Healing Through Art — Part Two: The Research

In focusing on art as a healing tool, I want to hone in specifically on religious trauma because that area of focus is where my personal experience is rooted. However, I believe that many of the resources shared in this post apply to other areas of trauma as well.

Let’s start by defining religious trauma. According to therapist Sheri Heller, who specializes in treating complex trauma, addictive disorders, survivors of narcissistic abuse in addition to religious and spiritual trauma,

“Religious or spiritual trauma is a form of psychological abuse and brainwashing that inculcates the shameful message that we are sinful and must live in a constant state of penance and atonement to escape the ravages of hell and God’s punishment. This kind of fall-redemption theology uses fear to ensure dominance and control. Essentially it sets up Stockholm syndrome with the spiritual/religious leader and with one’s idea of God.”

Psychologist Marlene Winell coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) in a 2011 article she wrote for the British Association for Cognitive and Behavioural Psychotherapies . She describes RTS as:

“the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD).”

I wanted to highlight Winell’s definition specifically because she uses the phrase “ authoritarian, dogmatic religion.”

Despite the growing body of research on Religious Trauma Syndrome, is a relatively new term and field of study. According to Mackenzi Kingdon (LMS) , a licensed mental health counselor in Washington State, “Religious Trauma Syndrome is not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5. [But] it is a common experience shared among many who have escaped cults, fundamentalist religious groups, abusive religious settings, or other painful experiences with religion.”

Therefore, I will rely on research done on cults to help fill in some gaps. Please keep in mind that not all churches and religions are cults. However, some exist on the cultic spectrum. So if my use of the word “cult” feels alienating, please substitute the words “religion” or “church” in your mind as needed.

The damage that cults & high demand religions do to children

Many of us who are dealing with the fallout of religious trauma were raised in these authoritarian groups, and therefore I want to hone in on the developmental damage that is done to children. In her paper “ Born or Raised in Closed, High Demand Groups: Developmental Considerations,” Leona Furnari, LSW, references Arnold Markowitz, C.S.W. and David A. Halperin, M.D.’s 1984 paper “ Cults and Children The Abuse of the Young “ which appeared in the Cultic Studies Journal, when she writes:

A child’s parent, who is in a dependent, regressive state due to being under the influence of the group’s leader(s), “is prone toward abusive practices” (Markowitz, A., & Halperin, D.) and power over children is often the only power this parent may have. Most adults in CHDGs live in a state of unpredictability, in that one never knows when the “axe will fall” and the member will be disciplined (shunned, put in the “hot seat”, lose privileges, etc.).

She goes on to say that children who grow up in such environments are at-risk for many significant issues, including but not limited to:

  • lack of an appropriate, consistent caretaker;
  • lack of healthy attachment to appropriate caretaker;
  • lack of adequate medical care;
  • physical abuse;
  • physical neglect;
  • sexual abuse;
  • educational neglect;
  • lack of intellectual stimuli;
  • unrealistic expectations that children participate in adult activities, such as meditation, fasting, sexual activity; and
  • suppression of developmental tasks.

Fenori highlights that parents of children in closed, high demand groups are often thought-reformed to believe that normal human feelings for their children, such as love, concern, and attachment, are not “spiritual” or that these feelings dilute the group’s higher or special purpose. She says that children, who are naturally striving to accomplish normal developmental tasks such as identity, safety and independence, are labeled “possessed,” crazy, or bad. The parents’ confusion, the negative labels, and the overt and covert negative messages children receive about their worth and safety are all factors that contribute to traumatic experiences for them.

Development and Trauma

In his book Therapy for adults molested as children: Beyond survival , Dr. John Briere states that there are three primary self-capacities that develop in normal early childhood. These are:

  1. Identity-which provides a consistent sense of personal existence and enables the individual to respond from an internal sense of security. Unstable identity may cause an individual to become easily overwhelmed.
  2. Boundary-awareness of separation between self and others. Those with poor boundaries tend to allow others to intrude upon them, or they intrude upon others. This can lead to a lack of awareness of personal rights to safety and/or difficulty with interpersonal relations.
  3. Affect regulation-which includes: (a) affect modulation (self-soothing techniques to reduce or change painful emotion) and (b) affect tolerance (ability to experience negative affect without resorting to external destructive or self-destructive behaviors or “acting out”).

