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Religious Trauma Syndrome: How to Preserve Your Spiritual Journey

Reviewed by Karis A. Williams, MSMHC, LPC,   December 18 , 2023

Churches are supposed to be a haven, a safe place for all.  But unfortunately, many people find them to be exactly the opposite.  Just to be clear, there are many good churches.  But there are also many churches that do great destruction to the people they are supposed to be trying to help.  And that has caused religious trauma syndrome to be a huge issue among Christians worldwide.

So what is Religious Trauma Syndrome and how can you heal in a way that will rescue your spiritual journey? RTS is when someone is “beaten down” by authoritarianism and unbiblical religious rituals. They struggle to regain their emotional and physical health after being abused by church leadership and members.  Some will choose to leave their faith behind because of these atrocious circumstances.  That is incredibly unfortunate because leaving God is not the answer when it is man that screws up religion.  It is so important to find counselors and support that will help you to see the true love of God through the evil of how man distorts His Word and find true freedom in your faith.

Where Does Religious Trauma Syndrome Occur?

Religious Trauma Syndrome can occur literally anywhere there is religion or even talk of religion.  It can occur in the best of churches.  No denomination or type of church is immune.  It could even happen unrelated to church–such as a deeply religious household that holds their own independent religious beliefs.  Why?  Because all churches, no matter how good or bad, are made up of imperfect people.

While the above is true, it does cause a spectrum of damage done.  In a healthy church, RTS can occur, but less frequently because the leaders and membership will be emotionally and spiritually healthier as a general rule.  But because the nature of church is to welcome all, it is impossible to make sure that unhealthy people never appear on the scene.

In a church that promotes damaging religious concepts, you will find Religious Trauma Syndrome to be much more prominent.  It could very well be in the church policy of that church.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

An Example of RTS in Two Churches

As an example, the church my ex-husband and I attended for most of our adult lives was not perfect.  But most of the members were conscientious, loving Christians.  As my ex’s abuse became known, the church leadership worked hard to find Biblical answers for us to find healing.  My ex didn’t want healing.  He wanted more control.

He rallied a few of his long-time friends and convinced them he was being unfairly treated but had no idea why.  And those people blindly followed him rather than listening to the church leadership’s guidance on a now very public problem.

The majority of the church was loving and supportive through our family’s trials.  My ex’s answer was to leave the church and find one that would allow him to continue the control and abuse.  He found it easily.

Once he was a member of that church, they tried to force me to let him back into the house without any healing or willingness to work on our marriage/family.  And because I, with the support of my church, said we could not put our family at risk anymore, his church told him he had grounds for divorce because I was not meeting his needs as his wife.

He remarried 6 days after we received our divorce papers.  And without a lick of healing for his new family unit.

Both churches had nearly the same doctrines and were in the same denominational family.  But they were worlds apart in how they used religion.

At the end of the day, anywhere that has people who are influential has the potential for Religious Trauma Syndrome.  But the healthy churches will take care of it.  You will need to run very far away from the ones that don’t.

Religious Trauma Syndrome Graphic

What Does Religious Trauma Syndrome Look Like?

Those with religious trauma syndrome can appear to have everything under control.  That is because they are expected to.  But on the inside they are falling apart.  They struggle with the following:

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Inability to make a solid decision on their own
  • A need to people-please
  • Black and white thinking
  • An unhealthy fear of God’s retribution
  • Behaviors out of fear of church discipline
  • Refusal to think on their own, allowing others to think for them
  • Misinterpretation of Scripture
  • Won’t spend time with people of differing religious views
  • Constant guilt and/or shame
  • Difficulty making or keeping friends
  • Feelings of displacement if you are leaving your faith
  • Being uncomfortable with culture outside of the church you attended

Religious Trauma Syndrome

Some physcial symptoms would appear as:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty eating
  • Triggered by certain religious terms or thoughts
  • Inability to attend church
  • Panic attacks
  • Grief
  • Isolation
  • Nightmares
  • Intense shyness

The list could go on.  It is virtually the same as any other cause of C-PTSD.

How Can You Guard Yourself From Religious Trauma Syndrome?

Sometimes, it is very difficult to guard yourself from Religious Trauma Syndrome, especially if it begins while you are a child.  Not only are  you unable to get out from under inappropriate authority, often you cannot recognize unhealthy behavior of this sort as a child.  This is where other people will need to help you guard yourself.

