Skip to content Skip to footer

Religious Trauma, Do you have it? How do you know?

What is it? Do I have it?


The term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) was introduced by Marlene Winell in 2011.

Winell recognized the benefit of publicly identifying the symptoms experienced by those who suffer from RTS. A clear description of the symptoms can provide hope for healing and reduce shame for those affected.

Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by individuals who struggle to leave an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and cope with the damage of indoctrination.

Marlene Winell
What causes RTS?

RTS develops in two phases. The first occurs when one is within the closed religious community and actively subjected to abusive treatment. The second phase occurs upon leaving.

Phase 1 Authoritarian religions employ classic power techniques, which can result in us, at worst, ceasing to be autonomous beings.

These religions attempt to stifle independent, critical thinking and minimize exploration of personal emotions.

Dogmatic religions use members’ ignorance as a source of control. Those at the top are considered the only reliable source of information, and all other education is deemed unnecessary (and sometimes prohibited).

Physical punishment and corporal discipline of women and children are recurring messages found in several “holy scriptures.” These practices may still be sanctioned within closed communities.

These groups also promote unhealthy views on bodily autonomy and sexuality. This can lead to a lifelong struggle to establish physical boundaries and evoke feelings of shame or even disgust towards natural needs such as masturbation or sex.

The conflict with the all-powerful God—God loves you but can also send you to hell—creates insecurity and confusion. Beliefs in original sin, the notion that God sees and hears everything, that doubt is a sin, and apocalyptic preaching generate fear and despair that there is no hope of ever having control over one’s own safety.

Research shows that exposure to extreme fundamentalism can cause damage to various parts of the brain:

The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s emotional regulation center. After experiencing trauma, there is a limited ability to “sort through emotions.” The amygdala becomes “hyperactive,” leading to increased fear, sleep difficulties, and poor self-regulation. Effects on the hippocampus result in difficulty distinguishing between past memories and the present. Consequently, the fight-or-flight response is triggered even when there is no apparent threat.

What are the effects of RTS?


There can be long-term consequences from the abusive methods employed. Negative childhood experiences have been shown to lead to both physical and mental health issues.

Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS):
  • Depression
  • Grief
  • Anxiety
  • Underdeveloped critical thinking
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Underdeveloped social skills
  • Black-and-white thinking
  • Substance abuse
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Feelings of not belonging
  • Difficulty relating to people
  • Lack of knowledge about current social issues
  • Loss of community
  • Sense of loss of identity
  • Low self-esteem

Written by Joakim

Information from Josette Fisher.