Exposure to organized religion causes “Religious Trauma Syndrome”, according to experts

“I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I’d walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life.”

These are the words of a deeply traumatized client of Dr. Marlene Winell who suffers from “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS). Dr. Winell is a human development consultant who first came up with the concept of an anxiety syndrome caused by fundamentalist religious practices, reports Valerie Tarico for RawStory.

Dr. Winell has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised.

Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. She has provided assistance to clients whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it, writes Tarico who was also a victim.

What exactly is RTS?

In an interview for RawStory Winell explains: “Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion.”

Two aspects are involved:

  • immersion in a controlling religion
  • impact of leaving a religious group

Religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. Winell says the damage can be caused by:

  • toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin
  • religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt
  • neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally

For example certain religions teach people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness, say Winell.

Another pitiful cry from one of Winell’s clients:

“I’ve spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn’t have to punish me. It’s taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.”

The damage done while you are in the group is made worse by the treatment you get should you dare to leave, says Winell.

In these authoritarian religious groups you have to obey and conform in order to be accepted as part of the community. If you dare to leave, you risk losing your entire support system as well, says Winell.

This is really challenging.

Explains Winell: “Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.”

These words of one of her clients paint a horrific picture of the reality a “refugee” from fundamental religion has to face:

“My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found ‘my place in the universe’.”

Why do followers of fundamentalist teachings get into such a state?

Winell explains that these religious groups control their members and teach fear about the world. They keep members away from the outside world and don’t equip them to face normal life.

It’s worse for people born into the religion. They have no frame of reference — no other “self” or way of being in the world.

RTS is not the same as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTS).

Explains Winell: RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma.

Another difference is the social context, which is very different from other traumas or forms of abuse.

“When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover,” explains Winell. “They don’t question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don’t send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling.” They are sent for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church. This is counterproductive.

Finding a name for the condition has been very helpful. People who suffer from RTS find that having a label for their experience helps them feel less alone and guilty. It also means that professionals will start examining it and develop treatments.

The world is now more aware of the damage some fundamentalist religions can do and those who want to leave such a community need not feel entirely isolated anymore.


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