When Religion Hurts You

Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High-Control Religion

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"Anderson strikes a smart, balanced tone. . . . An exemplary guide to an understudied issue."--Publishers Weekly

"An exposé of the dangers of high-control religions that makes it easier to recognize and resist religious abuse."--Foreword Reviews

Religious trauma is something that happens far more often than most people realize. But religious trauma is trauma.

In When Religion Hurts You, Dr. Laura Anderson takes an honest look at a side of religion that few like to talk about. Drawing from her own life and therapy practice, she helps readers understand what religious trauma is and isn't, and how high-control churches can be harmful and abusive, often resulting in trauma. She shows how elements of fundamentalist church life--such as fear of hell, purity culture, corporal punishment, and authoritarian leaders--can cause psychological, relational, physical, and spiritual damage.

As she explores the growing phenomenon of religious trauma, Dr. Anderson helps readers embark on a journey of living as healing individuals and finding a new foundation to stand on. Recognizing that healing is a lifelong rather than a linear process, she offers markers of healing for those coming out of painful religious experiences and hope for finding wholeness after religious trauma.

1. My Story
2. What Is Religious Trauma?
3. Religious Abuse and Adverse Religious Experiences
4. Nervous System 101
5. Rebuilding Your Identity after the Old One No Longer Fits
6. Engaging in a Relationship with Your Body
7. Stabilizing the Nervous System
8. Boundaries Built on a Foundation of Self-Trust and Self-Compassion
9. Grieving the Life You Once Had
10. Developing a Robust Spectrum of Emotions
11. Reclaiming Sexuality and Pleasure
12. Establishing Healthy Connections and Relationships with Others
13. Integrating the Living Legacy of Trauma
Appendix: Religious Power and Control Wheel
Additional Resources


"A brilliant blend of anecdotal and academic, this book offers a compassionate road map for those recovering from religious trauma. Dr. Anderson offers guidance on how to put lives back together and provides a thorough resource for mental health professionals to help them counsel others in the process. Poignant and personal, this book is a must-have for anyone in the muddy aftermath of their exit from high-control or extreme religious groups."

Sarah Edmondson, author of Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life

"When Religion Hurts You is the most comprehensive, reflective, and helpful book about recovering from religious trauma and church abuse that I've ever read. Using research, personal experience, and her training as a therapist, Dr. Laura Anderson offers a powerful and poignant methodology toward healing. I needed to read When Religion Hurts You. Anderson's wisdom is practical and full of empathy, personal, and so very hopeful."

Matthew Paul Turner, #1 New York Times bestselling author of What Is God Like?

"Dr. Laura Anderson has written a must-read for those who want to deconstruct the complexity of religious trauma through a lens that is not only scientific but also compassionate. This book is for every person who has experienced shame, guilt, self-doubt, and self-hate within religious contexts."

Yolanda Renteria, licensed professional counselor

"Both compassionate and wise, When Religion Hurts You is the informative guide needed when making sense of and healing from the disorienting and painful experience of religious trauma. I plan to read and reread it, and I believe it will be a book people can come back to repeatedly on their path to individual and community healing."

Hillary L. McBride, PhD, psychologist, author, speaker, and podcaster

"When Religion Hurts You is a welcome home for those struggling to leave the emotional terrain of adverse religious experiences and abuse. This book is an undoing and relearning manifesto--a guide toward not just 'treating' but also truly stepping into the journey toward healing. Anderson beautifully opens the reader to their potential for addressing the grief hiding in all the spaces and places that lurk behind trauma. As she reminds us, 'religious trauma is trauma.'"

Dr. Jennifer Mullan, founder of Decolonizing Therapy, LLC

"When I first started drawing cartoons and writing posts about religious trauma, so many people claimed it was rare. Now we know differently, and more people are talking about it. I'm so thankful such a compassionate and wise professional like Dr. Laura Anderson has provided a valuable resource that will help people not only to understand what religious trauma is but also to find a holistic path of healing beyond it."