Teachers, counselors, healthy parents and relatives, and any adult that is in relationship with children in unsafe spaces can speak truth into them.  You may be the only adult that can love them where they are at.
Of course, if you see that a child is physically unsafe, call the authorities!  Otherwise, you will relate to them in small bits of conversation as you are on recess or break, passing by in the hall, or visiting with them as relatives.  There are always opportunities to say hi and make small talk as you show them you are a trusted confidante should they need it.  If we relate to all kids we meet along the way in this manner, nearly all kids will have a safe place to go and an example of safe people and emotional maturity.

As for older victims of Religious Trauma Syndrome, if you or someone you are close to is experiencing these symptoms, look for help.  Go online to find it if you need to.  But even if you aren’t sure what you are experiencing, still get help to figure out what it is.  Most people who are in emotional trouble can’t see well enough to figure out what they are experiencing.

If your intuition is telling you something, don’t ignore it.  It’s better to find out you overreacted than to be unsafe.  And rarely do people overreact to abuse.  It is generally the opposite.

How Can You Heal From Religious Trauma Syndrome?

The best way to heal from Religious Trauma Syndrome is to talk through it.  Having a counselor that understands is critically important.  Having a couple of friends who are safe and understanding is a perfect addition to the counselor.  And having a healthy place to practice your religious beliefs will be tantamount to your healing.

With your counselor, you will be able to talk through issues that s(he) will then be able to diagnose and treat in more ways than just talking through your issues.  First and foremost, they will help you to see that the trauma was not caused by the religion itself, but by what mankind has done to religion.  Some of that can look like the following:

  • Breathing techniques to combat anxiety
  • Sleep exercises to help regain restful sleep
  • Nutritional help to get eating back on track
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) in severe cases of trauma
  • Strategies to cope with the stress and triggers
  • Dance, yoga, or other exercise to get your body back in sync
  • Validation of what you have experienced
  • Respite time to hear what your body and mind is telling you
  • Books to read and keep as references as you heal

This list will get you started.  Your counselor will bring you along in ways that will be life-changing.

An Unfortunate Outcome of Religious Trauma Syndrome

One of the most tragic things that has come out of Religious Trauma Syndrome is how many people totally walk away from God.  They don’t understand that what happened had little to do with God and everything to do with people who manipulated others and God to fit their paradigm.

If you are doubting God because of the trauma you have suffered, please find some help from someone you can trust.  If you do not personally know anybody who can help you, look into books that can point you back to God in a healthy way.  One that comes to mind immediately for me is The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel.

Find a way to connect with others who have been through what you have and kept their faith intact.  There are quite a few of us out there.  There are even Youtube videos out there.  And one big warning:  be careful of those who are so jaded that they wouldn’t give God a chance.  Find people that will bring you comfort, peace and strength, regardless of what you choose to do with your spirituality going forward.

I would like to share an amazing video with you from a therapist who has done extensive work with people who suffer from RTS.  I love how she lets you be in control of how you want to heal. This video has six replies to people that have written her with concerns from their own experiences of RTS.  Check it out here, you will be so glad you took the few minutes!

One Final Recommendation

One of the best books I read that helped me along this journey was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero.


I actually have a funny story to tell you.  It was the very first book my counselor recommended for my ex-husband and me when we first started counseling in January, 2016.  I didn’t remember that and later found the book on my own and read it.  When I told my counselor about my incredible find, she reminded me that it was the first book she ever recommended.  I told her I had no memory of that.  And then she told me that as soon as she mentioned the title of the book, my ex said we would not be reading that book and it wouldn’t be allowed in our home.  Apparently, that’s why I had no memory.

Anyway, this book will be a lifesaver to you if you have been on the giving or receiving end of unhealthy emotional spirituality and want to find healing.  Check it out by clicking on the title or picture!

If you liked this article, I think you will also love the following articles:

How to Navigate Religious Narcissistic Parents

What Happens to the Soul of a Narcissist?

How to Heal From a Spiritual Narcissist

Can You Maintain a Relationship With a Spiritual Narcissist?

Can Narcissists Have a Spiritual Awakening?

How Will God Judge a Narcissist?

When the Church Says to Move Back in With Your Narcissist

What Can We Say to a Friend Who’s Divorcing

23 Reasons Why Narcissists are Drawn to the Church

When the Church Doesn’t Recognize Narcissistic Abuse

Will the Church Support Divorcing a Narcissist?

What Does the Bible Say About Narcissism?

Can a Spiritual Narcissist Heal?

Can a Narcissist Be a Christian?

What is Spiritual Narcissism?

What Does the Spiritual Narcissist Do When You Try to Leave?  

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Hi! I am the founder of Navigating Religious Narcissism after being raised under a narcissistic mother and married to a narcissistic man for 31 years. It is my prayer that I can be as valuable on your journey to healing and peace as were so many who crossed my path of healing.

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