Fenori uses Briere’s outlines to contrast with Paul Martin’s stages of recovery following cultic experiences discussed in the chapter Post-cult recovery: Assessment and rehabilitation of Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse . She posits that Martin’s stages are similar, but with a unique twist for those born or raised in closed, high demand groups because there is no pre-cult identity to go back to:

  • Evaluation of the experiences — often in tandem with finding a support network, including any former members and/or extended family who have been on the outside; education on cults/mind control; therapy; reading; journaling
  • Reconciliation/Adaptation, Conciliation — moving slowly, taking small steps; explore redefining of terms; set small goals, tend to personal health; discover personal strengths
  • Integration — occurs over time

I believe that art, when used to explore our experiences with religious trauma, is incredibly important for all stages. However, for me personally, it is the most integral in the first stage. As I mentioned in part one of this post, when I first left the group I had been raised in, I had no language to process my experience.

I’ve heard similar stories from others who grew up in the Unification Church. Renee, another artist who grew up in the Unification Church, discussed her art with Ares of the Ares Meyer Podcast :

“I filled up my sketchbooks with my turmoil. I couldn’t [speak] my feelings because they were so outrageous, no one in the church could accept them. I couldn’t use words. I would show anyone my sketchbook. I would pass my books around so people knew how I felt. It was my only way of communicating, I felt like a mute.”

This is likely consistent with the experiences of others who grew up in traumatic circumstances. According to the Pasadena Villa Psychiatric Treatment Network , research using neuroimaging scans suggests that the part of the left side of the brain, associated with speech and language, can shut down when a person tries to remember a traumatic event.

So not only do many of us lack the formal language to discuss the developmental roots of our trauma, but our brains will literally shut down the areas responsible for language processing when remembering trauma. And the likelihood is that for many who grew up in authoritarian religions and high demand groups, the trauma is not isolated to a single event, but was a pattern of abuse used to regulate both thinking and behaviors.

Research on the healing power of art

Most of us understand that art helps us express experiences that are too difficult to put to words. But now we know why we struggle with language processing around trauma. In fact, according to the Pasadena Villa Psychiatric Treatment Network , traumatic memories activate the part of the right side of the brain which controls autonomic and emotional arousal. Therefore, art practices, and more formal art therapies bypass the left side of the brain. Instead, the art practice stimulates the traumatic memory on the right side. As you create your art, the speech area of the brain reactivates and reintegration of the right and left sides of the brain can occur.

In a 2007 issue of The Arts in Psychotherapy Frances Reynolds and Kee Hean Lim published “Contribution of visual art-making to the subjective well-being of women living with cancer: A qualitative study.” They found that engaging in different types of visual art (textiles, card making, collage, pottery, watercolor, acrylics) helped these women in 4 major ways:

  • First, it helped them focus on positive life experiences, relieving their ongoing preoccupation with cancer.
  • Second, it enhanced their self-worth and identity by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement.
  • Third, it enabled them to maintain a social identity that resisted being defined by cancer.
  • Finally, it allowed them to express their feelings in a symbolic manner, especially during chemotherapy.

I believe that the effects of engaging in the arts can be similarly beneficial for people healing from cultic abuse. For many of us who have escaped closed, high demand groups, the lasting effects of religious trauma can manifest in a preoccupation with the abuse inflicted upon us in the group, much as the women in the above study may have struggled with a preoccupation with their diagnosis. This preoccupation can often leave many of us feeling “stuck.”

Therefore, engaging in an art practice can either help us with the rehabilitation process discussed by Martin, or it can give us a much needed relief from the overwhelm that we feel in post-cult life. Similarly, I believe that engaging in an art practice can also help us with our self worth, help redefine our identities outside of the confines of the cult-identity and gives us an outlet to express our feelings in the healing process.

The Therapeutic Value Of Art by The Art of Autism

The organization Resources to Recover, states that one does not necessarily need to see a licensed art therapist in order to receive the therapeutic benefits of an art practice. In fact, they recommend activities such as art journaling, sketching, making collages, sculpting with clay, etc. However, they do state that working with a licensed therapist also has its advantages because a professional can tailor each activity to your needs.

A cult survivor explains the benefits of art therapy

Mental health professionals and experts agree that art therapy has many benefits, from boosting your self-esteem, and providing you a safe outlet to relieve your emotions, to giving you a sense of control over your life and helping you to get to know and understand yourself better. Studies have also shown that creating art stimulates the release of dopamine.

In Cult Survivors Handbook: Seven Paths to an Authentic Life, Nori Muster, researcher, artist and author of the memoir Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement says, “art therapy gives the client a holistic medium of communication. Instead of struggling to put feelings into a linear format of one word after another, clients can spill out all their feelings simultaneously without worrying about grammar, syntax, or logic.”

