What Is the Impact of Leaving a Cultic Group

What Is the Impact of Leaving a Cultic Group?

NYC Educational Outreach Committee

Model Introductory Talk

The Special Case of Traumatic Stress

Many people have negative and even very distressing experiences in a cultic group or relationship, yet not all these experiences constitute trauma. This paper addresses recovery issues for those people whose experience in a cultic group or relationship was traumatic.  

[Speaker’s notes appear in brackets. Depending upon the speaker’s knowledge base, audience specifics, or time constraints, many items may be mentioned only briefly, or expanded upon as needed or during a Q and A.]

Recovery Problems

Complex PTSD (specific to prolonged interpersonal trauma), familiar manifestations:

[What is important to note here is that C-PTSD is different in nature from other types of trauma because of its impact on survivors’ ability to trust themselves and others. Additionally, although the impact of other types of trauma may be clearer and more immediate (e.g., “I was in a horrible car accident and am afraid to be in a vehicle”), the nature of cult involvement is that individuals may not be aware of the extent or nature of the trauma they were exposed to until after they leave their relationship(s) of abusive interdependence. Thus, former members may experience the trauma only later as they come to terms with the betrayal of trust that they experienced and struggle to define themselves as independent, autonomous beings. Therefore, survivor trauma may or may not include specific abuses (rape, physical abuse, etc.), but we can always expect it to include interpersonal betrayal, resulting in instability and lack of trust in self and others.]

[Triggers originate in the amygdala, which is an area of the brain that is responsible for fear learning, and in this case alerts the body that it is facing imminent danger. It is important to note that the amygdala has different regions that process different types of information. In the case of known threats, the basolateral amygdala relays information to other brain regions; in normal brains, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) (the executive control area of our brains) essentially decides with the amygdala the nature of the threat, and whether action must be taken. This is an ongoing dynamic process that goes largely unnoticed in neurologically normal individuals. For those with anxiety disorders, this process is disrupted. The PFC does not properly activate, and the fear signal is sent on to the central amygdala. In this instance, the amygdala releases acetylcholine, which activates a state of hypervigilance, panic, or both. This response is how our bodies handle uncertain threat; we can think of it as a “better safe than sorry” type of response. Thus, we can think of anxiety disorders not as hyper-fear, but as the inability to know what is and is not a threat—i.e., a state of uncertainty. For this reason, many survivors may be triggered and not rationally understand the source of their intense fears. Others may have “known” triggers but still be unable to accurately assess the level of danger that a triggering stimulus represents.

New research has found that participants being asked to name eye color when they were looking at fearful faces lowered activation of their amygdala. This result suggests that any activity that keeps the PFC “online” can help modulate fear responses. Similarly, an additional study found that playing Tetris (a classic video game) immediately after a traumatic event lowers an individual’s subsequent rates of PTSD.

Because much of the interpersonal abuse former members faced in their group simply does not make sense, anxiety and triggers are a very normal and expected response. It is important for survivors to understand that triggers are simply how their brains have evolved to protect them. Triggers can be expected to decrease as survivors learn to make sense of their experiences.]

[The persistence of unwanted traumatic memories is common in PTSD and can greatly reduce the survivor’s quality of life. Attempts to suppress unwanted thoughts have been found to increase them. Rumination also increases the frequency of unwanted thoughts. Distraction has been found to be the healthiest way to combat unwanted thoughts, though one must be careful not to engage in unhealthy types of distractions (drinking, drugs, thrill-seeking behavior). In some cases, exposure therapies or psychiatric interventions may decrease persistent unwanted memories.]

[Dissociation is a defensive mechanism that some survivors develop to cope with deeply troubling environments or experiences. Additionally, many groups utilize dissociation to control members via practices such as chanting or meditation. Dissociation can be thought of as another way for the survivor to cope with threat. As the survivor heals from his/her experience and gains a sense of safety and security, dissociative states should decrease.]

[All people experience negative emotional states, but individuals with PTSD may have greater difficulty coping with those states. Emotions may elicit in the former member a sense of confusion, or of being out of control. Psychotherapeutic or psychiatric interventions may help the former member learn the nature of her emotional states, and how to better regulate them.]

[Former members face extreme feelings of betrayal, and loss of faith in others and self. It may take a significant amount of time for survivors to learn to trust themselves and others after they have faced interpersonal trauma.]

[Survivors may not trust themselves to make wise decisions after their involvement in an abusive group or relationship. Additionally, they may have spent many years (or, in the case of second-generation adults [SGAs], their entire lives) not being allowed to direct the course of their own lives. Survivors must learn again (or for the first time) that they are in control of their own lives and that they are capable of making healthy decisions.]

[Survivors may find themselves in similarly abusive groups or relationships time and time again. Some may have internalized roles or identities of subservience while in their groups. SGAs especially may never have experienced any type of love or acceptance outside of a state of unhealthy interdependence. Some may unconsciously seek to relive their trauma, hoping for a better outcome. Others may be unable to recognize what is and is not a healthy relationship.]

[Survivors may have great difficulty in establishing secure and loving relationships after having lived a life of inconsistency and betrayal while in their group. They may also blame themselves for the abuse they experienced and identify with their abuser(s) as a means of clinging to the belief that their abuser actually did care for them because fully accepting the betrayal they experienced sometimes proves to be too psychologically taxing.]

[Without understanding the nature of the abuse they experienced, survivors may internalize the negative aspects of their involvement and become convinced that there is something very wrong with them. This belief may be intensified by messages communicated in their group that their own shortcomings were the reason that they were unhappy while in their group.]

