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Religious Trauma Syndrome & Spiritual Abuse

Religious Trauma Syndrome & Spiritual Abuse

Growing up in a religious household can be a wonderfully supportive experience. Sadly that’s not always the case.

In fact, for many like myself, Dr. Marlene Winnell, Jamie Lee Finch, and Glennon Doyle, religion became a scary, constricting net that left people and even parts of our Selves that we loved on the outside. Anything and anyone that didn’t meet the criteria of man made dogma was unacceptable and meant to either be worked on or left behind as we strove to “be holy and perfect like God was.”

What is Religious Trauma Syndrome?

As I have mentioned in my blog and talks given on spiritual abuse, the term Religious Trauma Syndrome describes the multi-layered experiences of those who have been hurt by being a part of a rigid spiritual belief system. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

With RTS, the trauma is two-fold. First, the actual teachings and practices of a restrictive religion can be toxic and create life-long mental damage. In many cases, the emotional and mental abuse is compounded by physical and sexual abuse due to the patriarchal, repressive nature of the environment.

Second, departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with leaving what amounts to one world for another. This usually involves significant and sudden loss of social support while facing the task of reconstructing one’s life. People leaving are often ill-prepared to deal with this, both because they have been sheltered and taught to fear the secular world and because their personal skills for self-reliance and independent thinking are underdeveloped.

~ Dr. Marlene Winell

Common Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome

The damage that RTS or spiritual abuse causes can be vast and even debilitating.

In my own clinic, I have seen everything from depression, existential crises, thoughts of suicide, sexual issues (fear of masturbation, struggle to orgasm, painful intercourse, fear of performing certain sexual acts, rejection of anything that isn’t vanilla etc.) to eating disorders, sleep disturbances, rejection of normal emotions like anger or pride, fear of abandonment, anxiety and panic attacks (… personally I still get a little skeevy even now, years later, when things remind me of “being out of God’s will” or “the Rapture” or “End Times Plagues & Tribulation”), or a struggle with identity or believing that they are inherently good and not some “wretch” God somehow loves in spite of their “sin.”

From a therapist’s perspective, religious trauma affects ALL levels of being. It’s important that we ask the right questions so as not to misdiagnose clients’ symptoms which appears to happen more than my fellow colleagues might like to admit. Common clues to look for that warrant further exploration:

Cognitive Impairment: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion

Affective/ Emotional Impairment: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning

Functional Impairment: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization (issues with physical body)

Social/Cultural Impairment: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction

Why Does RTS Seem Worse For Some Than Others?

Research has shown that the severity of RTS ranges and depends on a number of factors. Persons most at risk of RTS are those who were:

  • raised in their religion
  • sheltered from the rest of the world
  • very sincerely and personally involved
  • from a very controlling form of religion

The important thing for us to realize is that Religious Trauma Syndrome is real. While it may be easier to understand the damage done by sexual abuse or natural disaster, religious practices can be just as harmful. More people are needing help and the taboos about criticizing religion need to be questioned.

~ Dr. Marlene Winell

How To Heal

If any of this sounds like you, I want you to know there IS hope! I’ve worked with hundreds of exvangelicals and those either questioning their faith or having walked away from organized religion. There are a growing number of social media pages, support groups, books and other media, and therapists like myself who can assist you in the process. Google and Amazon are definitely a great place to start and if you’d like a personal touch, I’d be honored to work with you.


Additional Resources:

Mary DeMuth’s Story

Leaving the Fold by Dr. Marlene Winell

You Are Your Own: A Reckoning with the Religious Trauma of Evangelical Christianity by Jamie Lee Finch

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Breathing Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment by Janet Heimlich

#ChurchToo:How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing by Emily Joy Allison

The Dangers of Growing Up In A Christian Home by Donald E. Sloat, PhD.

Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness, and Christian God-Talk by Wendell W. Watters

“The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, 1st Edition”  by Ralph W. Hood, Jr.

Dare to Doubt

Reclamation Collective


My Interviews with Dr. Lourdes Viado of Women in Depth


Meet Tamara Driskell

religious trauma therapist PensacolaTamara Driskell, LMHC is the owner of Arya Therapy Services, a Pensacola counseling and coaching practice. Born into a fundamentalist family system whose dogma she later re-evaluated for a spiritual framework that felt more consistent to her personal values, Tamara now works with others hurt by the Church/Religion globally. She has degrees not only in psychology but also specialized training in religiosity, comparative religions and shamanic/ earth based worldviews. If you’re interested in learning more about her and her services, she would love to hear from you at