Recovery from Religious Trauma

This is part of an assignment for a group counseling class. I wanted to share it because I think more needs to be said about the disenfranchised grief of those surviving religious trauma. This is a draft document.

Setting the Stage

There is a sea change in the spiritual life of Americans — and a deepening understanding among mental health professions the role (both positive and negative) religion and spiritual play in the development of the individual. Widely reported are the numbers of Americans leaving organized religion, converting to other faith groups, or acknowledging atheism; however, what is underreported are those who are suffering mental distress through these transitions. As many move from strict sectarian upbringings, there is a need for support and counseling groups to exist in order to serve those with the disenfranchised grief of identifiable religious trauma. The DSM-IV introduced the religious problem diagnosis and it is retained in the current edition (V62.89 (Z65.8)), with more professionals recognizing the role, value, and control spirituality plays in the life and health of an individual. These problems and changes of the individual’s spiritual life may lead to depression or even post-traumatic stress, especially if the religious group membership helped to hide pre-existing mental disorders or the individual has been completely excluded from family and friends. Because of that, this group will focus on helping group members form new attachments, reenact their place in society, and receive counseling for several of the disorders mentioned below.

This group will focus on helping individual recover from religious trauma, which is loosely defined as an event or pervasive message occurring in a religious community that delays individuals developmentally and is currently causing stress, prohibiting normal social interaction. The target population is those who have left, or who are contemplating leaving, groups exercising strict control of their members and are currently suffering with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. The population will not be limited to one religion, but could involve several different ones. It will include both males and females. The group will be open to individuals only.

Literature Review

While the DSM-V’s diagnosis covers a range of religious problems, the group will focus particularly on those with religious trauma that may include a loss of faith. There are documented stories of the effects loss of faith and religious trauma have on individuals (Shafranske, 1991). Often times, the loss of faith or the loss of a faith community can cause social problems. Barra, Carlson and Maize write,

(W)hether in relation to traditional religious affiliation or to a more personal search for spiritual identity, frequently resulted in individuals experiencing many of the feelings associated with more “normal” loss situations. Thus, feelings of anger and resentment, emptiness and despair, sadness and isolation, and even relief could be seen in individuals struggling with the loss of previously comforting religious tenets and community identification. (p. 292)

This is religious trauma syndrome, a term recently coined by Winell (2012) meant to describe the depths of mental despair experienced by those who have left particular religious groups. Stone, who is not anti-theist, expands this understanding to include “pervasive psychological damage resulting from religious messages, beliefs, and experiences” (Stone, 2013). These trauma-inducing religious messages may include fear (such as hell) to preserve the community (Beier 2004), but in doing so, forces individuals to experience what Griffeth (2010) calls “dissociative self-silencing,” an act where various aspects of the individual’s development and self are repressed. Stone moves past Winell who limited religious trauma to Christian fundamentalism to include even New Age groups. Spiritual bypassing (Welwood, 1984) is used to describe the lack of normative lifespan development adherents suffer in these strict groups. Much like the addict who, upon recovery, is not only diagnosed with comorbid disorders but may find themselves having to work through developmental issues, the former adherent will likely find their new found freedom rather imprisoning, requiring years of community service, or in religious terminology, penance.

Professional mental health caregivers are beginning to understand religious trauma and to find ways of treatment. Groups as this will help in ending isolation, or as Stone points out, group therapy is an ideal form of treatment as it helps to form secure attachments for those struggles at a loss, perhaps, of an entire way of life (Stone, 2013). Perhaps this is because a group may offer safety, something Phillips (2009) sees as the first priority in treating religious trauma victims. This safety net creates a place for the client to create resilience and even to encourage the individual to continue to dialogue with his or her deity (Ormont, 1995/2001). Further, group counseling would be beneficial in healing the common result of trauma — a lack of psychological integration because group counseling “allows for self-reflection and less emotional reactivity” (Stone, 2013).

