13 Signs of Trauma and Withdrawal From Leaving a Cult

By Jayne Lyons

Jessica, be safe, stay safe, find a safe place to recover for a while.

Post-Cult Trauma Syndrome

After leaving a cult, an individual may experience intense and conflicting emotions. She may feel relief to be out, but also may feel grief over the loss of friendships, a sense of belonging, or feelings of worth generated by the group’s stated ideals or mission.

The emotional upheaval is characterized by “post-cult trauma syndrome”. It’s symptoms are

  1. spontaneous crying
  2. sense of loss
  3. depression & suicidal thoughts
  4. fear that not obeying the cult’s wishes will result in God’s wrath or loss of salvation
  5. alienation from family, friends
  6. sense of isolation, loneliness due to being surrounded by people who have no basis for understanding cult life
  7. fear of evil spirits taking over one’s life outside the cult
  8. scrupulosity, excessive rigidity about rules of minor importance
  9. panic disproportionate to one’s circumstances
  10. fear of going insane
  11. confusion about right and wrong
  12. sexual conflicts
  13. unwarranted guilt

Like any great change in a person’s life, leaving a cult involves passing through stages:

  1. Disbelief/denial: “This can’t be happening. It couldn’t have been that bad.”
  2. Anger/hostility: “How could they/I be so wrong?” (hate feelings)
  3. Self-pity/depression: “Why me? I can’t do this.”
  4. 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.”
  5. Reassessment: “Maybe I was wrong about the group’s being so wonderful.”
  6. Accommodation/acceptance: “I can move beyond this experience and choose new directions for my life” or…
  7. Re-involvement: “I think I will rejoin the group.”

This is seldom a smooth progression. It is typical to bounce back and forth between stages. Not everyone achieves acceptance.

Some return to cult life.

For those who do not, they may experience for several months:

  1. flashbacks to cult life
  2. simplistic black-white thinking
  3. sense of unreality
  4. suggestibility, i.e.. automatic obedience responses to trigger-terms of the cult’s loaded language or to innocent suggestions
  5. disassociation (spacing out)
  6. feeling “out of it”
  7. “Stockholm Syndrome”: knee-jerk impulses to defend the cult when it is criticized, even if the cult hurt the person
  8. difficulty concentrating
  9. incapacity to make decisions
  10. hostility reactions, either toward anyone who criticizes the cult or toward the cult itself
  11. mental confusion
  12. low self-esteem
  13. dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake
  14. loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks
  15. dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult
  16. hang-overs of habitual cult behaviors like chanting
  17. difficulty managing time
  18. trouble holding down a job

Most of these subside as the ex-cult member mainstreams into everyday routines of non-cult life. In a few cases, the symptoms continue.

This information is a composite list from:

“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.

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  • Jayne
    I am a family member of Kris Snyder. The “leaving of evil” has been very difficult. The wiping clean from evil, and the crap that they feed people. I have helped other family members to break free from Rainere and others. What they peddle is garbage. The pure “I can help you stop being a lesbian” is a bag of lies. This was pure seduction and blatant open sexual behavior.
    Rainere needs to sit exactly where he is, and never get out.

    • Dude I had evil spirits take over. They possessed me for 13 days and Nights. I did things I never would do they made me. I was charged for crimes I did not do. The assistant DA he mocked me like you. I not insecure. It really happened. It was real scary. I aged like 10 years in two weeks. Now I have criminal charges be. Nobody believe me.

  • It’s a vicious cycle and one that serves to reinforce the narrative promoted by Michael Shoemaker– that people are broken and cannot make it in the world without him.

    They mistreat, use and abuse people for years. Should they have the strength to leave, it’s a set up for failure. Many have no money (free labor for years) and no real skills because instead of getting real work experience, they were used for repetitive, menial tasks day after day, year after year.

    They find themselves alone, without a home or career to get on their feet– and then Shoemaker’s words hit hard– that they can’t make it without him and the ashram. It’s a sinister set up to entrap and enslave people.

  • Thank you for providing this information. It’s difficult to leave your “home” and “community” when it’s a healthy experience.

    But the overwhelming loss with nowhere to turn. Excommunication even if by choice is still an isolating, lonely road, compounded by the psychological trauma and zero financial resources when one departs.

    I can see why people are conflicted and waiver. But if people like Dan, Jess and Ruth can unite and support each other, many other will as well.

    Many have left. It’s just a matter of getting them to press charges.

    Several have signed NDA’s. You don’t get an nda unless there’s abuse.

    • Tell that to every real estate agent /company I’ve ever used.

      Also a practice in hiring new employees straight out of college, picking their cutting edge brain ( technologically up to date) get what they need and then firing you..or Letting you Resign ( so integrous of them) a year later, without just cause, and reminding them they signed an NDA. When they apply to a different company they’re afraid to say anything …

About the Author

Frank Parlato is an investigative journalist.

His work has been cited in hundreds of news outlets, like The New York Times, The Daily Mail, VICE News, CBS News, Fox News, New York Post, New York Daily News, Oxygen, Rolling Stone, People Magazine, The Sun, The Times of London, CBS Inside Edition, among many others in all five continents.

His work to expose and take down NXIVM is featured in books like “Captive” by Catherine Oxenberg, “Scarred” by Sarah Edmonson, “The Program” by Toni Natalie, and “NXIVM. La Secta Que Sedujo al Poder en México” by Juan Alberto Vasquez.

Parlato has been prominently featured on HBO’s docuseries “The Vow” and was the lead investigator and coordinating producer for Investigation Discovery’s “The Lost Women of NXIVM.” In addition, he was credited in the Starz docuseries 'Seduced' for saving 'slave' women from being branded and escaping the sex-slave cult known as DOS.

Parlato appeared on the Nancy Grace Show, Beyond the Headlines with Gretchen Carlson, Dr. Oz, American Greed, Dateline NBC, and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, where Parlato conducted the first-ever interview with Keith Raniere after his arrest. This was ironic, as many credit Parlato as one of the primary architects of his arrest and the cratering of the cult he founded.

Parlato is a consulting producer and appears in TNT's The Heiress and the Sex Cult, which premieres on May 22, 2022.

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