Religious Trauma Syndrome – Leaving a Religious Extremist or Fundamentalist Group

Yesterday I met a friend I have not seen since 20 years. He was quite amazed to hear that on my encounter with Buddhism I got sucked into Buddhist cults (NKT, GTC). He wondered because I was quite of a rebellious person in the past, nobody whom you expect to end up in a cult. He wondered even more how I was able to get out of the cults. Talking about these issues with him – which are quite far away for me nowadays – I realised (again) that it is really very hard to leave a cult and even harder to recover and to settle in life again. It is even more difficult to continue to pursue a (genuine) spiritual / religious path …

In my own case I needed four years of hard work on myself to recover and I was extremely fortunate to have had excellent support, among others from Alex Berzin. I had the fortune to meet and to receive different levels of help from incredible good, kind, wise and compassionate Buddhist teachers. A key factor in the healing process was also that I lived in those years in a community of ex-members and that we were gradually able to talk more and more openly about our experiences, sharing and exchanging our stories, thoughts and observations. We helped each other on all levels: the financial, emotional and spiritual level.

According to my own experiences, people who never followed a cult cannot really (or at least not fully) understand an ex-cult member, and in most of the cases they will rather have a problem to be compassionate towards an ex-cult member.

Except for the genuine Tibetan lamas I met – who didn’t have any understanding of cults but who showed tremendous compassion and kindness – only four Westerners were able to relate to me in a compassionate and open way, without being blocked by feelings of fear, superiority (looking down on me) or insecurity.

With the wisdom of hindsight I can say, that I suffered clearly from a Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and an endless stream of thoughts that deluded my mind to connect with reality. I remember a scenery in Berlin were I waited for a train (S-Bahn) and gazed on a big, yellow poster at that train station. The poster consisted mainly of the color yellow not much more. While looking on it, I literally saw that there is this endless stream of thoughts in my mind that is the result of the indoctrination and mental manipulation of my cult life. I cultivated this endless stream of thoughts, doubts, feelings of guilt, fear, insecurity, lack of self-esteem in the cults and these thoughts literally hindered me to connect with reality. They kept me captured in an inner world, with no ability to connect in a healthy way to myself and the outer world.

The harm the indoctrination of cults – no matter if Buddhist, secular, Christian, Islamic, Jewish etc. – can do to you, is quite difficult to understand.

There is now a new book – related to fundamentalist approaches in Christianity – that might also help ex-members of Buddhist cults to understand their own situation and their own experiences better. I would like to suggest to have a look on it.

Don’t underestimate that to heal from a fundamentalist group – such as the New Kadampa Tradition/Kadampa Buddhism (NKT) – will take a very long time. According to my experience, observation and talks with ex-NKT you can expect that the healing process for fully committed members of the NKT takes at least as long as your commitment to the NKT. Only if you have excellent conditions for recovery it might be slightly shorter.

Don’t underestimate this process and the time it needs.

However, if you were not fully committed to the cult, if you were not a member of the ‘inner circle’, if you only occasionally participated in the courses or teachings, things are far easier and not that complicated. So the level of damage and the time you need to heal depend also very much on the level of your involvement.


A series of three articles by Dr Marlene Winell

leavingthefoldcover200Marlene Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, published by Aprocryphile Press. The book and analysis of religious trauma is mainly based on a fundamentalist Christian background, however, I think also Buddhists who were damaged by Buddhist extremist groups might benefit from it by gaining a better understanding of their own situation.

There are three articles online by Winell:

You can also hear and watch Dr Winell on YouTube:

Here some quotes from those online articles I can really relate to – and maybe you can too.

… religious indoctrination can be hugely damaging, and making the break from an authoritarian kind of religion can definitely be traumatic. It involves a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, the future, everything. People unfamiliar with it, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create and the recovery needed.

In my view, it is time for the mental health community to recognize the real trauma that religion can cause. Just like clearly naming problems like anorexia, PTSD, or bipolar disorder made it possible to stop self-blame and move ahead with treatment, we need to address Religious Trauma Syndrome.

