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Religious Trauma Syndrome: from Abusive Faith to Trust in The Self

June 26th, 2017 · religious trauma syndrome

Religious trauma syndrome has drawn much attention in recent years: many among us have had traumatic experiences with various types of religion.

religious trauma syndrome

The 2007 documentary “Jesus Camp” is a famous chronicle of potentially traumatic religious experience

Depth psychotherapists know that our religious faith can be one of the greatest sources of support for our lives, if it is life affirming and self affirming. Conversely, however, religious imagery that is authoritarian, pessimistic and filled with fear can be actually corrosive of the self, especially if we’re exposed to it at an early and vulnerable age. In fact, in some situations, such religious formation can prove downright traumatic.

Religious Indoctrination Can Be Hugely Damaging

Organized religion can be particularly negative in its psychic impact, if the religion emphasizes authority, and if the sanctioned interpreters of the religion — preachers and teachers — use techniques of indoctrination or interpretations of texts to enforce their own perhaps narrowly defined ideas of morality, belief and proper way of life. There are now many people in our society who are recovering from forms of fundamentalist, cultic and authoritarian religion, and who are moving beyond various forms of what might be regarded as religious trauma syndrome.

Religion with a Foundation of Fear

Religion that is fundamentally based on fear can be particularly crippling, and leaving such a religious group and its ideas behind can definitely result in an experience of trauma. As Dr. Marlene Winell tells us, “It involves a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, the future, everything.” The individual may require a very significant degree of support to recover, and to transition into a pattern of life that truly sustains the individual.

The Key Characteristics of Religious Trauma Syndrome

Individuals leaving behind trauma-inducing experiences of religion may well face confusion, difficulty with decision-making, or clear analytical thinking, and may also have issues with gaining a clear sense of personal identity. Often there will be affective issues related to anxiety, depression, anger and grief, along with sleep and eating disorders, somatization and possibly nightmares. Among the most potent impacts are social: disruption of family and social networks, interpersonal difficulties and difficulties relating to the wider society.

People who are particularly vulnerable are those:

  • born and raised in the religion;
  • those leading segregated or sheltered lives;
  • those who took their involvement with great sincerity and commitment;
  • those from religious groups with particular characteristics of high control.

Beyond Religious Trauma Syndrome: Healing Confusion, Fear, Guilt, Anger, Grief

To move to a more secure and affirming place, individuals subject to religious trauma syndrome need to be encouraged and supported to develop a capacity to think and feel in their own independent way. This entails compassion and love for the unique self and its thoughts, feelings and freedom, finding inner capacities and resources to live life in one’s own way, and living in the immediate present. It also certainly requires moving beyond inner voices of judgment on self and others, and voices rooted in religious indoctrination, to finding the true inner voice of the self.

religious trauma syndrome

…Beyond Blind Faith…

This does not mean that there need be a wholesale rejection of religion, but it does mean living out a way of being, religious or non-religious, that accords with the fundamental authentic and spontaneous core of who we are. It may mean, essentially, creating our own, unique religious stance. As the poet Walt Whitman exhorted many years ago,

Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul.

Helping the individual to affirm the goodness and worthwhileness of his or her own individual life, and discovering his or her own central symbols is a key part of the work of depth psychotherapy.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst


PHOTOS: Attribution Share Alike © Fabio Bruna ; Lead Beyond ;
© 2017 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Jungian Depth Psychotherapy and The Definition of Self Control

June 5th, 2017 · definition of self control

The proper definition of self control is very important for people who need to deal with key issues in their lives.

definition of self control

Many feel that the issues that bring them into psychotherapy have a lot to do with self control, in a variety of different ways.
They feel that, if they could only control their reactions to various situations, or keep themselves from certain types of behaviour, that they could find a great deal of relief, meaning and forward direction in their lives.


Depth psychotherapists know that individuals in distress often speak of cultivating their willpower. The story they tell themselves will often go something like: “If I had more willpower then my life would work for me. Then I wouldn’t get distracted / give in to this addiction / get caught up in depression … –or, fill in any particular issue or source of suffering or shame here. You get the idea.

This idea has a long history. Plato, 2500 years ago, felt that reason must rein in appetites and impulses. The Roman Seneca the Younger held that “No evil propensity of the human heart is so powerful that it may not be subdued by discipline.” Nearer to our time, Dale Carnegie stated, “Everybody in the world is seeking happiness—and there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts.” This has been a very powerful idea.

definition of self control

…Control Your Thoughts!

But here’s the thing: is this sort of self control or willpower even possible? The poet William Blake tells us, rather shockingly, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” Blake’s assessment actually seems to line up with many findings in contemporary neuroscience research.

York University’s Prof. Stuart Shanker reminds us that an fMRI of a brain experiencing strong emotional upset or intense fear or anxiety shows that the limbic system, or the “emotional brain” is very lit up, with neurons firing intensely and continuously. Yet, the prefrontal cortex, where the rational, reflective self is located, is dim, reflecting that it’s pretty much offline.


Let’s suppose that this brain belongs to someone having road rage. Suppose this person has been dealing with a great deal of stress and anxiety, related perhaps to work or family, and now, a truck has just done a lane change right in front of them without signaling, and our person is in a state of seething rage. Plato, Seneca and Dale would all urge our driver to access the reasoning mind and so control any aggressive impulses. But, as we’ve seen, an fMRI of the prefrontal cortex shows that the reasoning mind is pretty much shut down when our driver’s brain is in the state that it’s in. So how can it reign in the emotional brain?

The answer is: it can’t. No amount of “willpower” or “reason” will help, when the brain is stuck in this highly triggered “survival brain” state. The same would be true of a multitude of other situations where triggers, (what a Jungian like Margaret Wilkinson calls traumatic complexes) have been activated, and are keeping brain functioning stuck in the limbic “survival brain”, rather than allowing the whole person to respond to the situation in a reasonable or emotionally regulated way.

So, the definition of self control must switch. To be able to stay in a place where we can respond to situations in our lives appropriately, what we need is not willpower, but a developed capacity for self-regulation.

Integration of Unconscious Contents

Depth psychotherapy locates many of the sources of situations that might seem to result from so-called “lack of self control” in triggers that are rooted in the unconscious mind. These move the individual into emotionally charged “survival brain” states, which Jungians and other depth psychotherapists have long referred to as situations where traumatic complexes get activated.

On this view of the human psyche, the definition of self control changes from the old idea of “building up will power” to an approach based on self regulation. Through the process of bringing to consciousness unconscious complexes, (often rooted in trauma), and allowing the individual to re-experience these life events in a supportive environment, the power of these events to throw the individual into out-of-control “survival brain” states is gradually reduced.

Taking the affective power out of traumatic complexes, and restoring that energy to the individual is a key part of depth psychotherapy.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst


PHOTOS: Attribution Share Alike © Darij & Ana ; Incase
© 2017 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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