• Janice Selbie

Signs and Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome

Updated: Nov 21

Signs and Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome



Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) refers to the collection of symptoms suffered by individuals who spend time in rigid, authoritarian, fundamentalist groups and then suffer additional symptoms upon leaving those groups. When we participate in and then exit rigid groups, we experience multiple losses across many spheres; the grief and isolation can feel overwhelming. The name “Religious Trauma Syndrome” was first coined by American psychologist Dr. Marlene Winell.


As religious trauma syndrome is the result of trauma repeated over a long period, symptoms are shared with complex PTSD and can affect us on emotional, mental, and physiological levels, including our sympathetic nervous system. We can get stuck in flight, fight, freeze, or fawn reactions when activated by trauma. The benefits of meditation, visualization, and grounding exercises have become well-known as ways to help regain parasympathetic dominance and return us to a more relaxed state.


Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome


Religious Trauma Syndrome can result in emotional, mental, and physiological symptoms, including:

  • Disturbed sleep & appetite

  • Depression

  • Feelings of anger, guilt, shame, fear, confusion, and loneliness

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Low self-esteem

  • Poor boundaries

  • Self-medicating with unhealthy behaviors

  • Dissociation

  • Thoughts of suicidality

  • Knowledge gaps related to science, sexuality, and culture

  • Sexual issues stemming from Purity Culture indoctrination

Religion as Addiction


Deep devotion to religion also shares some qualities with addiction. Following are modified versions of questions asked by mental health professionals to ascertain whether an individual has developed an addiction to a process or substance:

Religious Addiction - Signs

  • Do you use religion to avoid responsibilities?

  • Does preoccupation with religion cause you to neglect your job?

  • Is your relationship with religion more important to you than your children and family?

  • Are you obsessed with rules?

  • Does religion keep you isolated from outside friends and activities?

  • Do you use religion as an excuse to cut people out of your life or otherwise abuse them?

  • Has anyone told you that your devotion to religion is extreme or obsessive?

  • Do you give more time or money to religion than you can afford?

  • Do you get defensive when someone questions your religion?

Religious Addiction – Symptoms

  • Are you preoccupied with sin and the afterlife?

  • Do you think sex is shameful or dirty?

  • Do you struggle with guilt and use it as a weapon?

  • Do you see the world as black and white, without shades of grey?

  • Do you and your group tell others how to interpret the Bible?

  • Does your religion threaten violence against people who don’t believe?

  • Do you use religion to control the behavior of others?

  • Do you argue against scientific evidence if it conflicts with your religion?

  • Do you believe you will prosper only “if God wills it” and that if your plan fails, “It wasn’t God’s will” for it to succeed?

Our understanding of trauma has advanced a great deal over the last few years such that we have a better understanding of how it may impact our sympathetic nervous system, especially.


Unfortunately, though we may extricate ourselves from our religious beliefs and community, remaining in a still-religious country can be extremely triggering and make it even more difficult to find secular recovery support. Through my website Divorcing Religion, I accept bookings for 1:1 religious recovery consultation sessions and offer group support through the online Divorcing Religion Workshop.


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