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RELIGIOUS TRAUMA

Kristina respects all people’s right to their beliefs and recognizes the vast variance in perspectives and worldviews.  Part of therapeutic work is identifying core beliefs and recognizing their importance in our lives.  When our beliefs are healthy (e.g. I am capable.  I can choose whom to trust.  I am worthwhile.  People are doing the best that they can. Etc.)  we feel competent, connected, and treat ourselves and others well.  When our beliefs are unhealthy (E.g. I am shameful and bad.  I should have known better, done better.  I am powerless.  People cannot be trusted. Etc.) our quality of life can be severely compromised.  This is not to suggest that people are ideally fully independent of one another, or unaffected “islands”, rather that we are interdependent, dynamic, and assign reciprocal and mutual responsibility in our relationships.  

Cognitions

At times, especially when raised in a high control, or authoritarian, environment we develop what Rotter termed an external locus of control.  Locus of control refers to the belief that we have power over outcomes in our lives, vs. being powerless victims of circumstance.  When we have a strong internal locus of control, we take responsibility for ourselves and our actions and we have a strong sense of personal agency – or efficacy – over our lives.  An external locus of control exists when we believe that we are at the will of fate, luck, or the control of powerful others (be it a deity, person, or government).  This core perspective, or belief, disempowers us and can give us a sense of futility or hopelessness.  

Emotions

Another potential outcome of having sincerely believed in fundamentalist doctrine is damage to our emotional quality of life through anxiety, shame, guilt, and a pervasive fear of eternal punishment.  Rational individuals, at times, fear the concept of hell (central to many major religions) long after they move away from other fundamentalist beliefs.  

Physical

Disconnection from the body: When we are taught that the body is “sinful” and that we must adhere to a stringent set of behavioural practices (e.g. abstain from foods, beverages, sexual practices, etc.) this can disconnect us from our bodies.  While scientific research recognizes us as biopsychosocial creatures, fundamentalism can come with the message that our bodies are temporary and “of the flesh” and will lead us away from salvation.  This can result in unhealthy physical behaviours, and counterintuitively, towards compulsive and addictive behaviours, sexual dysfunctions, and troubles with ourselves and our relationships.   

Relationships

At its worst, fundamentalism can mimic domestic violence through the use of coercion, threats, abuse of power (using spiritual authority), use of male privilege, economic abuse (encouraging congregants to give beyond what they are able, charging for spiritual privileges, etc), sexual abuse, blame, denying responsibility (e.g. your sin brought this on) intimidation, and isolation (we are “called to be separate”, not reporting crimes that occur within the church, excommunication, etc.).  

LGBTQ+

Additionally, members of fundamentalist communities may be alienated and condemned for differences of gender identification, sexual orientation, etc., leading to further marginalization. 

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For some of us, fundamentalist beliefs, communities, and practices can cause trauma.  Dr. Marlene Winell has studied, treated, and given a name to Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) .  For thorough information on RTS, please visit Dr. Winell’s website

 

While Kristina generally avoids pathologization in her practice, the identification of trauma in response to religion can be validating and healing for those who may have experienced it.  

To quote Dr. Winell’s research, the following are excerpts from her work, which help outline potential experiences of those still in, questioning, or leaving fundamentalist religions:

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

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

Damage to normal 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 for discipline

 

Dr. Marlene Winell

Therapy

If you have experienced religious trauma, spiritual abuse, and are in, questioning, thinking of leaving, or have left an unhealthy religious community and would like psychotherapeutic support, please contact Kristina for in-person or video therapy.  International clients are also welcome.  Kristina specializes in treatment for religious trauma and is a member of the Secular Therapy Project.  

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