“Religious Trauma Syndrome”: Help For This and Related Issues

Ever heard of “religious trauma syndrome” (RTS)? Me neither, til I happened to find an article about Dr. Marlene Winell. For 20 years she’s been counseling people adversely affected by fundamentalist religious institutions, and she’s a survivor herself. It’s Winell who came up with the label of RTS.

Symptoms of religious trauma syndrome can include anxiety and fear, depression, cognitive difficulties, lack of ability to think freely and in one’s own best interests, and interpersonal problems.

When someone experiences RTS, states Winell, it’s the result of both “immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group.”

Some of the things that are too often experienced in controlling religious organizations, including cults, are physical and sexual abuse and toxic teachings and practices.

On the challenging issue of getting out or escaping, Winell states:

Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other ‘self’ or way of ‘being in the world.’

Winell outlines nine possible steps an individual needs to take in order to achieve recovery from RTS:

  1. Get real (recognizing problems)
  2. Get a grip (considering deconversion)
  3. Get informed (getting new information)
  4. Get Support (finding emotional help)
  5. Get well (finding healing)
  6. Get a Life (building a new life)
  7. Get Clear (coming out to others)
  8. Get With The Program (joining the world)
  9. Get Your Groove On (reclaiming joy and self-expression)

Winell’s book is called Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, and her informative and helpful website is called Journey Free. The book receives high praise from many who’ve benefited from reading it.

Ditto for cult expert Steven Hassan‘s book Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs. 

Finally, there’s Diane Benscoter‘s TED talk about the “extremist brain.” A former “Moonie” and author of Shoes of a Servant — My Unconditional Devotion to a LieBenscoter has stated the following about controlling religions and their leaders:

I agree with Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor’s assessment that religious fundamentalism could be treated as a form of mental illness.

Extremist leaders are addicts. Addiction is a powerful force. The addiction to power and/or money can affect the brain much like other types of addiction. The overwhelming desire to feed any form of addiction can eventually lead to a type of psychopathy. In the most dangerous circumstances charismatic leaders, under the influence of their addiction, can make a powerful and potentially deadly discovery. They can discover, and put into action, a set of manipulative tactics that prey on vulnerable segments of society.

Kathleen Taylor, cited above by Benscoter, wrote Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control.

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