Post-Cult Trauma Syndrome

After exiting a cult, an individual may experience a period of intense and often conflicting emotions. She or he may feel relief to be out of the group, but also may feel grief over the loss of positive elements in the cult, such as friendships, a sense of belonging or the feeling of personal worth generated by the group’s stated ideals or mission. The emotional upheaval of the period is often characterized by “post-cult trauma syndrome”:
• spontaneous crying
• sense of loss
• depression & suicidal thoughts
• fear that not obeying the cult’s wishes will result in God’s wrath or loss of salvation
• alienation from family, friends
• sense of isolation, loneliness due to being surrounded by people who have no basis for understanding cult life
• fear of evil spirits taking over one’s life outside the cult
• scrupulosity, excessive rigidity about rules of minor importance
• panic disproportionate to one’s circumstances
• fear of going insane
• confusion about right and wrong
• sexual conflicts
• unwarranted guilt

The period of exiting from a cult is usually a traumatic experience and, like any great change in a person’s life, involves passing through stages of accommodation to the change:

• Disbelief/denial: “This can’t be happening. It couldn’t have been that bad.”
• Anger/hostility: “How could they/I be so wrong?” (hate feelings)
• Self-pity/depression: “Why me? I can’t do this.”
• Fear/bargaining: “I don’t know if I can live without my group. Maybe I can still associate with it on a limited basis, if I do what they want.”
• Reassessment: “Maybe I was wrong about the group’s being so wonderful.”
• Accommodation/acceptance: “I can move beyond this experience and choose new directions for my life” or…
• Reinvolvement: “I think I will rejoin the group.”

Passing through these stages is seldom a smooth progression. It is fairly typical to bounce back and forth between different stages. Not everyone achieves the stage of accommodation/acceptance. Some return to cult life. But for those who do not, the following may be experienced for a period of several months:
• flashbacks to cult life
• simplistic black-white thinking
• sense of unreality
• suggestibility, ie. automatic obedience responses to trigger-terms of the cult’s loaded language or to innocent suggestions
• disassociation (spacing out)
• feeling “out of it”
• “Stockholm Syndrome”: knee-jerk impulses to defend the cult when it is criticized, even if the cult hurt the person
• difficulty concentrating
• incapacity to make decisions
• hostility reactions, either toward anyone who criticizes the cult or toward the cult itself
• mental confusion
• low self-esteem
• dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake
• loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks
• dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult
• hang-overs of habitual cult behaviors like chanting
• difficulty managing time
• trouble holding down a job

Most of these symptoms subside as the victim mainstreams into everyday routines of normal life. In a small number of cases, the symptoms continue.

* This information is a composite list from the following sources: “Coming Out of Cults”, by Margaret Thaler Singer, Psychology Today, Jan. 1979, P. 75; “Destructive Cults, Mind Control and Psychological Coercion”, Positive Action Portland, Oregon, and “Fact Sheet”, Cult Hot-Line and Clinic, New York City.