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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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mainemomma25
Oct 19, 2023

As I continue to read other survivor's stories, and reflect on my own, one thing always stands out as one of the first steps in the journey toward healing - giving a name to their experiences. I will never forget my own defining moment, when the words were spoken out loud... "what you are experiencing is abuse." The truth of it was terrifying, and I immediately argued against it - but deep inside an irreversible shift had taken place. I could never unsee or unknow what I saw and knew in that moment. It was a small beginning, but it ultimately changed everything.

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Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Oct 19, 2023
Replying to

Yes! Naming and acknowledging is the first step! It does change everything!

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sews
Oct 17, 2023

I was taught that anxiety is wrong thinking. I’m thankful for my Christian physician who explained how anxiety works, that your body just takes over and you have no choice in the matter.

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Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Oct 19, 2023
Replying to

I am so glad you had a doctor who explained this. It is not our fault and certainly not "wrong thinking" that is a choice on our part--healing has helped me so much in this area!

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shaferfam4
Oct 14, 2023

I want to comment on #9 on the list since I experience a form of this in almost every church. It goes beyond depression, anger, anxiety being a result of sin. We are told that those feelings are sin in and of themselves; that they are the opposite of faith; that we neither really know or trust God if we struggle with these feelings. I can recall a few years back attending a "name it/claim it" church that looked with disdain on those not living the "victorious, prosperous life." One Sunday, the preacher asked those who were depressed to stand up, apparently to receive their "healing" from his prayer for them. Literally, one third of the congregation stood up. You…

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Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Oct 14, 2023
Replying to

Thank you! You are absolutely correct and I added a statement on #9 to indicate that. It is tragic how abusive these teachings are to those who suffer.

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