‘It is nothing to be ashamed of if you've experienced trauma based upon your religious upbringing, but it is something that can drive you to do things that are self-harmful.’
Dr. Darrel Ray is the founder of Recovering from Religion, a non-profit working with people experiencing religious trauma, and the Secular Therapy Project, which helps clients find therapists offering secular, science-based therapy.
He spoke about how traumatic religious experiences can impact the limbic system, which is involved in behavioral and emotional responses like the “fight or flight” response, and about the importance of recognizing its possible impact on the brain.
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Dr. Darrel Ray: You know, we've all heard the soldier that hits the floor the minute they hear a Fourth of July firecracker. Well, that's probably a sign that they're hypervigilant and they're responding inappropriately to their environment.
And we see this in religious people too. We see people who were indoctrinated with certain religious beliefs responding inappropriately to their environment. Now, they're not hitting the floor with a firecracker, but what they may be having is a panic attack at the thought of a demon, or someone they talk to, they find out is not Christian, and they have a panic attack. I've seen this in people
Well, even though you've left the religion, you don't believe that anymore, doesn't mean your emotional system, your limbic system wasn't trained that way. When we're very young, children's limbic systems get programmed. Children get easily programmed for certain kinds of things.
"Psychologist has been trained to avoid the religious beliefs because, right now, the vast majority of psychologists have no training in this area and they don't even acknowledge it's a problem."Dr. Darrel Ray
The child's brain has no way to determine the difference between “Be careful over there because they're lions that will eat you” versus “Be careful over here because there are demons that will infect you,” and so by the time the child begins to be an adult, and has the ability to create critical thinking skills, their limbic system – the system that responds to fight, flight, or freeze is already programmed.
And so there are certain cues that trigger – and the word trigger is intentional here – certain cues that trigger the person, just like that firecracker triggered the soldier, you know, hearing somebody sing a religious song about going to hell may trigger panic attack about “I'm going to help because I don't believe anymore.”
So, there are huge consequences. What we don't see is what psychologists have not taken this seriously. So many people come into psychologists with emotional problems, and the psychologist has been trained to avoid the religious beliefs because, right now, the vast majority of psychologists have no training in this area and they don't even acknowledge it's a problem.
Trauma is a change in the brain, or a programming of the limbic system and the fear response of the amygdala in our brains. We know what it looks like. We know what the symptoms are.
And it is nothing to be ashamed of if you've experienced trauma based upon your religious upbringing, but it is something that can drive you to do things that are self-harmful. I mean, everything from substance abuse to suicide can come from religious trauma.
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide and needs help, call 911 or call/text 988 to connect with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The Lifeline provides 24-hour, confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Help is also available via live chat. Para ayuda en español, llame al 988.