Recovering From Religious Trauma

Researchers are well-aware that certain kinds of experiences can have a traumatic effect on you. In turn, highly traumatic experiences can lead to serious problems with your mental health.

Many of the sources of major trauma are agreed upon by a wide range of experts.

In addition, a number of trauma-related mental illnesses are officially recognized. However, you may also suffer from the effects of a traumatic condition that does not have such a clear-cut definition.

One example of this kind of condition is religious trauma syndrome. 

Religion-related trauma can have a serious, negative impact on your sense of well-being.

Unless you get help for this kind of trauma, you may find yourself trapped by unwanted thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The right kind of treatment will help ease the effects of trauma. It will also support your return to a state of mental wellness.

What Is Trauma

What Is Trauma

Traumatic experiences are experiences that strain your ability to process what is happening to you. These kinds of experiences produce distressing reactions such as:

  • Confusion
  • Fear or terror
  • A feeling of being disconnected from yourself or your surroundings
  • A sense of helplessness

In the short run, these unpleasant reactions are natural. They also tend to be harmless, and may actually make it easier for you to cope with your experience.

However, the longer traumatic reactions continue, the more unpredictable and harmful they become. Ultimately, lingering trauma may become the root cause of diagnosable mental health conditions such as:

Each of these conditions belongs to a category of mental illnesses called trauma- and stressor-related disorders. 

What kinds of experiences can lead to the development of lingering, damaging trauma? The list of potential causes includes exposure to:

  • Physical abuse or assault
  • Sexual abuse or assault
  • Being a witness to acts of violence
  • Getting caught up in a natural disaster
  • The unexpected death of a parent or other close loved one
  • Combat or the witnessing of combat
  • Exposure to terrorist acts

What is Religious Trauma

What is religious trauma and how does it relate to trauma in general? Broadly speaking, the term refers to two possible issues:

  • Traumatic experiences related to your involvement in a religious community
  • Experiences that happen to you as a result of leaving such a community

Experiences related to your involvement in a religious group can take a number of forms. Examples here include being punished harshly for violation of your group’s rules. They also include exposure to acts of abuse or molestation by a religious authority figure. 

The theory of religious trauma holds that these things are not only traumatic in and of themselves. Instead, they can also create deep disturbances in how you see yourself as a religious person. Disturbances of this kind may manifest in ways that include:

  • Questioning your faith
  • Having doubts about other parts of your value system
  • Doubting your ability to stay within your particular religious community

If you leave a religion or religious community, other forms of trauma may enter the picture. Examples of this second kind of religious trauma include:

  • Profound dislocation resulting from your loss of faith or community 
  • The impact of shunning by friends or loved ones still involved in a faith or community

In some cases, religious trauma may have a serious, lasting effect on your mental health. One proposed name for this kind of damaging impact is religious trauma syndrome

Origin of the Term Religious Trauma Syndrome

Origin of the Term Religious Trauma Syndrome

The term religious trauma syndrome, or RTS, was created in 2011 by the psychologist Marlene Winnell. Dr. Winnell had a personal history of traumatic involvement in a religious group. This history led her to explore the possible effects of religion-related trauma.

In turn, this exploration led her to determine that such trauma can lead to serious mental illness.

There is no official definition for RTS. In the U.S., such definitions come from a single source: the American Psychiatric Association, or APA. The APA produces a publication called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM.

Doctors use this manual when making their diagnoses. Religious trauma syndrome is not included in the DSM.

Despite the lack of an official definition, some mental health professionals endorse the concept of RTS. They believe that the term points to a real potential link between:

  • The effects of religious trauma
  • The onset of serious harms similar to those of PTSD

They also believe that cases of religious trauma syndrome are sometimes misdiagnosed as PTSD.

Symptoms and Signs of Religious Trauma

In many ways, the symptoms and signs of religious trauma resemble those of PTSD. They may include such things as:

  • Unwanted memories of a religious trauma
  • Distressing “flashbacks” to a traumatic experience
  • A strong urge to avoid reminders of a religious trauma
  • Significant, negative changes in your normal mood or life outlook
  • Jitteriness and other signs of an overactive “fight or flight” response

The key difference is the source of the trauma. In people with RTS, that trauma has a religion-related origin. This is true even when other traumatic features are present.

For example, take a person sexually assaulted by a religious authority figure. The sexual assault itself qualifies as a traumatic experience. 

But there is an additional layer of trauma produced by the identity of the assault perpetrator. This extra trauma often goes unnoticed or overlooked.

For this reason, it may not receive the attention and treatment that it deserves.

Religious Trauma and Addictive Disorders

There is a known connection between trauma exposure and substance problems. That includes both drug and alcohol addiction. Much of the available research involves people with PTSD.

Unfortunately, less is known about the link between religious trauma and addictive disorders.

However, given the similarities between RTS and PTSD, such a link seems likely. 

Therapies and Treatment for Religious Trauma

There is a similar lack of information on specific therapies and treatment for religious trauma. But again, the similarities between RTS and PTSD prove helpful.

In other words, the methods used to treat people with PTSD seem likely to help people with RTS. 

Therapy options used to treat people with PTSD include:

  • Stress inoculation
  • Prolonged exposure therapy
  • Cognitive processing therapy

All three of these options are forms of an approach called cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT. Other therapy options include interpersonal therapy and psychodynamic therapy.

In addition, many people benefit from family therapy. People with PTSD may also receive antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. They may benefit from joining a support group, as well.

There is one important potential difference in recovery for people with RTS. Many support groups have religious or spiritual roots. This may be fine for people not dealing with religious trauma.

However, people with RTS may be better served by secular support groups. 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Considerations

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Considerations

As noted, there is a likely connection between RTS and addiction. This connection could lead to unrecognized cases of dual diagnosis. What is dual diagnosis? Experts use this term for overlapping cases of mental illness and separate substance problems. 

There are several important dual diagnosis treatment considerations. For example, the condition may lead to worse symptoms of addiction. It may also lead to worse symptoms of RTS.

In addition, cases of dual diagnosis are more difficult to treat. Why? Your recovery plan must include options for both:

  • Your RTS-related symptoms
  • Your particular drug or alcohol problem

It takes skill and experience to device the right overall plan for your needs.

RTS, PTSD and the Promise of Hope at Emerald Isle

Religious trauma is a frequently unrecognized potential source of mental health issues. This trauma can take a number of forms. That includes experiences you have within a religious community.

It also includes experiences that occur when you leave your religion or your religious community. If those experiences significantly damage your mental health, you may have religious trauma syndrome.

RTS is not an official mental illness. However, it produces problems that can be very similar to PTSD. The big difference is the origin of your symptoms.

RTS symptoms are related in some way to your religious life and world. They are distinct from symptoms produced by other traumatic experiences. 

There are also no official treatments for RTS. Nevertheless, people with the syndrome can recover with help from PTSD-related treatment options. These options include multiple types of psychotherapy.

In addition, you may benefit from antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. 

If you are affected by religious trauma, contact the professionals at Emerald Isle today. We specialize in the treatment of trauma-related conditions.

No matter the source of your symptoms, we have options to support your recovery. Emerald Isle is also your source for effective dual diagnosis treatment

All of our treatment plans are fully customized. At every step, we focus on your particular needs and circumstances. This is the best way to ensure that your odds for treatment success are maximized.

For more information on how we can help, call us today. We will be happy to get you started on the path to renewed health and well-being.