For many people, the holiday season brings warmth, safety, and peace. But for some of us, the hymns sung in church of “tidings of comfort and joy” don’t seem to fit our life experiences. If you find yourself grappling with such conflicting emotions during the holiday season, you may be experiencing what is known as religious trauma.
EMDR Therapy is an effective treatment for religious trauma and may be right for you if you identify with the following . . .
your childhood memories of church aren’t happy ones for you.
you feel pressure from family (or yourself) to attend holiday worship services to "make up" for not being more proactive about your relationship with Jesus all year.
religion or spirituality used to bring you peace but now, your stomach clenches, your throat tightens, you get a little sweaty and think about all the ways you’ve disappointed your parents and faith community because you've explored your identity and discovered that you are gay, or an atheist, or have so many painful questions and no one has any satisfactory answers.
And now you have to go to a Christmas Eve candlelight service, or a Midnight Mass, or even a Christmas Cookie Swap where you’re expected to sing Christmas carols by a roaring fireplace with lyrics like: “Remember Christ our Savior Was born on Christmas Day / To save us all from Satan’s pow’r / When we were gone astray”
And you may think . . . Save us from Satan? Astray from what?
How can you possibly navigate this time of year in any meaningful way besides gritting your teeth and enduring until after all the decorations have been put away? Let’s explore what religious trauma is—and what therapeutic approaches can be effective for treating it.
Defining Religious Trauma
For many people, religion and spirituality help make sense of the universe and provide answers to questions about the afterlife and why things happen the way they do. Then there are those for whom religion and spiritual practices have been a tool to exert power and control where the pressure to keep things merry and bright feels like a fawning response to keep the “peace.”
Dr. Anderson and Brian Peck of the Religious Trauma Institute have created a working definition of Adverse Religious Experiences: “Any experience of a religious belief, practice, or structure that undermines an individual's sense of safety or autonomy and/or negatively impacts their physical, social, emotional, relational, or psychological well-being.” Anderson notes that religious trauma—like all trauma—is “subjective, perceptive, subconscious, and embodied” (Anderson, 2019, p. 6) so each person is impacted in their own unique way.
For example, your brother might have nostalgia around the Christmas Eve candlelight service while you might just remember not sitting still enough and being taken out to be spanked or kept from eating Christmas dinner because you took a bite before everyone prayed. Religious trauma can manifest as distress, anxiety, and even PTSD-like symptoms resulting from these types of harmful religious experiences.
Online EMDR Therapy for Religious Trauma Treatment: No More Panic Attacks Over Pumpkin Pie
Some talk therapy approaches focus on cognitions (thoughts) and how changing them can change how you feel and behave, which can be helpful when you begin to dig into why you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD connected to past religious and spiritual experiences. In particular, there has been a lot of work within the deconstruction movement that has helped folks discover how or why Christianity is no longer a viable worldview for them.
But what happens when you pull up to your childhood church and feel that gripping sense of dread that you might actually burn in hell or be smitten on the spot because of who you love?
What are the options for those whose issues still live in their body even after they’ve addressed them with someone they trust in cognitive-based talk therapy?
That’s where Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can help.
EMDR focuses on body sensations and emotions while also transforming negative beliefs, helping you to gain insight into your experiences. EMDR doesn’t just desensitize you to traumatic things, it helps you reprocess those memories so they no longer affect your functioning in daily life—so you can sit at the table with family members who do not share your religious or political leanings or hear Christmas music while shopping at the craft store and not feel completely overwhelmed.
An EMDR-trained therapist will spend time helping you develop actual tools you can use in triggering and difficult situations—things that ground you in the present moment and are focused on your physical responses. You can tell yourself all day long that you’re safe now and not about to fall into the hellfire, but until you get your body responses to align with what you know to be true logically, you might still struggle. EMDR helps reconnect your brain to your body in a meaningful way and has the endorsement of countless mental health organizations.
Immediate Availability for EMDR Therapy at Her Time Therapy
Since the pandemic, there’s been a plethora of research to support remote delivery of EMDR. At Her Time Therapy, we’re currently accepting new clients for EMDR therapy and it might be just in time for that holiday visit with your nana.
EMDR isn't confined solely to religious trauma; its effectiveness extends to a wide range of traumatic experiences, grief, and anxiety. Whether you've endured childhood trauma, witnessed a distressing event, lost a loved one, or faced any form of adversity, EMDR offers a structured and evidence-based approach to processing and alleviating the emotional burdens associated with such memories.
If you think EMDR could be right for you, schedule a free consultation call with a therapist at Her Time Therapy, LLC. We are an integrative group counseling practice comprised of licensed therapists in Colorado who specialize in providing convenient and empowering online therapy for women. You can feel confident working with a Her Time therapist because we are women who get it—we recognize that women like you experience a unique set of biological, environmental, economic, and social challenges that have a real impact on your mental health and are deserving of specialized support.
About the Author
Julie Noyes, MA LPC NCC is a licensed professional counselor at Her Time Therapy, LLC, and provides telehealth psychotherapy services to clients in Colorado. Julie's therapeutic orientation is existential and feminist and her professional interests center on issues related to social justice, intimate partner violence, religious trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and disordered eating. She draws from an eclectic array of techniques such as dialectical behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based stress reduction. She has specialized training in training in experiential play therapy, Gottman Institute’s Level 2 Couples Counseling, and EMDR therapy through the Maiberger Institute. Want to work with Julie? See her profile and contact her for a free consultation!
*Disclaimer: This blog does not provide medical advice and the information contained herein is for informational purposes only. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a licensed health provider before undertaking a new treatment or health care regimen.
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