When you hear the words “religious trauma,” what do you think of? You’re maybe thinking something along the lines of Catholic priests and altar boys. And while that’s certainly one of the most egregious examples of religious trauma, it can be much subtler than that.
In 1993, Marlene Winell, a psychologist and former Christian fundamentalist, coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) to specifically refer to “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.” The definition has been expanded and now includes spiritual trauma for those who may not have identified with a specific religion (e.g. cults).
You may be thinking, my religious upbringing wasn’t that bad. And you may be right. But you may want to think about if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms of RTS:
Confusing thoughts and reduced ability to think critically
Trouble making decisions
Feelings of depression, anxiety, grief, anger, lethargy
A loss of a community (family, friends, romantic relationships)
Feeling isolated or a sense that you don’t belong
Feeling “behind the times” with cultural happenings
“Black and White” thinking (e.g. something is either good or bad; no room for “grey”)
Inability to tolerate the distress of participating in any kind of organized religion and avoidance of religious environments, people, and reading material.
And many other symptoms of PTSD including nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, emotional difficulty, etc.
RTS might show up for you in your relationships with others and yourself. For example, you may struggle with being in a relationship with someone from a different religion. Or, you may beat yourself up after doing something that would have been considered “bad” or “evil” in your religion or your family of origin. You may feel uncomfortable being your authentic self in front of loved ones. If you are experiencing this, you are not alone.
Most people don’t come into therapy to deal with their religious upbringing, but depression, anxiety, relational concerns, etc., may have been how your body has learned to deal with trauma.
One of the benefits of recovering from religious trauma is that you get to choose whether you practice your faith. (In fact, the freedom to choose your own path in life may be the greatest benefit of all.) You may develop a different, healthy relationship with religion, or you may decide to leave religion behind. You may learn to create or join a community that serves your needs, rather than changing yourself to fit the community. You could develop ways of connecting with something greater than yourself without feeling guilt or pressure to behave a certain way.
But it may be necessary to work through the trauma to tap into any spiritual growth.
If you are struggling with religious trauma, you may want to consider speaking with your therapist about it. Research suggests that talk therapy can be one of the best ways to work through religious trauma.
Becoming an EMDR Trained Therapist is one of the most exciting things I have ever done. It is my honor and my joy to work with persons who have carried terrible burdens of trauma and pain for many years; and to help them unload those burdens, and find healing, hope, and peace.
The acronym EMDR stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” That is a mouthful. I would define EMDR therapy as “a powerful way to assist your brain’s natural healing process.” This solidly-researched psychotherapy method helps people recover from trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, addiction, and many other difficulties in living.
Your brain knows how to heal
Each day, our brains absorb a huge amount of information. Many things happen to us, both good and bad. Our brains sift out the key information, and store it in a form that will help us handle new experiences. This is how we learn from the past, adapt to our environment, and prepare ourselves for the future.
Your brain knows how to heal, just as your body knows how to heal. When bad things happen to us, our brain heals from them—much as your skin heals from a cut. Much of the daily healing of our brains occurs while we sleep.
Trauma interrupts healing
Trauma interrupts the brain’s natural healing process. Trauma is an intensely disturbing or distressing experience that overwhelms our ability to cope. When you experience a trauma, your brain is unable to do its normal processing of that event. Your brain is unable to put the memory in a form that is useful for the future. Instead, the memory gets stuck in its original, raw, disturbing form—including distressing thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.
EMDR therapy restarts healing
The role of an EMDR therapist is to restart your brain’s natural healing process. The therapist follows carefully-researched methods that guide your brain to heal naturally. One of my mentors compared an EMDR therapist to a midwife. A midwife assists a woman as she gives birth naturally; the midwife intervenes only when necessary. Likewise, an EMDR therapist assists a client as his or her brain heals naturally; the therapist intervenes only when necessary.
Where did EMDR therapy come from?
In 1987, American psychologist Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., made a chance discovery. While walking through a park, thinking about a disturbing memory, she happened to be moving her eyes rapidly from side to side. After her walk, she noticed that while the memory remained, it no longer disturbed her. Fascinated, she dedicated the rest of her life to researching this phenomenon, and developing it into a powerful method for healing. Many researchers all over the world joined in her work. After Dr. Shapiro’s untimely death in 2019, EMDR research has continued.
