What is Religious Trauma? 9 Examples and Ways To Overcome
When we think of religion, we think of it as a source of strength in hard times and a sense of direction throughout life’s challenges. Most religions are paired with a sense of belonging and support for one another. Sometimes, however, religious ideologies can be used as a weapon that can cause trauma to some. In this article we will discuss what religious trauma is and how to cope with it.
What is Religious Trauma According To Psychology
Religious trauma can take place when an individual’s experience with religion has been stressful, abusive, or damaging enough to have left an emotional, behavioural or mental strain. Often, it is the traumatic response after physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from religious figures. Religious trauma can have a damaging and long-lasting effect on a person’s identity and sense of self-worth. It can also influence the way individuals view the world.
Commonly, an individual with religious trauma will believe that they are characteristically bad or doomed to a life of pain, suffering, and failure. As you can imagine, such strong feelings as these can continue to haunt a person, even after having left the practices of their religion.
5 Examples of Religious Trauma
Being in any of the situations above- or those related- can create a false narrative that one must stick to the rules of the religious practices and traditions in order to be accepted into the afterlife.
7 Common Signs of Religious Trauma
Religious trauma can make itself known in various ways. One might exhibit one of the signs, or an accumulation of many. Here are some of the most common signs of religious trauma:
What Can Cause Religious Trauma?
The main principle surrounding the cause of religious trauma is the feeling of oppression coupled with the fear of damnation, reinforced by an authoritarian voice. The ways in which someone develops religious trauma surrounds the principle that one does not feel safe. This is then further enforced by the consequences of sin and going to hell.
There are various ways in which someone could develop religious trauma. Either an individual can have an exact traumatic experience by a religious official (e.g., sexual assault by a priest), or being taught about damnation and hell, or being shamed publicly, or even experiencing repeated isolation, emotional shame, and more.
Developing religious trauma is not unique to situations experienced at a church, temple or cult. One can experience trauma within their close relationships. This could be as simple as having your partner shun you for challenging a religious idea or your partner making you feel ashamed for having such questions. Alternatively, you could experience being punished for not obeying the rules of our religion. Something as simple as even being forced to attend a religious gathering can add to religious trauma.
Religious Trauma Syndrome and PTSD
Religious Trauma Syndrome is the psychological term that has been dedicated to describe religious trauma. Belonging to the subtype of complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), it is common to individuals who have been exposed to strong religious thinking—especially during childhood. This type of thinking is often motivated by shame and fear, insisting on the idea that there is only one correct way to be. Any other way of being leads to the end of the self, others and the world.
Given that one is often brought up—from a young age—with religion, fundamentalist thinking can have harmful effects on our self-development. Early development—wherein we learn to engage in autonomy and self-trust—can be impaired. Our sense of self is therefore at risk and can result in fears and shame towards romantic relationships and sexuality.
Sexuality and Religious Trauma
Sexual shame. The feeling of wrestling with our sexual desires as we are taught to believe that we are impure and destined to go to hell for having such thoughts. The concept of sexual “purity” suggests that sexual urges are immoral and dirty.
The beliefs that one must practise abstinence can lead to repressed sexuality. Those with religious trauma have reported having symptoms similar to PTSD when trying to engage in sexual activities, such as anxiety, freezing, and panic attacks.
Religious trauma and the suppression of human sexuality is especially important for those in the LGBTQ+ community, and for women. For the LGBTQ+ community, there is a lot of social exclusion and shame for sexual desires. For women, there is the immense pressure of being responsible for a man's sexual expression.
How To Overcome Religious Trauma
If you feel that you are struggling with religious trauma, these 4 tips might help you cope with it:
1. Set boundaries
Set boundaries for yourself, your place of worship and also your community. Setting boundaries for yourself makes clear what you are comfortable with, what your beliefs are and how you want to go about practising. Setting boundaries for your community and place of worship is important to highlight what you are uncomfortable with and how you prefer to be treated.
2. Know what you want out of your religious community
It is important to reflect on what you want out of your religious community. Try posing yourself the following questions:
3. Create your own group
If you are unable to find a faith community that you feel comfortable with; or are unable to successfully make your previous faith community understand the religious trauma they may be imparting, create or find a new community that practises your religion in a loving and supportive way.
4. Separate your values from religion
Take some time to accumulate the top three values that you find most important and central to you. In doing so, you pave the way for developing a sense of identity that is different to your religious side.
If you are someone, or know someone, who grew up in such an environment, know that it will be a challenge to break free from the chains that withheld you earlier. You may find—during your learning—that you can experience some trouble with the cognitive dissonance between what you were taught to be true as a child and what you have learned on your own. You may find yourself confused and even lost at times. Don’t worry. There is hope.
Simply having the awareness is already a great step in the direction of gaining your independence, your freedom of speech and your autonomy back. Find yourself a group of people who share similar values and beliefs as you, and who encourage a safe and loving environment.
Throughout your healing journey, always remember, you are not alone.
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