By Christine D. Gonzales-Wong Texas A&M-San Antonio
For the past few months, religion has never been far from US headlines.
The Supreme Court has overturned constitutional rights. Congress is debating whether to codify protections for same-sex marriage. Courts have been asked to decide whether religious schools and business owners have to hire, serve or acknowledge LGBTQ members and organizations.
And, the US Department of Justice is meanwhile investigating the Southern Baptist Convention after a consultant’s report revealed a history of sexual abuse and cover-ups – and new lawsuits alleging abuse in the Catholic Church continued to appear.
As an assistant professor of counseling who studies spirituality, I have seen how controversies like these can activate memories and symptoms of religious abuse. They can also be challenging for people who have not experienced abuse but have difficult relationships to religion – especially those who have seriously questioned or left their faith.
People may have built their world around a church or church leader, then discovered their trust was misplaced. They may have been pressured to participate in activities that went against their values, or felt blamed for their story of abuse, gender identity or sexual orientation. They may have been told to stop gossiping when they reported mistreatment.
Religious rejection can be especially painful if it seems as though it’s not only a community rejecting you, but God. These experiences can evoke feelings of anxiety and depression – but there are steps you can take to begin healing.
Many kinds of questions Therapy often helps people who are wrestling with aspects of their religious lives, whether or not they’ve experienced abuse. For example, people may reflect on the gender roles they were expected to perform, or why they were told not to question leaders’ decisions.
Some, especially evangelical Christians, refer to the process of rethinking their beliefs and religious identity as “deconstruction.” Deconstruction involves reflecting upon one’s beliefs, the way they were developed, and determining what values and beliefs one desires to maintain.
Recognizing abuse Spiritual experiences become abusive when they include emotional or financial manipulation, physical or sexual abuse, discrimination, humiliation or mistreatment. The abuse may be systemic, and perpetrators may have used their authority or scripture to defend their actions. For some survivors, abuse can result in religious trauma, when they experience lasting symptoms. To the latest revised edition of the diagnostic manual for mental health professionals, signs of a traumatic response include recurring dreams, flashbacks, avoidance of activities related to the event, negative beliefs about oneself and the world, feelings of betrayal or detachment from others and hypervigilance.
Counseling If you believe you or a loved one may have experienced religious abuse or trauma, or are in the deconstruction process, it is important to consider how you can support your mental health and well-being, especially given the complex relationship between faith, identity and traumatic. For example, if you have felt harmed in the name of a higher power, it is common to experience confusion or even an existential crisis, in which you might question your purpose and basic assumptions about the world.
First, seek professional help. Licensed professional counselors are trained to identify symptoms of abuse and trauma and can help you process experiences and create an action plan.
Religious communities often stigmatize mental health treatment and treat mental health issues as though they are purely spiritual. They may treat the decision to seek professional help as a sign of a lack of faith in God. However, going to counseling does not necessarily mean you have to abandon your beliefs at the door. Connection and community Second, connect with others who are going through similar experiences. You may have been shamed for telling your story, or you may have left your religious community feeling alone and betrayed. You are not alone.
Religious trauma support groups like Sacred Wilderness and Reclamation Collective can connect you with others who can identify with your experiences, online or in person. If you are not ready to share, you can read about the experiences of others on Twitter, with hashtags such as #ChurchToo and #ReligiousTrauma, or listen to a podcast like “Bodies Behind the Bus.” However, if you find that your symptoms worsen reading these experiences, take a break.
If you live in the US and are in immediate crisis or having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text 988 or go to 988lifeline.org/chat/ to chat with someone 24/7. Outside the US, you can visit findahelpline.com to find support.
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