EMDR therapy has been extensively researched, all over the world, for over 30 years. Research has shown that EMDR therapy is effective not only for trauma counseling and PTSD recovery, but also for anxiety, depression, panic disorders, substance use and addiction, and many other mental health needs. EMDR therapy yields deep, lasting healing. For many clients, EMDR therapy yields results faster than other methods of psychotherapy.
Typically, an EMDR therapist guides the client to move their eyes rapidly from side to side. In some situations, a therapist may choose tapping, or some other form of side-to-side stimulation, instead. It is thought that the side-to-side stimulation, rapidly alternating left-right-left-right, stimulates the left and right hemispheres of the brain to work cooperatively with each other in the healing process.
EMDR therapy is based on the neurobiology of the brain. Neurobiology is a field that has advanced greatly in the past 30 years. New discoveries in neurobiology show that EMDR therapy brings about real, observable, biological healing in the brain.
EMDR therapy may be related to REM sleep
Researchers think that the rapid, side-to-side eye movements used in EMDR therapy resemble the rapid eye movements that we experience during part of the time that we are asleep. Have you ever seen a sleeping person whose eyes are moving side to side, under their closed eyelids? This is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. It is thought that REM sleep is an important part of our brains’ healing process.
When the EMDR therapist guides the client to move their eyes rapidly from side to side, this may mimic REM sleep. However, during EMDR therapy, the client is wide awake and fully in control of his or her thoughts and actions.
EMDR therapy is a holistic approach
EMDR therapy is not a quick fix. EMDR therapy is not a technique, or a collection of techniques.
EMDR therapy is an integrated, holistic approach to mental health care. Like any other form of counseling, it is built on the solid foundation of your having a good, working relationship with your therapist. You and your EMDR therapist will take time to build a relationship of mutual trust. A good EMDR therapist will treat you with deep respect, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. He or she will notice your strengths, point them out to you, and help you believe in them.
EMDR therapy accesses the “emotional brain”
EMDR therapy helps make connections between your thinking and your feelings. EMDR therapy helps bridge the gap between your head and your heart.
Our brains have layers. The outermost layer is the “thinking brain,” where rational thought occurs. The inner layers are the “emotional brain,” where our feelings reside, along with our survival instincts. Your “emotional brain” communicates closely with your body. You may have noticed that your emotions influence your body sensations, and vice versa.
EMDR therapy differs from many forms of psychotherapy in that it directly accesses our “emotional brain.” By contrast, some forms of therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), directly access our “thinking brain.” Even if you have already experienced some form of “talk therapy,” you may benefit from EMDR therapy in addition. EMDR therapy addresses a different part of your brain, and gives a different kind of healing.
Reducing the distress of a memory
Sometimes we wish that we could erase a painful memory, but our brains don’t work that way. Attempts to numb the pain, for example with alcohol or drugs, are temporary—and have many unwanted side effects.
EMDR therapy doesn’t erase the memory. But it reduces the distress associated with the memory. The relief that one experiences from EMDR therapy is permanent, and without side effects.
EMDR therapy helps the mind, emotions, and body to heal from the memory. During EMDR therapy, the memory is processed into a useful form. Our brain makes sense out of it. We learn from the past so that we can cope better in the future. The distressing, volatile emotions are calmed. The body response to the memory is released. Many clients report an overall reduction in distress.
If you have experienced a trauma, it will always be a terrible event. It will always be something that should never have happened to you. EMDR therapy doesn’t change the facts. But EMDR therapy enables you to be at peace with the past, and to look forward to the future with hope.
Touching the memory without reliving it
During EMDR therapy, the client touches the traumatic memory without reliving it. The therapist guides the client to recall the event without being overwhelmed by it. This is like the difference between diving into the swimming pool, or just dipping your toe. For EMDR therapy, you only dip your toe. For this reason, EMDR therapy is gentler to the client than some forms of therapy that involve reliving the trauma.
Healing memories without telling the details
Surprisingly, EMDR therapy works even if the client tells the therapist very little about the traumatic memory. The client needs to recall and notice the memory and their reactions to it. However, healing does not depend on the therapist knowing any details. This is important, since sometimes a client needs to heal from a trauma that he or she cannot talk about in detail. An example would be a veteran who has served on secret missions.
Have you experienced trauma?
No one goes through life unscathed. Even if you do not think of yourself as a trauma survivor, you certainly have had some disturbing experiences.
When we think of trauma, we often think of catastrophic events, such as a devastating car accident or a sexual assault. But our brains are also affected by adverse life experiences—events that may not seem major, but that may impact us. Adverse life experiences can affect us deeply if they are repeated for a long time, or if we were very young or otherwise vulnerable when they occurred.