She states that art has no time element and works much more closely to how the mind itself works. By engaging in a therapeutic art practice, one is left with a tangible product that not only becomes a visible record of the therapy, but it can also create a bridge to get in touch with one’s inner self. This, she says, is a process called “objectification.” It takes one’s feelings and externalizes them into a drawing, collage, etc., and helps one to recognize and integrate their feelings more easily.


Muster suggests the following activities to get started with a therapeutic art practice on your own:

  • Make a life map. Using pencils, pens, pastels, or paint, draw a timeline and mark the major events and turning points in your life leading up to where you are now. You may make it look like a road, a clock, or just a straight line. Another way to do it is with collage. Cut out pictures that symbolize the important events and add them to the timeline. Another variation with collage is to make a map of your life that also uses headlines and words.
  • Make another timeline, limited to one aspect of your life, such as your history with your family, with sex, with religion, or another major issue. Do another life map, but instead of a line, make it a house, a landscape, or abstract design. Do another life map, but only of what your future will be like. Do a life map that freezes one moment in time. Draw a cartoon to represent your life and draw bubbles to write in what the characters in the drawing might say.
  • More visual art projects: draw a picture to show your good side and shadow side, or your past, present, and future. Make a pamphlet about yourself, including all the details you want other people to know about you. Make a mask to show your inner self, or some aspect of yourself that you want to integrate. Put it on and let it talk. Draw a picture to represent a problem you are working on. Draw a picture to reflect your present mood. Date it and start a journal of “present mood” drawings.

Rediscovering the self through art

Artist and art therapist Sara Roizen has her clients create 3 different self-portraits on 3 separate pieces of paper.

  • how you see yourself
  • how you think others see you
  • how you would like to be seen

When I first exited the cult that I was raised in, I would have struggled to even complete the first task. I felt invisible, even to myself, growing up. I think that many of us, especially those who experienced formative years in high demand religions, feel the same.

As we now know, according to Dr. John Briere, identity is one of the three primary self-capacities that develop in normal early childhood, and trauma can lead to unstable identity. But, even if these activities are a struggle, I want to posit that engaging in them can be a transformative experience that can help us reclaim our stories and rewrite our narratives.

Does your healing art have to be a self portrait?


However, what if we looked at all art as a self portrait?

American Artist Richard Schmid says, “In a sense, every work you do is a self-portrait because your paintings always reveal more about you than about your subject. Your experience of something, not the something itself, is the true underlying subject of every work you do.”

If working in self portraiture feels too painful in the beginning, I recommend working with something called a surrogate. In her class Self Portraiture as Medicine, artist Catherine Just encourages her students to try a surrogate as a self portrait. She says that this can be something else that stands in for yourself. She encourages her students to find an object that feels representative or holds meaning for them. She often uses a white slip as a surrogate in self portraits.

White slip by Catherine Just

Just says, “The white slip has been used in my work for years and when it’s alone in an image it’s standing in for me. This particular slip is seeped in secrets and so am I.”

In Self Portrait. Renaissance to Contemporary, Anthony Bond states that, through his gaze, symbol of his creative power, the self-portraitist acquires a triple role: he is, at once, the author, subject and spectator of himself. Each of these three roles makes a statement; the subject says “Yes I am — and I am ok as I am”; the author says, “I am creating, I am the creator”, and the spectator is saying “I am looking at myself, I can see myself.”

I believe that there is immense healing power in all three statements for those who are healing from the religious trauma inflicted by cults and authoritarian faith groups. Whether we were born in, or joined, the groups strip us of our identity and ability to see ourselves. By engaging in an art practice, we are creating self portraits of our essence.

Each act of creation is both a rebellion against our authoritarian pasts and a reclamation of our identities going forward. With each creation we can then rewrite both our narratives and our futures, and that is one of the most healing activities we can engage in.

If you’re interested in joining me at the Conference on Religious Trauma , you can sign up at https://pheedloop.com/CORT/site/. Use the code MAIL15 for a $15 discount!

If you have been in ANY high control group or religion, share your story with the hashtag #igotout. Share on your own platform OR if you need to be anonymous and / or would like support, there are resources at the I Got Out website.

When you see a survivor share their story, let them know they have been heard. This is such a meaningful part of the movement. We all need to know we’re not alone.

If you know someone who has been harmed by a high demand group, share #igotout posts you think would help them.

Together we can bring awareness to how many of us have been harmed by high control organizations and end the shame or stigma we might feel about our experiences.

Tell your story.

Impact lives.

Change the world.

Find out more at igotout.org

Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on April 14, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor