Unpacking Religious Trauma: How Spirituality Can Harm

Spiritual Woman with hands clasped in prayer standing in front of a sunset in a grassy valley

Depending on your crowd, debating religion can become messy very quickly. That said, for many people, questioning or resenting religion is virtually unthinkable. It’s off-limits, forbidden, and may be deemed as a sign that you need serious help.

Unfortunately, religious trauma does exist. And it can be a twisted and isolated rollercoaster for the person suffering from it. So, how do you know if you’re struggling with this problem? And if you are, what’s the best course of action to take next?

What Is Religious Trauma?

Religious trauma isn’t a formal diagnosis. Instead, it’s a broad and informal term that can refer to both traumas from a religious institution and trauma within the faith community itself.

There isn’t a single cause for religious trauma, and it also isn’t associated with one particular religion over another. Instead, the trauma may emerge from a combination of the following:

  • Loss of community and relationships
  • Politics within the religion
  • Chronic condemnation of feelings or independent thinking
  • Betrayal or compromising of trust

Some professionals compare the resulting symptoms to that of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Naturally, this phenomenon can seem confusing or even juxtaposing. After all, faith communities are supposed to represent support and safety. If that is severed, trauma symptoms can be even more painful.

Such symptoms can include:

  • Negative beliefs about self-esteem and self-worth
  • Pervasive depression and anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Loss of meaning or pleasure in most activities
  • Struggles with a social support system and strained family dynamics
  • Feeling ‘behind’ on developmental tasks
  • A pervasive sense of social awkwardness
  • Feeling a lost or missing sense of purpose

Overcoming Religious Trauma

You may experience the religious trauma for several years (or decades) before recognizing its damaging effects on your mental health. Even if you understand your symptoms, it’s normal to blame yourself for feeling that certain way. You may feel like a failure or a disappointment- especially in the eyes of your faith.

This process can be frustrating. You want to reach out and talk about what’s going on. However, you feel humiliated and guilty over these conflicting feelings. You just want it all to go away- but the emotions tend to get even stronger.

Seek Professional Support

Therapy can help you unpack these uncomfortable emotions. Therapists hold a sense of neutrality and privacy in their work. You don’t have to worry about offending them, and therapists won’t tell you what to think or what to believe.

Coping with religious pain can feel traumatic. Seeking trauma therapy or EMDR from a trained clinician can help you work through some of this anguish. Pain in faith happens, but it does not need to become a faith crisis. In working through these uncomfortable feelings with a professional, you can find a greater clarity in moving forward.

While it’s common to consider your religious place of worship for counseling, outside therapy can provide you with third-party, objective feedback. In this space, you can explore your past experiences. You can also share your expectations and fears. If you are experiencing a sense of grief or loss due to your religious trauma, therapy can provide support for that as well.

Honor Your Feelings

Although it may seem wrong or scary, honoring your feelings allows you to express yourself. This simple act of kindness will enable you to work through some of the confusion and agony.

If you can, find an outlet to share your feelings. This process doesn’t need to be shared with anyone else. You can do it privately in a journal or even just talking aloud to yourself when driving in the car.

Honoring your feelings can also help you sort out conflicting experiences and messages. This work allows you to move forward and find freedom from your pain.

Do You Need to Leave Your Faith?

When talking about religious trauma, many people wonder if they need to leave their community. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all or straightforward answer.

Only you can decide the relationship you want to have with your faith. It may take time and trial-and-error to determine the parameters of this relationship. Furthermore, it doesn’t need to be on anyone’s timeline but your own.

Some people do decide to leave their faith. They may no longer feel safe or accepted in their community. The relationship they have with their faith may contradict personal values. Yet leaving is rarely an easy decision. This action can evoke a tremendous whirlwind of emotions. You may experience everything from relief and freedom to severe loneliness and self-doubt.

Others do not leave their faith. Instead, they choose to modify their involvement (such as changing their place of worship) in order to heal. They may also build a positive support network (either within or outside of their faith) to lean on in times of distress.

Many people do find their version of a middle ground. This ideal middle ground usually includes feeling the connection they want with their faith- while also feeling balanced and restored in their mental health.

Closing Thoughts

Undoubtedly, religion can be a sensitive subject. You may feel ashamed to talk about how you feel. You may blame yourself for not doing something right. Know that these are normal reactions. However, these reactions can lead to unnecessary and extreme suffering- which only perpetuates a cycle of fear, shame, and disappointment.

As a therapist, I feel honored to sit and explore the subject of religious trauma with you. Whether you’ve been struggling recently or for many years, we can work together to restore your faith in humanity and hope in life.  Contact Willow Counseling today to learn more.

Willow Counseling, Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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