Religious Trauma Syndrome

Derrick Tyson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

American psychologist, educator and writer Marlene Winell describes her research on the effects some feel after leaving a religion.

According to American psychologist, educator and writer Marlene Winell, millions of people around the world suffer from a condition called Religious Trauma Syndrome. It’s a set of simultaneous symptoms and characteristics that are related to harmful experiences with religion, and are the result of immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.

Dr. Winell, who also is the author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, writes about Religious Trauma Syndrome in three articles published by the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists. She writes that religious indoctrination can be hugely damaging, and making the break from an authoritarian kind of religion can be “traumatic.”

Those most at risk to developing Religious Trauma Syndrome include people who are raised in their religion, sheltered from the rest of the world, very sincerely and personally involved with their religion, and/or from a very controlling form of religion. The symptoms include cognitive, affective, functional, and social or cultural “dysfunctions:” everything from confusion, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep and eating disorders, and substance abuse to difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, lack of meaning, suicidal ideation and rupture of family and social network.

According to Dr. Winell, the symptoms compare most easily with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although it’s important to understand that Religious Trauma Syndrome originates from harmful religious experiences, not just any trauma. Another difference is related to the social context. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, other people are understanding and supportive. On the other hand, when someone is seeking counseling for Religious Trauma Syndrome, his or her motives are often questioned and even doubted.

Dr. Winell calls for mental health professionals to recognize the “seriousness of Religious Trauma Syndrome,” adding that there are many people who need and deserve recognition and treatment from informed professionals. The first thing to do, according to Dr. Winell, is to let go of making religion “a special case in which criticism is taboo.”

She has also outlined steps in recovering from harmful religion. These include being honest with oneself about whether a religion is working, dealing with the fear that comes as a part of the indoctrination, getting educated, getting professional help, rebuilding one’s life around new values, getting involved with one’s community and reclaiming one’s creativity and independent self-expression.

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