[Because people do not intentionally seek out abusive relationships or groups, coming to terms with the fact that one was involved in a cultic group or relationship can be very difficult for former members. Those who come to terms with their experience may still experience judgment or misunderstanding from others who are unfamiliar with the nature of cultic abuse.]

[After discovering the deceitful nature of their cultic involvement, many former members may have great difficulty deciding what (if anything) to keep of their belief systems. It is essential that former members familiarize themselves with the processes of indoctrination and mind control so that they may explore the true nature of their beliefs.]

[Among former members who joined a group, there may be difficulty forgiving one’s self for group involvement. SGAs may also feel that if they had acted better or differently, they could have avoided some or all the negativity they experienced.]

Acculturation challenges:

[Former members can expect to experience “culture shock” after leaving their groups, which will subside over time as they learn to live away from the group. Aside from gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in a new environment after they have left a group, former members must become psychologically acculturated. Research examining bicultural individuals who have moved from one place to another suggests that this process takes roughly 7 years for most people, and it is aided by positive evaluations of both the culture one is coming from and the culture one is joining. Negative feelings regarding both the old and new cultures can lead to individuals who never psychologically adjust, although they may learn to function adequately in their new environment.]

Specific challenges include:

Difficulty making decisions through two lenses:

[This line of research has found that those people who are satisficers tend to make decisions quickly when they discover an adequate option, and they tend to be happy with their decisions. Alternately, maximizers tend to believe that there is a “best” option to be chosen, and they are both personally responsible for discovering it, and fully to blame if a choice proves to be inadequate. Maximizers are chronically dissatisfied with their choices, even when they make the best choice possible, and compared to satisficers they experience greater levels of perfectionism, regret, and depression.]

[This study found that US participants, who were generally thought to be independent and individualistic, made choices that were consistent with their beliefs about themselves, whereas Polish participants, who came from a more collectivist culture, tended to make choices that were consistent with what they believed their peers were doing. This difference is important to consider because when members become very deeply involved in cultic groups they may lose the ability to make choices based on their own internal preferences or beliefs, and instead become concerned with making choices that they know will garner the most acceptance from others.]

Challenges correcting the “cultic-attribution error”: knowing how and when to internalize success and externalize failure, vs. blaming one’s self for everything and attributing all success to the group/leader/higher power.

[Many in cultic groups were taught to believe that they could not be “good” or successful without compliance to and approval from their group, while they also were being told that all “bad” things or failures they experienced in life were because of their lack of compliance to group standards. It is important for former members to accurately assess the causes of the successes and failures that they experience in their lives.]


*Re SGAs: Recent findings in epigenetics suggest functional brain changes occur as a result of developmental trauma and result in higher rates of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.



Experiencing stigmatization, or being/feeling misunderstood by others (this may occur in conjunction with C-PTSD as noted above, but it may also occur independently).

Learning to be proactive vs. simply avoiding harm.

Learning how and when to share your past (first-generation & SGAs), explaining time away (first-generation).

Health problems as a consequence of neglect.

Financial difficulties.

Misdiagnosis by mental-health professionals.

[Many mental-health professionals are simply unaware of the cultic phenomenon, and although well meaning, may grossly underestimate, or completely misunderstand the impact of their client’s cultic experience.]

Realms of Recovery

[Although stabilization can facilitate the ease of the recovery process, these stages do not necessarily occur in order. Different people may be prepared to deal with certain aspects of their recovery more easily than others, and many may not realize the need for recovery until they become aware of the cultic dynamics that were at play in their lives. It is important to respect the individual needs of each survivor, knowing that all former members process their experiences in different ways, and in different time frames. Respecting former members by allowing them to direct their own recovery processes can be an important first step toward their autonomy. Thus, the stages below may be more accurately thought of as realms that include different aspects of recovery.]

Stabilization, which includes:

Self Education:

Trauma processing/integration of traumatic experiences with a mental-health professional; may include psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT),Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), etc.


Cialdini, R., Wosinska, W., Barrett, D., Butner, J., & Gornik-Durose, M. (1999). Compliance with a request in two cultures: The differential influence of social proof and commitment/consistency on collectivists and individualists. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1242–1253.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Early experiences can alter gene expression and affect long-term development: Working paper no. 10. The Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu

Herman, J. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5(3), 377–391.

Holmes, E., James, E., Coode-Bate, T., Deeprose, C., & Bell, V. (2009). Can playing the computer game “Tetris” reduce the build-up of flashbacks for trauma? A proposal from cognitive science, PLoS ONE, E4153-E4153. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004153 Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0004153

Kim, M., Loucks, R., Palmer, A., Brown, A., Solomon, K., Marchante, A., & Whalen, P. (2011). The structural and functional connectivity of the amygdala: From normal emotion to pathological anxiety. Behavioural Brain Research, 223(2), 403–410. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2011.04.025

Lester, B., Conradt, E., & Marsit, C. (2014). Epigenetic basis for the development of depression in children. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, 556–565. doi:10.1097/GRF.0b013e318299d2a8

Mattek, A. M., & Whalen, P. J. (2013, June). An eye color fixation task mitigates amygdala responses to fearful faces. 19th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, Seattle, WA.

Purdie-Vaughns, V. (2014, March 27). From culture to identity: Acculturation. Lecture conducted from Columbia University, NY.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178–1197. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.83.5.1178