What is Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)?

This is a term that has gained curiosity in the mental health world. Although Religious Trauma Syndrome is not yet in the DSM V, mental health professionals are finding that an increasing number of people are coming into therapy with mental health concerns directly related to negative effects of unhealthy or harmful religious experiences. Religious trauma is the physical, emotional, or psychological response to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. 

 What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of power in a spiritual context in which spiritual authority is distorted to the detriment of those under its leadership. It is a multilayered experience aimed at producing conformity. It is both process and event, influencing one’s inner and outer worlds and has the potential to affect the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual domains of the individual.

 Oftentimes, religious trauma or spiritual abuse does not stem from one single event, but accumulates over time through indoctrination with harmful messages from the religious community. This trauma can be exacerbated if the person decides to leave the organization, which can be scary and disorienting, especially if they have been immersed in a set of strict beliefs and expectations for many years.

Is Religion Inherently Harmful?

Religious or spiritual beliefs can be seen as having a positive impact on one’s mental health. Some advantages involve having a sense of community with others, social support for individuals who are marginalized or struggling, and an emphasis on moral values such as love, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Religious trauma can occur in any setting and one key feature to keep in mind is that it is subjective. Two people may have the same experience, but one person may perceive it as traumatic while someone else may not. 

What are Some Signs of Religious Trauma?

Trauma induced by religious or spiritual beliefs can be seen in any belief system and religious culture. Some of the common traits of religious trauma include:

  • Stunted development socially, emotionally or sexually 
  • Mental illness, specifically depression and anxiety 
  • Self Hatred 
  • Hypervigilance 
  • Poor critical thinking skills 
  • Lack of self confidence 
  • Pervasive feelings of guilt and shame 
  • Difficulty forming healthy adult relationships. 
  • Loss of community if the person makes the decision to leave  


If you find yourself struggling with mental health issues in relation to religious experiences, you are not alone. Trauma of any sort can feel isolating, but these types of experiences can feel more so simply because of the strong sense of conformity seen in many religious organizations.

 The first part of recovery involves re-gaining a sense of safety by educating yourself about the effects of trauma and re learning what physical and psychological safety feels like. It is also important for you to tell your story in a safe space and work to change internal self talk as well as changing maladaptive coping mechanisms. Another crucial step is forming a reconnection with self as well as others. It is important to allow yourself to explore identity, and values apart from the organization as well as normalizing the range of emotions throughout the healing process. In the end, it is important to redefine what healthy relationships look like, build assertive communication skills and set healthy boundaries.

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