When Religion Hurts You: Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High Control Religion with Dr. Laura E. Anderson 

Laura E. Anderson, PhD, specializes in complex trauma, with a particular focus on domestic violence, sexualized violence, and religious trauma. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a Ph.D. in Mind Body Medicine from Saybrook University. Her new book is When Religion Hurts You: Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High Control Religion. She founded and directed the Center for Trauma Resolution and Recovery, an online coaching company.  

Laura grew up in an environment heavily influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, as her father served as the director of a Christian camp where her family resided year-round. In this setting, pursuing higher education or a career was discouraged for women to prioritize their roles as wives and mothers. However, Laura was fortunate to attend mainstream school due to her mother’s background in education and her recognition of the value of schooling. 

Upon graduating from high school, Laura faced pressure from a pastor within her church to become a youth group assistant. Despite her reluctance, she felt compelled to comply with this request due to the perceived spiritual authority involved. However, she soon realized that this decision only subjected her to further control and abuse within the church. Laura’s desire to leave the church and pursue higher education was met with resistance, as church leaders contacted the schools she applied to, resulting in her being denied entry. Despite these obstacles, Laura made the courageous decision to leave her job in the church and began working at a community college. This transition provided her with newfound freedom, as she experienced an environment where her clothing was not controlled, her body and personal life were left unscrutinized, and her skills were valued. Through this process, Laura began to recognize the high-control nature of her upbringing and developed a desire to heal from and distance herself from it. Two months after graduating, she moved to Nashville and began deconstructing her upbringing by exploring different churches and experiences. 

Laura’s experiences of corporal punishment during her childhood and a subsequent abusive romantic relationship revealed striking parallels between spiritual abuse and domestic violence. The spiritual abuse she endured, including name-calling and demeaning language from church leaders, mirrored the tactics employed by her abusive partner. Both situations involved manipulation through the rhetoric of blaming the victim and creating a sense of personal inadequacy or the belief that the victim alone had the problem, thereby discouraging them from leaving. It is worth noting that while coercive control in domestic relationships is illegal in the UK and California, it remains legal within group settings despite many high-control groups employing similar tactics as domestic abusers. 

In her work with cult survivors, Laura frequently encounters individuals who exhibit signs of unaddressed trauma. While some may associate “religious trauma” solely with clergy sexual abuse or extreme cult practices, they often overlook the profound impact of unhealthy spiritual beliefs and damaging church practices on psychological well-being. For instance, individuals raised in environments that promote purity culture and condemn premarital sex may continue to experience psychological and physiological distress even after rejecting these beliefs. Despite intellectually accepting that consensual sex outside of marriage is not sinful, their bodies may still respond with pain, guilt, shame, and disgust. 

Laura’s therapeutic approach recognizes that no single method suits every individual, as each person’s needs are unique. However, she emphasizes the importance of cultivating internal safety, stability, and resources within survivors. High-control cult groups often undermine individuals’ sense of identity, connection with others, self-worth, and trust in their thoughts. Therefore, it becomes crucial for survivors to learn to trust their minds and internal resources, empowering them to navigate challenging situations. Cognitive deconstruction, drawing on research and writings on complex PTSD and trauma, as well as the work of Janina Fisher, plays a significant role in Laura’s approach. By integrating past traumatic experiences and recognizing triggers, survivors can develop the necessary resources to remain present, safe, and connected during overwhelming emotional episodes. 

While religious trauma may share similarities with other forms of trauma, understanding its unique context is essential for effective resolution. Laura’s personal experience of spiritual trauma led her to establish the Religious Trauma Institute, providing her with an in-depth understanding of survivors’ experiences. 

Laura takes an informed stance of being anti-harm rather than anti-religion. She emphasizes that the issues lie in abuse, power, control, and oppression rather than religion itself. Viewing atheism as a universal solution to religious trauma can lead to other problems, potentially negating spirituality and even becoming another form of fundamentalism. For her, assuming that atheism is the answer oversimplifies and prescribes solutions to complex individual experiences. It is essential to recognize that many religions are love and compassion-oriented, emphasizing conscience. They are not cult-like and do not seek to oppress or control others. 

Leaving a High-Control Group 

In her book When Religion Hurts You, Laura dedicates a chapter to the role of relationships in a survivor’s healing journey. Cults and high-control groups often exploit interpersonal relationships to inflict harm, leading many survivors to withdraw and isolate themselves upon leaving. It is common for group members to sever ties with individuals who choose to exit, resulting in feelings of hurt and betrayal. It is also true that some ex-members choose to sever ties with family members who remain within the cult. 

Professionals working with survivors must validate their grief and provide practical guidance on developing new relational skills and communication strategies. Laura suggests gradually reintegrating into social settings, allowing survivors to acclimate without becoming overwhelmed. This process may involve simple actions such as sitting in a coffee shop, observing others, or smiling at strangers. While survivors may grieve the loss of their former group and strained relationships with family and friends, there is hope for future healing and the formation of new connections. 

Laura Anderson’s personal experiences and professional expertise in the field of religious trauma make her a valuable resource for survivors seeking healing and recovery. Her therapeutic approach, grounded in the recognition of internal safety, stability, and resources, offers survivors the tools to navigate the complex aftermath of high-control religious experiences. By distinguishing religious trauma from other forms of trauma, Laura sheds light on the unique challenges faced by survivors and the importance of tailored interventions. Through her work, she advocates for anti-harm rather than anti-religion, recognizing that abuse, power, control, and oppression are the true culprits, not religion itself. By addressing the parallels between religious trauma and domestic violence and highlighting the BITE model of authoritarian control, Laura brings awareness to the tactics used by high-control groups and their impact on survivors. 

In addition to her therapeutic work, Laura also emphasizes the importance of community and support for survivors of religious trauma. Through the Religious Trauma Institute, she provides resources, consultation, and training for professionals working with religious trauma survivors. This collaborative approach ensures that survivors have access to a network of knowledgeable and compassionate individuals who can assist them on their healing journey. 

Overall, Anderson’s personal and professional experiences make her a valuable advocate and resource for survivors of religious trauma. Her dedication to understanding and addressing the unique challenges faced by survivors and her commitment to providing trauma-informed care sets her apart as a leader in the field. She offers hope, validation, and healing to those impacted by high-control religious experiences through her work. 

Resources

Laura’s Website  

The Center for Trauma Resolution and Recovery 

The Religious Trauma Institute   

When Religion Hurts You: Healing From Religious Trauma and the Impact of High Control Religion by Laura Anderson  

The BITE Model and Religious Cult Groups  

Identifying and Healing Religious Trauma, with Darren M. Slade, Ph.D.