronted with the process of figuring out a whole new sense of morality and ethics without their religious group telling them what to believe and what to do. It can help to have a safe, supportive relationship with a therapist to remind you regularly that who you are and the way you want to live your life is valid.


PTSD Symptoms


In some cases, religious trauma can result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and avoidance of triggering situations or stimuli. I have worked with many people with intense fears of hell, death, the rapture - even if they no longer identify with their former faith. Religious trauma can also manifest as physical symptoms associated with chronic stress. Therapy can help contain these symptoms. At Stillwaters Counselling our clinicians use EMDR and Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapies to work with PTSD symptoms.


Struggling with Boundaries


Many people who have experienced religious trauma struggle to assert their own boundaries and advocate for their needs, particularly if they were taught to prioritise obedience and submission within their religious community. This is especially true for women or those who experienced other types of marginalization within their religious community. After leaving a religious community, relationships with family or friends who are still inside the community often become very complex, and strong boundaries become more necessary, but survivors struggle with knowing how to set those boundaries and feeling like they have the right to set them.


It's important to note that the impact of religious trauma can vary widely from person to person. No two of my clients have had exactly the same experience. Seeking support from mental health professionals, engaging in therapy or support groups, and finding affirming communities can be essential steps toward healing and recovery. If you identify with one or any of these struggles, I encourage you to reach out to one of our therapists to discuss strategies to improve your quality of life.

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