David Hayward, a.k.a. NakedPastor

"When Religion Hurts You is a valuable addition to the robust literature on helping people recover from trauma due to either being born into a religious group that isn't healthy or being deceptively recruited into a religious cult. I am pleased to endorse this book and its recommendations."

Steven Hassan, PhD, MEd, LMHC, NCC, founder and director, Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc.

"Laura Anderson's When Religion Hurts You is not simply about the ways high-demand religions can inflict pain on our bodies, souls, minds, and relationships--though it does explore this in insightful and concise ways. Anderson assures readers that beyond the hurt there is healing. Her approach deconstructs the notion that healing is something we can achieve one day in a rapture of beatific psychological bliss; rather, she reminds us that healing is a lifelong pilgrimage. Anderson offers two perspectives: one as a former insider, and one as a clinician who has spent decades focused on the ways religion hurts and the beauty of recovery, rediscovery, and renewal. Anderson's is a refreshing and hopeful voice during what feels for many of us like a time of great despair."

Bradley Onishi, PhD, scholar and co-host of the Straight White American Jesus podcast

The Authors

  1. Laura E. Anderson PhD
    Danielle Shields Photography

    Laura E. Anderson PhD

    Laura E. Anderson (PhD, Saybrook University; LMFT) is a trauma-informed psychotherapist, founder of the Center for Trauma Resolution, and cofounder of the Religious Trauma Institute. Her dissertation focused on healing after sexualized violence and trauma in...

    Continue reading about Laura E. Anderson PhD

  2. Laura E. Anderson

    Laura E. Anderson

    Dr. Laura Anderson (PhD, Saybrook University; LMFT) is a therapist, trauma resolution and recovery coach, writer, educator, and creator who specializes in complex trauma with a focus on domestic violence, sexualized violence, and religious trauma. Laura...

    Continue reading about Laura E. Anderson


"Psychotherapist Anderson draws from personal experience, doctoral research, and her counseling career in this sensitive debut guide to recovering from religious trauma. . . . Rather than proposing a structured recovery program, Anderson pinpoints areas of improvement for sufferers. . . . Anderson strikes a smart, balanced tone--though she highlights how society's generally proreligious attitude can complicate healing, she takes care not to push for atheism as a 'solution,' and encourages a gradual healing process that looks different for everyone. It's an exemplary guide to an understudied issue."

Publishers Weekly

"Written for those who have been trapped by fear-based high-control religions, the self-help book When Religion Hurts You points the way to freedom. Laura E. Anderson survived long-term religious abuse herself. Here, she indicts patriarchal hierarchies, authoritarian leadership models, and fundamentalist beliefs and practices with causing personal harm. . . . The effects of traumas caused by small events repeated over time, often found in instances of religious abuse, are addressed, with recommendations for learning to live in a healing body and handling inevitable triggers in a resourceful manner. . . . An exposé of the dangers of high-control religions that makes it easier to recognize and resist religious abuse, When Religion Hurts You is an affirming self-help book that supports healing from such pain."

Kristine Morris,

Foreword Reviews

"Knowing that a mental health professional is researching and treating religious trauma in a holistic way will be revolutionary for many readers. . . . One of the most compelling things about sharing experiences is how it makes people feel less alone. In almost every story Anderson told about her time in high-control religion, I found myself saying, 'Yes! The same thing happened to me! I felt the same way!' I could relate deeply to every adverse religious experience she discusses, but I could also relate to her hope that life can be good and meaningful after experiencing religious trauma."

Morganne Talley,

Christian Century

"An urgent title for those who have experienced religious trauma--and it seems like the numbers are frighteningly high--or know someone hurt by toxic religiosity. There may be other books from other orientations, but this one seems unique in that it is by a woman with a PhD who is a trauma-informed psychotherapist (and cofounder of the Religious Trauma Institute.) She knows this stuff from a clinical perspective and has tallied horror stories from dozens if not hundreds of clients."

Byron Borger,

Hearts and Minds Books