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Adverse Religious Experiences (AREs) vs. Religious Trauma (RT): An Important Distinction

Updated: Mar 10

It's important to recognize that "religious trauma" (RT) does not refer to the situation or event that caused someone's lasting adverse effects on their nervous system. The term that has been adopted for those events is "Adverse Religious Experiences" (AREs). So, what's the difference?

Adverse Religious Experiences

Briefly stated, AREs are 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, sexual, or psychological well-being. These experiences have the potential of resulting in religious trauma.

While there are no set parameters for constituting an ARE, they are typically categorized into three generalized headings: Abuse, neglect, and communal practices. Below is a list of some common ARE examples, but the list is not exhaustive:


  • Emotional

  • Verbal

  • Physical

  • Sexual


  • Emotional

  • Verbal

  • Physical

  • Sexual


  • Community Violence

  • Bullying / Threats / Intimidation

  • Terrorism

  • Public Outing / Stigmatizing / Branding

  • Forced Confessions

  • Shunning / Excommunication

  • Brainwashing / Forced Indoctrination

  • Social / Familial Isolation

  • Information Privation

  • Scapegoating / Othering

  • Identity Disruption

  • Emotional Manipulation

  • Phobia Induction

  • Dress / Behavioral Control

  • Segregation

  • Love Bombing / Trauma Bonding

  • Stalking / Harassment

  • Forced Conversion

  • Conversion Therapy

  • Forced Ritual Performance

  • Substance Abuse

  • Financial Fraud

  • Financial, Sexual, or Other Exploitation

Religious Trauma

The term "religious trauma" refers to the lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being after an Adverse Religious Experience has occurred. While there is significant overlap and influence between the two terms, AREs are not the same thing as religious trauma.

It is also important to note that not all AREs will result in RT for every person. But for many, an ARE may result in various trauma responses, such as:

  • Chronic Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Suicidal Ideations

  • Nightmares

  • Self-Harm

  • Chronic Shame

  • Chronic Fear

  • Chronic Stress

  • Chronic Health Conditions

  • Mental Health Challenges

  • Risky Behaviors

  • Social / Relationship Challenges

Terminology Matters

Knowing the distinction between AREs and RT will help people unpack the tangled webs of their experiences so they can identify the source of complex thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Precise and nuanced definitions help people better understand how certain faith doctrines and belief systems can cause an ingrained trauma response loop in the nervous system.

From this distinction, people can learn best practices for treating religious trauma so they can then advocate for informed therapy and discover whether or not to remain in their faith tradition.

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