Religious Trauma Syndrome

People like me who have left an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and are still coping with the damage of childhood indoctrination often end up with a condition called Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith. Dr. Marlene Winnel compares it to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

For me, I had erroneously thought that when the final “nail was driven in the coffin,” the end would be obvious. But when it happened to me, it wasn’t like that at all. It was very gradual. At that time, I was a hurting fellow, and our conversation quickly became raw and honest.

I was at Cracker Barrel for breakfast with our executive pastor, a shipping company’s former CEO, and my immediate supervisor. It was a good day in a great month and terrific year as the Creative Arts Pastor of one of the world’s most prestigious megachurches. My annual performance evaluation was off the charts, and leadership lauded our team for exemplary work.

During the breakfast, I gave progress reports about pending tasks and received responses of pleasure and gratitude. The executive pastor then said something typical in our Evangelical world, something that Southern Baptists universally accepted. So it should have been no big deal. But for me, it was a nail. The final nail.

I remember the exact moment. And I felt so tired all of a sudden. The sounds of the plates and other people talking seemed magnified. Nothing was out of the ordinary for an average working breakfast, yet for me, everything had just changed. The reality I had lived in for twenty-nine years had shattered.

When a person breaks, they become a jumble of seemingly incompatible thoughts, emotions, and actions. In the aftermath of that fateful breakfast, I didn’t realize that a broken person is also allowed to see their life and the world differently. I did not know that I was going through something a growing number of Evangelicals were experiencing: Religious Trauma.

The co-worker at breakfast that day had been well-intentioned and supportive. The words leading up to that final nail were about looking forward to the great work we would do together. But suddenly, I knew I could no longer go on. And that scared the hell out of me.

I did know I was unhappy, unhealthy, and exhausted. I was frustrated with the lack of leadership and motivation from the senior pastor. And the unwillingness to deal with my growing questions about religion. I didn’t realize I was so traumatized that words like “it’s no big deal” would hammer the coffin closed forever.

The standard in the ministry is to ignore discomfort and distress of all kinds—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—and to carry on. That’s what I had been doing for years, or maybe decades. I was fragmented and found myself crying unexpectedly at the slightest thing. It was not like me at all.

I felt physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Yet, I wasn’t depressed; I still enjoyed leading worship, my family and friends, good food and drink, and much more.

Running marathons had become an addiction. And because it was exercise, I thought I had found a way to cope with the distress. I believed I was alleviating the stress and finding balance in my life.

This was not the story my family would tell. Instead, their story would go something like this: I had become scary. The slightest thing would transform me from a smiling, kind person into a scowling angry human. I behaved as if everything and everyone was out to get me: The idiot that refused to move his car out of my way when I had no time to spare, the TV that refused to work, the endless sirens in our neighborhood, and all the people who weren’t doing their jobs as well as I thought they should.

And unfortunately, the life coach that I was seeing from my church (who thought he was a therapist) only worsened matters. Over a decade later, my well-trained and highly empathic psychologist, wisely mused after hearing my story. He said the coach did “surgery” on my trauma but could not administer “chemotherapy.”

Dr. Marlene Winnel posits that Religious Trauma Syndrome has a very recognizable set of symptoms, definitive causes, and a debilitating cycle of abuse. However, she says there are ways to stop the abuse and recover.

Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome:

—Mental: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making

—Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning

—Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks

—Cultural: Unfamiliarity with the secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g., evolution, modern art, music)

Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:  Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology, which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home, results in:

Suppression of normal child development (cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested)

—Damage to everyday thinking and feeling abilities-information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned

—External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source

—Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as discipline

Cycle of Abuse  —The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible and face eternal punishment. Yet you cannot do anything about it. (These are teachings of fundamentalist Christianity; however, other authoritarian religions have equally toxic doctrines.)

—You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether. So you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite a complete lack of feedback about whether you will make it to heaven.

—Salvation is not a free gift after all.

—For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and guilt.

Stopping the Cycle Dr. Winnel says you can stop the cycle of abuse, but leaving the faith is a “mixed blessing.” Letting go of the need to conform is a huge relief. There is a sense of freedom, excitement about information and new experiences, newfound self-respect, integrity, and a sense of emerging identity.

There are enormous challenges as well. First, the psychological damage does not go away overnight. Because the phobia indoctrination in young childhood is so powerful, the fear of hell can last a lifetime despite rational analysis. Likewise, the damage to self-esteem and basic self-trust can be crippling. These reasons illustrate why there are so many thousands of walking wounded—people who have left Evangelicalism and live with Religious Trauma Syndrome.

But There is Hope Awareness is growing about the dangers of religious indoctrination. There are more and more websites to support the growing number of people leaving harmful religion. Slowly, services are evolving to help people with RTS heal and grow, including Dr. Winnel’s website

I am finally confident enough to say I am mostly healed. But I still have occasional traumatic dreams and flashbacks. However, I am continually discovering ways to help people understand what they have been through. So I hope to continue writing these posts to provide ways for all of us to enjoy life to its fullest. More to come.

Watch For Randy’s Book “The Quest” Coming Soon!

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