Are your past traumas affecting your present-day life?
If the answer is “no,” then there is no reason to revisit your past, painful experiences. There is no excuse to ask someone to revisit a painful experience—unless it is necessary for healing.
If painful experiences from your past are truly healed, they do not harm you in the present, and they will not harm you in the future. If, on the other hand, traumas are merely “contained,” not healed, they may impact you in the future. To illustrate the difference, recall stories you have heard about veterans.
You have probably heard stories of soldiers who experienced the horrors of war, but bravely returned to battle day after day. There was no time to heal from these wartime traumas, so the soldiers “contained” them as long as they could—sometimes for years after the battles were over. However, for some veterans, a chance event can suddenly break open the “container” that holds the traumas. Suddenly, the veteran is overwhelmed with flashbacks, nightmares, etc., that make it difficult for him or her to cope. A veteran in that situation would benefit from EMDR therapy.
The goal of EMDR therapy is to heal your past traumas, not merely to stuff them into a “container.” “Containment” is temporary, but healing lasts.
Lingering symptoms of trauma
You may be experiencing aftereffects of trauma that you do not recognize as such. Lingering symptoms of past trauma may include feeling ashamed, worthless, hopeless, depressed, anxious, irritable or numb; feeling emotionally overwhelmed or unable to concentrate; experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, chronic pain, headaches, eating disorders, substance abuse, or self-destructive behavior; constantly being on alert for danger; having blank time periods of your life about which you have few or no memories; feeling as if you or your surroundings are unreal; or feeling as if your body is not your own.
Time and budget
A good EMDR therapist will respect your time and budget. He or she will work with you to create a treatment plan based on your goals. The purpose is to give you as much healing as possible, as efficiently as possible. You may request a short-term, solution-focused plan. Alternatively, you may seek to resolve complex trauma—if you desire deep healing from many, serious hurts.
Sometimes in the course of therapy, new issues can arise. This is true of any kind of therapy, not just EMDR therapy. If new issues arise, you and your therapist can decide together how best to handle them.
EMDR processing of a specific memory is a well-defined project, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. At some point you will say to your therapist something like, “It was still a terrible event, but it doesn’t upset me anymore. I am at peace.” After careful checking, your therapist will say to you something like, “Congratulations! You have completed the processing of that memory. Good work!”
Clients are smart
If you are feeling caution, hesitation, or ambivalence about trying EMDR therapy, I respect that. One of my mentors told me, “Our clients are smart. They know what they are ready for.” A good EMDR therapist will listen carefully to your needs and priorities. He or she will follow your sense of urgency. He or she will respect your sense of caution. Together you will create a plan for how EMDR therapy can best help you.
In collaboration with your therapist, you may choose to start very gently, for example by naming a current source of anxiety in your life, and working to reduce your suffering about this current stressor. Alternatively, you and your therapist may decide together that you are ready to address a major trauma in your past that is impacting your life today.
EMDR is a powerful form of therapy that gives deep healing. For me it is a great privilege to assist in my clients’ natural healing process. I am often in awe as I witness the beautiful way in which my clients’ brains achieve healing, wholeness, and peace.
[I wish to thank Helen Harris, Ed.D., LCSW-S, Rick Levinson, LCSW, Kasey Salyer, LCSW-S, and Trina Welz, LPC-S, for teaching me the above material. I also referred to a paper by Janina Fisher, Ph.D.]
As a couples therapist, I see couples who are struggling to re-invigorate their sex life, they are struggling with finances, they have trouble raising their children, etc. Having these reasons in mind as to why many of my couples come in on the brink of divorce, researcher Dr. John Gottman says that the main reasons why couples divorce is due to sex, finances, and raising children. I must say that though Dr. Gottman has a point, I disagree—couples divorce due to lack of emotional connection.
If you are not emotionally connected and engaged in your marriage, you will not be able to manage a sex life together, manage money together, or create a safe parenting space together. Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of the dynamic Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, says that the erosion of an emotional bond between two partners is the beginning of the end to their relationship. As humans, we are wired to connect in a safe and emotionally healthy way. If we do not have this in a marriage, we will slowly disconnect and eventually divorce if no action for couples therapy is taken.