At present, raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. In society, we treasure our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Our laws and mores reflect the general principle that if we are not harming others, we can do as we like. Forcing children to go to church hardly seems like a crime. Real damage is assumed to be done by extreme fringe groups we call “cults” and people have heard of ritual abuse. Moreover, religious institutions have a vested interest in promoting an uncritical view.

But mind-control and emotional abuse is actually the norm for many large, authoritarian, mainline religious groups. The sanitization of religion makes it all the more insidious. When the communities are so large and the practices normalized, victims are silenced.

Another obstacle in treatment is that most people with RTS have been taught to fear psychology as something worldly and therefore evil. It is very likely that only a fraction of sufferers are even seeking help. Within many dogmatic, self-contained religions, mental health problems such as depression or anxiety are considered sins. … Doubt is considered wrong, not honest inquiry. Moreover, therapy is a selfish indulgence. Focusing on one’s own needs is always sinful in this religious view, so RTS victims are often not even clear how to do it. The clients I have worked with have had to overcome ignorance, guilt, and fear to make initial contact.

The kind of religion that causes damage is that which requires rigid conformity in order to survive in the group or have hope for the afterlife. Such a fundamentalist religion has a closed system of logic and a strong social structure to support an authoritarian worldview. It can be a comfortable environment as long as a member does not question. Children learn very early to repress independent thinking and not to trust their own feelings. For truth, believers rely on external authority – Scripture and religious leaders. With the consequences of disbelief so severe, leaders are able to demand acceptance of farfetched claims at the expense of personal observation or scientific evidence. The culture rewards individuals who contribute in religious ways. Proselytizing is generally expected, even for children. Obedience is the highest value and personal development truncated.

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). …

With PTSD, a traumatic event is one in which a person experiences or witnesses actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. Losing one’s faith, or leaving one’s religion, is an analogous event because it essentially means the death of one’s previous life – the end of reality as it was understood. It is a huge shock to the system, and one that needs to be recognized as trauma.

What it means to leave

Breaking out of a restrictive, mind-controlling religion is understandably a liberating experience. People report huge relief and some excitement about their new possibilities. Certain problems are over, such as trying to twist one’s thinking to believe irrational religious doctrines, handling enormous cognitive dissonance in order to get by in the ‘real world’ as well, and conforming to repressive codes of behavior. Finally leaving a restrictive religion can be a major personal accomplishment after trying to make it work and going through many cycles of guilt and confusion.

However, the challenges of leaving are daunting. For most people, the religious environment was a one-stop-shop for meeting all their major needs – social support, a coherent worldview, meaning and direction in life, structured activities, and emotional/spiritual satisfaction. Leaving the fold means multiple losses, including the loss of friends and family support at a crucial time of personal transition. Consequently, it is a very lonely ‘stressful life event’ – more so than others described on Axis IV in the DSM. For some people, depending on their personality and the details of their religious past, it may be possible to simply stop participating in religious services and activities and move on with life. But for many, leaving their religion means debilitating anxiety, depression, grief, and anger.

Usually people begin with intellectually letting go of their religious beliefs and then struggle with the emotional aspects. The cognitive part is difficult enough and often requires a period of study and struggle before giving up one’s familiar and perhaps cherished worldview. But the emotional letting go is much more difficult since the beliefs are bound with deep-seated needs and fears, and usually inculcated at a young age.

Problems with self-worth and fear of terrible punishment continue. Virtually all controlling religions teach fear about the evil in ‘the world’ and the danger of being alone without the group. Ordinary setbacks can cause panic attacks, especially when one feels like a small child in a very foreign world. Coming out of a sheltered, repressed environment can result in a lack of coping skills and personal maturity. The phobia indoctrination makes it difficult to avoid the stabbing thought, even many years after leaving, that one has made a terrible mistake, thinking ‘what if they’re right?’

See also

Questions & Answers or reporting about New Religious Movements or “Cults”