A syndrome for religious trauma? Yes, apparently.

A Salon news article claims the existence of a condition called Religious Trauma Syndrome, which is characterized by feelings of isolation, fear and self-loathing caused by a person’s religious beliefs. This new term was coined by Marlene Winell to name a set of symptoms some people experienced after exposure to a toxic religious environment or the trauma of leaving a religion. The teachings of conservative sects of Christianity such as Evangelicals and Mormons are supposedly the origin of Religious Trauma Syndrome. Is it possible that a person’s religious beliefs can be detrimental to his or her mental health? The answer, apparently, is yes.

Certain behaviors and thought processes can have a negative effect on our well-being. For example, it is often said that complaining is addictive. The human brain falls into cycles of negativity that have a detrimental affect on our view on the world. If someone complains all of the time, that person is failing to see the good things that are surrounding him or her.

These cycles of thought are also present when one is practicing a specific religion. When one is at church, a youth group or any other sort of religious gathering one discusses the issues, but is often told how and what to think.

Many conservative sects of Christianity have very strict views of the world. They have strong moral guidelines that they have their members follow. Some of the practices can have harmful effects on those participating. There is also a strong hierarchy in these types of denominations that can give children a non-progressive view of the world. Many teach in such a way that places God over men, and men superior to women and children. This sense of subordination for women and children can hinder self-image and cause feelings of helplessness.

Some conservative sects promote separatism in order to maintain spiritual purity. Some Evangelical Christians warn against developing relationships with non-believers. This makes their worlds very small and teaches unquestioning obedience rather than curiosity and exploration.

I discussed negativity as a psychologically detrimental habit. Fear ranks with negativity in causing cycles of psychological discomfort. Extremely conservative Christians fear sin, hell and a looming apocalypse. Since their religion is the only alternative to these terrors, any sort of threat to the group – such as criticism or scientific findings – becomes fearful as well.

Children are the main subjects of concern when it comes to mental health after indoctrination. Children’s minds are highly susceptible to religious ideas and, as a result, many religious groups target young kids. Much of the brain’s growth and development happens after birth, which means that children are vulnerable to influences from others at a young age. Before age seven, children are unable to think abstractly. As a result, they often believe everything they are told to.

Though this condition is related to other kinds of chronic trauma, it is more mind-twisting. The logic of religion is circular and blames victims for their problems with the religious group. Religious Trauma Syndrome is especially hard to recognize for two reasons. First of all, the nature of trauma by definition is not as obvious as a physical beating. Second, trauma is veiled by the respectability of the religion itself.

I am a firm supporter of religious freedom and the idea that all have the right to teach and practice any religious doctrines they so desire. However, from a mental health standpoint, there are certain lifestyles that are more healthful than others. Just as there are harmful effects of any negative thought cycle, there are obvious repercussions to some extremely conservative Christian doctrines.

Sydney Padula ’17 padulas@stolaf.edu is from Barrington, Ill. She majors in English and History.

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