Religious Trauma Syndrome
"People who have not survived an authoritarian fundamentalist indoctrination do not realize what a complete mind-rape it really is."
~ Dr. Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold
What Is Religious Trauma Syndrome?
Faith can be a comfort to many. For others, it can be the source of physical, emotional, and psychological damage.
Do you experience intense bouts of panic that come from nowhere?
Are you wrestling with feelings of confusion, paranoia, and rage?
Do you have nightmares of going to hell?
Are you triggered by things that never bothered you before, like going to church for a wedding, or hearing a call to prayer? Or Even just hearing the word 'God'?
Maybe your emotions roller-coaster on highs of freedom followed by lows of depression. You might feel elated after leaving faith by the thrill of being able to do, eat, wear, and learn whatever you want, only to feel crushed by grief and anger a moment later. If these feelings sound familiar, you may be experiencing symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS).
What Are The Symptoms?
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is the clinical term given by Dr. Marlene Winell to the condition experienced by many who leave an authoritarian indoctrination. Symptoms include:
• Cognitive: confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability and self-worth, black and white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making
• Emotional: depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning
• Social: loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks
• Cultural: unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music)
What Is The Cause?
RTS is the result of, "Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology," says Dr. Winell. This crippling combo is often received and reinforced at church, school, and home, resulting in:
• Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested
• Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities – information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned
• External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source
• Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as discipline
Think you might be experiencing RTS?
We recommend learning more about RTS from the book written by the psychologist who gave it its name. Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion by Marlene Winell, Ph.D. delves deep into the different stages of detaching from faith. Dr. Winell also addresses causes that can lead to RTS whether one leaves faith or not. For example, you may still consider yourself a Christian, but be wondering why you're having panic attacks triggered by any intimate touch. (Spoiler alert: Years of being conditioned to refrain from sexual activity can do that.)
Many who unknowingly suffer from Religious Trauma Syndrome immediately recognize its hope of validation from the time they first hear its words. Though RTS is not yet an officially recognized diagnosis in the mental health community, Dr. Winell strives to change that by giving speaking engagements, interviews, and training others in her field to recognize the symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as complex-PTSD, depression, and other disorders.
Dr. Winell runs a full-time therapy practice and regularly leads an online support group for members recovering from RTS and reclaiming their lives. She also hosts weekend retreats for people healing from harmful religion.
Want to book a therapy session with Dr. Winell? She helps clients over the phone, Skype, or in-person from her office in Oakland, California. Visit her website JourneyFree.org or call 510-292-0509 for a free 20-minute consultation.
Looking for someone more local? Find more therapists on our Mental Health page, or search for counselors familiar with your background in our Resources by Belief System. Healing is possible.
You may have never considered yourself part of a cult, but if Religious Trauma Syndrome resonates with you, you might also relate to what psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer calls Post-Cult After Effects. Spiritual Abuse Resources offers help for individuals and families recovering from the effects of being involved with a destructive group. They also provide guidelines and resources for both religious professionals, whom many ex-cult members turn to for safety, and mental health professionals, who can sometimes be ill-equipped to understand or help those fleeing spiritual abuse. See our Cults page for more information.