Spiritual abuse is an event or series of experiences a person endures from a religious leader or organization. It can be acutely traumatizing at the time, but it is more often slow, subtle, and insidious. Religious trauma is the ongoing effect that spiritual abuse can have on a person. Entering a church building can bring a rush of emotions. Hearing certain phrases, hymns or songs, or specific verses of the Bible read or quoted can trigger a trauma response. Spiritual abuse involves an experience with an abusive person, while religious trauma is the ongoing effect the experience has in the survivor’s life. 

Even after ending a spiritually abusive relationship, the effects of religious trauma are ongoing.  In fact, it is usually not until after leaving an abusive environment that the extent of religious trauma is discovered and healing can begin.

Religious trauma can also be more general than spiritual abuse. Hearing a sermon on hell on the radio or Youtube may not be an experience of spiritual abuse (even if emotionally manipulative) but can be religiously traumatizing as the listener experiences fear and anxiety as a result. The ongoing debilitating effect of fear and anxiety is an indicator of religious trauma. Religious trauma can differ in severity depending on how a person experienced an abusive leader. Often this is what allows spiritually abusive leaders to continue in their positions of influence, because not everyone experienced the leader the same way. The leader’s actions are dismissed or met with a slap on the wrist, while the victim is blamed or ignored, causing further isolation and trauma. 

A survivor may question their self-worth, career path, relationships, finances, purpose or other decisions in light of their past experience, even after they are no longer in an abusive environment.

Even after ending a spiritually abusive relationship, the effects of religious trauma are ongoing. In fact, it is usually not until after leaving an abusive environment that the extent of religious trauma is discovered and healing can begin. A survivor may question their self-worth, career path, relationships, finances, purpose or other decisions in light of their past experience, even after they are no longer in an abusive environment. The effect is ongoing, and because the abuse was spiritual, it is pervasive across the survivor’s mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being.  Coming to terms with spiritual abuse after leaving or being forced out of a faith community is often when survivors recognize what they experienced for what it was and can begin finding space for themselves to rebuild their identity and self-worth. Overcoming spiritual abuse by unraveling the effects of religious trauma will take time and may not be a linear process. Some survivors experience debilitating effects in their relationships, careers, and identity that surface unexpectedly. Others may never be able to join a faith community again. Many discover new ways of spiritual engagement. The common denominator is that recovering from trauma takes time and patience, especially when the trauma was subtle and surreal, with a psychological and spiritual impact difficult to pin down. 

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