What is religious trauma?

What is religious trauma?

By Jean Jones


Religious trauma and spiritual abuse can have long-lasting negative consequences on a person’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Religion itself doesn’t cause trauma – but when people use religious ideas or contexts to abuse, manipulate, or coerce others, trauma can ensue.

Religious trauma is the psychological harm that occurs when an individual’s religious experience is stressful, degrading, dangerous, abusive, or damaging. Religious trauma is an accumulative experience over a long period of time caused by harmful messages enforced by the religious community. This can lead to strained, damaged, or even broken relationships between family and friends. 

Religion and spirituality are often viewed as sources of support, guidance, and community, but can also be used as weapons of power and control. Coping with the damage of indoctrination can take years after leaving a damaging religious group.

Repeated religious abuse can lead to feeling abandoned, shamed, unworthy, and betrayed. It is also associated with symptoms of anxiety, depression, dissociation, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and physical health problems. 

What’s the difference between spiritual abuse and religious trauma? Spiritual abuse is the harm or mistreatment of another, often for the purpose of exerting power or control. Spiritual abuse can take many forms, including emotional abuse, psychological manipulation, verbal abuse, and pastoral abuse of power. Religious trauma is the psychological damage that such treatment can cause.

How does religious trauma impact mental health?


The effects of religious trauma are wide-ranging and can have a lasting impact on mental health. Some symptoms associated with religious trauma include:

  1. Self-hatred and guilt
  2. Anxiety and fear
  3. Depression and hopelessness
  4. Loss of identity and sense of self-worth
  5. Feeling disconnected from family, friends, and former religious community
  6. Difficulty trusting people or believing in any faith
  7. A distorted view of God or spirituality
  8. Physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, headaches, or digestive issues
  9. Disregard for boundaries and self-care
  10. Inability to cope with change

While it is possible to heal from religious trauma, it takes time, patience, and support from others. By understanding the signs of pastoral abuse of power or mind control techniques, we can be better equipped to protect ourselves and our loved ones from further harm.


What is conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy is a dangerous practice that targets LGBTQ youth and seeks to change their sexual or gender identities. It is a practice that has been denounced by major medical and psychological organizations for decades. The American College of Physicians states that it “opposes the use of ‘conversion,’ ‘reorientation,’ or ‘reparative’ therapy for the treatment of LGBTQ persons.” The American Psychological Association also opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, that is based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder.

There is clear evidence that conversion therapy does not work and significant evidence that it is harmful to LGBTQ people. It can lead to guilt and shame, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and feelings of isolation. Simply put, conversion therapy is a form of child abuse. 

The effects of religious trauma due to conversion therapy can be devastating and long-lasting. It can lead to a distrust of authority figures and institutions, a feeling of alienation from family and friends, a lack of faith in one’s own beliefs, and an inability to express one’s own identity. For those who have suffered from conversion therapy, it is important to find support from others who understand their experience and can help them heal.

How can you heal?

Finding a safe space to process the trauma is essential. 

Practicing self-compassion is crucial to helping survivors manage the pain they have experienced. 

Finding a new spiritual practice that helps build self-confidence and feels empowering can be helpful, too.

Joining a supportive community or network to help navigate the healing process is beneficial.

And individual and group therapy can be healing as well. Susanna Guarino, LMHC specializes in religious trauma and currently has openings. Feel free to reach out for a free consultation.