Religious Trauma Syndrome  




I do not believe that religion is inherently harmful. Religion can be a source of hope, strength, and guidance for many people. However, religious institutions sometimes take on forms that can cause serious psychological harm. If you are suffering from the following symptoms and were raised in a very authoritarian, dogmatic religion or have faced abuse from a family member or an individual in your religious community, you may have Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). RTS was developed by Dr. Marlene Winell, an expert in the field of religious trauma. She describes Religious Trauma Syndrome as such:

Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle.  RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith.  It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS):

• 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)

Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:

Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home results in:

• 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

Religious Trauma Syndrome mimics the symptoms of many other disorders:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • clinical depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • bipolar disorder
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • eating disorders
  • social disorders
  • marital and sexual dysfunctions
  • suicide
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • extreme antisocial behavior, including homicide

There are many extreme cases, including child abuse of all kinds, suicide, and rape. Not as extreme but also tragic are all the people who are struggling to make sense of life after losing their whole basis of reality. None of the previously named diagnoses quite tells the story, and many who try to get help from the mental health profession cannot find a therapist who understands.

If you believe you may be struggling with RTS, please contact me today so I can help you find the support you need. Dealing with RTS is extremely painful and difficult, but can be overcome. Help is available, and you do not need to struggle alone.

Think you might be suffering from RTS?

 Give me a call or send me an email! I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have and get to know you so we can see if we’d make a good fit. 

630-384-9065 |

Stephanie Lee, LCSW | 3150 18th St. Suite 501 | San Francisco, CA 94110 | Google Map

Interested in working together?

Contact me today so I can answer any questions you might have and to see if we would be a good fit!

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217-493-8653 |

Stephanie Lee, LCSW | 3150 18th St. Suite 501 | San Francisco, CA 94110 | Google Map