Disconnection can look like many different things. Maybe you and your spouse keep arguing about household chores or who will walk the dog next. Perhaps a spouse can feel unsupported in their idea to switch careers. Maybe there is just an overall feeling of loneliness on both parts in the marriage. The main point to understand on a general disconnect in the marriage is that it can be understood and helped. Much of what we do in couples therapy at Austin Family Counseling is strengthen the emotional bond between partners as well as create a safe space for re-engagement and for couples to work on issues that have been reasons for feelings of disconnection in their marriage. Basically, a general feeling of disconnection is not a valid reason to divorce when there are many resources and tools to help build and strengthen your marriage. Rarely do couples come to me with the presenting problem of lack of engagement and leave the therapeutic process unhealed, reassured, and optimistic about their exciting new opportunities to re-spark their romantic life.
Extreme cases, however, can absolutely be reasons to separate. In my years of practice, I have seen such reasons for a therapist to recommend separation as physical abuse, emotional/verbal abuse, and active addiction.
This is perhaps the main reason that couples should divorce. Physical abuse of any kind is not acceptable in a marriage or any other kind of relationship. Physical abuse is seen in marriages where one partner has significant anger issues and has not managed their emotion to the point of it being unsafe to be close and vulnerable to this person. Women who stay married to physically aggressive men are very likely to have come from abusive households where they see abuse as a “natural” thing.
According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, since the stay-at-home order has been put into effect in 2020, an alarming increase of domestic violence cases has occurred in the US. More partners are shut into their homes with their spouse, putting them more at risk of physical danger when the aggressive partner becomes triggered. Other effects that are brought on by the stay-at-home order are alcohol abuse, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, all VERY easy triggers of physical abuse.
If you are involved in a physically abusive marriage, I urge you to reach out for help and escape from a dangerous situation as soon as possible within your boundaries of safety. If you are in Austin, the Salvation Army’s Austin Shelter for Women and Children, the SAFE Children’s Center, and Casa Marianella are all places where women and families can go for refuge from a physically abuse situation. As a couples therapist who becomes aware of physical abuse, I am ethically bound to stop couples therapy immediately and let the abusive partner know they need to do their own counseling and anger management if couples therapy ever resumes.
Aside from physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse is another form of abuse that is sadly much harder to spot. Physical wounds leave visible marks, but emotional wounds can go unseen for sometimes decades. Emotional abuse is defined as any form of emotionally manipulative behavior perpetrated by one person to another that can cause PTSD, stress, or anxiety. Some forms of it are below:
Gaslighting: making the partner being gaslit think something is different than they actually experienced it. Example: “Something must be wrong with your memory because I never said that!”
Minimizing: making someone feel inadequate or unworthy based merely on how they are feeling Example: “I don’t know why you’re feeling that way, you didn’t have it that bad!”
Intimidation: using threatening language to reinforce a sense of control by the partner through invoking fear. Example: “I will hit you if you say that to me one more time!”
Though no form of abuse is ever acceptable, there tends to be more hope for emotional abuse than physical abuse in the couples I see. Sometimes, separation is key for partners where verbal abuse is going on before they are able to come back together and make the decision to either stay together or divorce. However, in my sessions with couples, a hard boundary I hold is to have no gaslighting, minimizing, intimidation, or name-calling in session. If you believe your partner has narcissistic qualities in them, definitely seek help for mental health as these can have longlasting negative effects on someone’s sense of self.
Though many treatment modalities indicate couples can survive an active or recovering addiction, in extreme cases a marriage cannot always survive. If a partner is currently abusing alcohol and becomes physically or emotionally abusive, it is in the other partner’s best interest to leave when the marriage becomes an unsafe place. Unless the addicted partner commits to going to AA or therapy to work on their addiction, the marriage will become an unsafe place for both people, triggering an abusive cycle that both partners will be feeding into.
When a partner is addicted to an illegal substance (i.e. cocaine, methamphetamine, heroine, etc.), the marriage is further complicated due to the unlawful possession of illegal substances in a household. Not only is the marriage riddled with addiction and addictive patterns, but this presents the marriage with far more dangers and reasons to divorce. Though only one partner is using, both spouses when living together are subject to legal ramifications that puts the non-addicted partner in a very precarious position.
When couples come to me with an addiction present, I hold a firm boundary that the person who is addicted seek help through groups (i.e. AA, NA, SLAA, etc.), separate individual counseling, or in further cases checking into a detox and addictions treatment center for couples therapy to continue. It is unethical to do couples counseling while a noticeable addiction is going on due to the fact that the vulnerability needed in couples therapy can at times exacerbate the addicted spouse’s addiction.