Theoretical Orientation

The theoretical orientation for leading this group will be person-centered. In person-centered therapy, the empathic relationship is the key. The target population most likely has rarely if ever received empathy, with little chance to practice giving empathy. This model would have empathy — a way to form connections to one another, to the inner-self, and to the outside world ­— as the centerpiece. Given that those coming from this strict groups often have been abused by authoritarian figures, allowing the facilitator to offer only minimal guidance keeps the facilitator from replacing via transference previous leaders. The group leader is a member, just one that helps to keep the group on track. Further, it allows the group individuals to become more assertive, while the facilitator helps to build trust in expertise as well as trust among the clients. As Stone notes (2013), attachment issues play a large part in the developmental delay of the adherent suffering religious trauma. Person-centered group counseling will ideally allow those attachments to be spread to all members, rather than the habit of finding and attaching to the leading voice. Finally, using Person-Centered would allow other techniques to be used on a limited basis.

This group will focus heavily on several of Yalom’s curative factors (2005), notably installation of hope, catharsis, and existential factors. Given the lack of existential connections, a likely ongoing depression, and the need to expunge some guilty or shame for years of participation, these three factors will be the primary exploratory domains. The first factor would be to explore what it now means to be free (existential freedom), or living in a life without an (or the previous) external structure (Yalom, 1980, p. 220). It is with this freedom that comes the freedom to choose and to create, a freedom that causes anxiety (Yalom, 2002, p. 141). This is where catharsis may play a role. The group will enable members to explore their grief and shame as they attempt to reform connections. One of the reasons Yalom’s factors work well in a group such as this is his view on religion and mental health, notably that the existential framework has a religious nature — even for a practicing atheist (Yalom, 2000).

As part of a lesson plan, I included an exercise involving the film The Experimenter. Stone expands Winell, rightly so; however, I think religious trauma should be examined from any system meant to offer a reward (either position or negative (such as the use of fear) in order to gain control of the adherent. This is why Stone can expand it past Christian fundamentalism and into New Age or other non-theistic sects. Further study may include looking at religious trauma more from the attachment science perspective. 

As a note, to suggest that God doesn’t exist because of these proposals makes as much sense as saying a parent doesn’t exist because of the trauma experienced by abused children.


Barra, D., Carlson, E., & Maize, M. (1993). The dark night of the spirit: Grief following a loss in religious identity. In K. Doka & J. Morgan (Eds.), Death and spirituality. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Beier, M. (2004). A violent god image: An introduction to the work of Eugene Drewermann. New York: Continuum.

Griffith, J. L. (2010). Religion that heals, religion that harms: A guide for clinical practice. New York: Guilford Press.

Ormont, L. (2001). Cultivating the observing ego in the group setting. In L. B. Furgeri (Ed.), The technique of group treatment: The collected papers of Louis Ormont (pp. 337–354). Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press. (Original work published 1995)

Phillips, S. B. (2009). The synergy of group and individual treatment modalities in the aftermath of disaster and unfolding trauma. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 59(1), 85–107.

Shafranske, E. (1991). Beyond countertransference: On being struck by faith, doubt and emptiness. American Psychological Association, New Orleans, LA.

Welwood, J. (1984). Principles of inner work: Psychological and spiritual. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(1), 63–73.

Winell, M. (2012). Recovery from harmful religion: Religious trauma syndrome. Retrieved from

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Yalom, I. D. (2000). Religion and Psychiatry. American journal of psychotherapy, 56, (3) 301-306. Retrieved from ProQuest database Yalom, I. D. (2002). The gift of therapy. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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5 Replies to “Recovery from Religious Trauma”

  1. I have only just recently discovered the term “religious trauma syndrome” and have read up on some issues…however some of them are atheists and also opt to toss out their beliefs altogether, this isn’t something that sits well with me…I believe in God, but I no longer believe in following religious leaders that claim to know it all, and yet I have discovered I have trusted and followed blindly, believing them just because they have a title or lead a group or organisation…I am seeking others who are like me believers in Jesus and God etc, but do not want anything to do with organisations and “cult like” following.

  2. Hello Joel, I am the pastor of an open and affirming UCC church in Nashville, TN. I would like to learn more about the religious trauma group counseling class you proposed a few years ago. Did you host the class? Any findings you want to share? Our church is gathering information and resources for developing a Recovering from Religious Trauma support program, and would love to learn more about your work around this. Thank you!

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