In theory, religions were created to comfort the afflicted. They can offer a source of common belief. Individuals may gain a sense of belonging and, in the process, grow together into a community. But theory and practice do not always sync up. When religion instead becomes a source of trauma, it is an especially disconcerting betrayal. In fact, it can be traumatic.

Like any form of trauma, Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a nuanced and complex issue. Unfortunately, it is also becoming more and more common. In the name of giving voice to this growing problem, let’s explore more about RTS.

What Are Religious Trauma and Religious Trauma Syndrome?

Spiritual abuse is real, takes many forms, and is a primary cause of religious trauma. You can be impacted by spiritual abuse through coercion, control, and more. Individuals and/or groups use “religion” to manipulate others. They often get away with such behavior because people are hesitant to claim a spiritual institution can be corrupt.

Some of the behaviors that can lead to religious trauma include:

  • Preventing someone from practicing the beliefs of their choice
  • Turning those beliefs into a source of shame
  • Mocking someone’s beliefs or interpretation of religion or spirituality
  • Using religious texts to gaslight others and rationalize abuse
  • Weaponizing religion in any way

woman of color smiling at self in mirror

Religious Trauma Syndrome

An ongoing pattern of abuses, like those listed above, can result in trauma. RTS is not a specific diagnosis but rather a variation of the all-too-common issue of trauma. Being subjected to this kind of indoctrination manifests in a variety of ways, e.g.

  • A cohesive group of believers can bully others into viewing their path as the only path
  • This may be accomplished by condemning the actions — and even thoughts — of the targeted person
  • Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and loss of confidence in oneself can arise
  • Isolating members of the belief group from mainstream society via geography, clothing, and cultural/lifestyle choices
  • Being shunned, rejected, or threatened for any viewpoint that even slightly differs from the accepted dogma
  • Demonizing any form of independent thought

RTS typically presents symptoms very similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

Symptoms of RTS

Cognitive Problems

  • Lack of critical thinking skills
  • Confusion
  • Loss of concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions


  • Unable to fit in
  • Can’t maintain healthy relationships
  • Feeling detached from mainstream society
  • Loss of basic social skills


  • Feeling lost without the people who abused you
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling hopeless and lost

Physical Signs

  • Nightmares
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eating issues
  • Sexual dysfunction

How to Recover From Religious Trauma Syndrome

Like any kind of trauma, you can benefit greatly from working with an experienced therapist. Your sessions together can help you create important outcomes, like:

Accept What Happened to You

You’ve been manipulated and abused, but it was not your fault. Accept the presence of RTS and that you are part of a large community of survivors.

Putting Aside Anger and Revenge

Sometimes, the abuser was someone very close to you. But, also, they may not have had malicious intentions. You don’t have to interact with them, but you can help yourself by releasing blame and resentment if those emotions are holding you back.

Identify Your Personal Beliefs

After having beliefs imposed upon you, it is critical that you develop your own perceptions. Remember, you are free to question and explore. Put in the time to recognize what values you hold dear and let them guide your future religious/spiritual steps.

Make Non-Religious Connections

Get social with folks of all different beliefs. Find other common interests to connect you with others. Taking steps like this is easier when working in trauma therapy. I’d love to help you on this liberating path, contact me soon.