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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Is Religious Trauma Impacting You?

Even over the phone, I could sense the physical reaction caused by the story that was being shared—a clear indication of trauma. It was a difficult story of rejection, betrayal, and abandonment—all within a religious context.

Yet, when I said, “That is religious trauma!” the response was one of disbelief. “I know it was painful,” she said, “but it wasn’t trauma.”

This did not surprise me because it is only recently that we have understood the neuroscience behind the physical symptoms of trauma. As I said in the last blog, “We may not recognize the pain and symptoms as Religious Trauma (RT).” One reason—which was true in the story shared with me—is that we do not have language to describe types of RT. In most ways the different types of RT (discussed next week) are like many other traumatic life experiences—it is the context that makes it qualify as RT—and the context is what makes it difficult to recognize or heal.


Note: The next section includes descriptions of religious experiences that may be dysregulating to your nervous system. Be cautious (stop reading if needed) and curious. Those things we call triggers are the clues to where we need to heal. My hope is that you will feel seen and validated in knowing that your experiences are the reason for your struggles. It is not a spiritual problem.


I created the following list from the stories that have been shared with me, or published in groups, blogs, or books. It is by no means exhaustive but may help you recognize ways you were impacted.

  1. Spiritual teachings or scripture were used as reasoning for physically punishing, shaming, or isolating you as a child.

  2. You were exposed to teachings that portrayed God as vengeful and you as unworthy.

  3. You experienced fear about going to hell or missing the rapture.

  4. You felt shamed when displaying any signs of pride in who you are, your talents, or your accomplishments.

  5. You felt shamed for not being consistent in your spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible reading, or church attendance.

  6. Your activities, music, or reading interests, dreams, dating, or plans were dictated by a church or church leader.

  7. You were shamed or punished for dressing in an immodest manner.

  8. You were sexually abused or harassed by a church member or leader.

  9. You were told that an illness, inner turmoil, depression, or anxiety were the result of sin in your life or they are sinful in and of themselves. .

  10. You or your parents were terminated from a ministry position resulting in a loss of resources, home, church community, or school.

If this list was difficult to read, please pause to breathe deeply!

This may be the first time you have read a list like this. If you identified with several of the experiences, that might be a bit overwhelming. Those who experienced RT within the church or other religious settings often become dismissive of their experiences (that is how we survive). You may have said, “Others had it worse.” While this may be true, it is irrelevant to your pain and grief. It is OK to be angry—to grieve and lament.

Next week, we will give language to these experiences and identify patterns that they fall into. For now, know that the pain you may have experienced in any of these situations is real. It may have also caused you to feel powerless and unworthy of being loved or cared for. None of this is true and healing always begins with self-compassion—it was not your fault.

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