Understanding Trauma

Image from The Low Down Blog

Because of a sexual predator’s recent article in Christianity Today‘s Leadership Journal (which has since been removed, hallelujah!), an important conversation has been taking place online about trauma survivors and the Church’s poor response to them. Some bloggers have suggested that church leaders should be educated on what survivors experience and compassionate ways in which they can reach out to help them. To this end, being a survivor myself, I’m going to share what I’ve learned. Because it’s really important.

Trauma and the Brain

The main failing of the church in its response to trauma is that it has traditionally viewed trauma and its effects as a purely spiritual problem. From the girl who keeps acting out sexually to the guy who panics in a crowd, church leaders assume trauma survivors continue to suffer because they “won’t submit,” “won’t receive,” “refuse to get it together” or “give way to the devil.” What they don’t understand is how trauma affects a person’s brain and how difficult it is to heal.

The extent to which the brain is affected depends on many factors: the type of trauma (i.e., abuse, war or accident), length and severity of the trauma, age at which the trauma occurred, personality, intelligence, etc. The earlier the age at which trauma occurs and the longer it is sustained, the more severe the effects. That’s because trauma rewires the brain.

There are a few critical points in a person’s development where the brain goes through a wiring process. Memories and experiences relevant to behavior and survival are set in a state of permanence or semi-permanence. So if your early experience tells you that showing emotion evokes violent responses from others, your brain redirects synapses to the part of your brain capable of suppressing emotion. If you were molested early in life by a trusted caregiver, and that was the most significant attention you received from that caregiver, your brain may tell you that sex is the only way to get your emotional needs met or to achieve intimacy with the people you care about.

Once these patterns are set, they can be very, VERY hard to break. To do this, a trauma survivor must go through an intense period of re-learning in a safe, loving environment to rewire a new response.

What’s really sad is that the vast majority of trauma survivors aren’t even aware of this reality. They simply see themselves falling into the same painful, destructive behavior patterns and assume they lack the intelligence and willpower to change. Intense shame may be the most common emotion a trauma survivor feels–that, and depression.

A Survivor’s Reality

For people who have been severely wounded, pain and fear are often part of their daily existence. Loud noises or certain conversations may spark crippling panic attacks. Slight stressors can cause major, debilitating reactions, making it difficult for a trauma survivor to travel, parent or hold a job. Behaviors may range from extreme neediness to extreme bootstrapping, and may even cycle between the two. (I call this the “come here, don’t follow” dynamic.) These are often the people who sit near the door at church and leave early without shaking a single hand. Or the people who come to service faithfully for months and talk to everyone after service, then disappear for weeks at a time. Inability to trust others is common among trauma survivors, so they may have few friends and multiple failed relationships despite their overwhelming desire for real love and intimacy.

Healing Trauma

At the moment a person experiences trauma, the brain may disassociate or block part of the experience from memory so that the person doesn’t feel the full brunt of the pain. This is a survival technique that humans possess. However, that pain is still stored somewhere in the brain. And if the trauma results in serious losses, such as a rift in a relationship with a caregiver, that pain is stored as well. When a trauma survivor reaches a safe place, or simply achieves enough distance between then and now, the brain begins to release the pain so it can be processed, or made sense of. When this happens, it can literally feel like the trauma is occurring all over again. A person going through the healing process needs gentle encouragement and support so they don’t become re-traumatized and have their pain further entrenched in their mind.

At minimum, trauma takes months to heal. Usually, it takes years, even within a supportive community. Two prayers at the altar isn’t going to fix it. Ten prayers at the altar isn’t going to fix it. Prayer is helpful and necessary, but it isn’t the final solution. Trauma survivors don’t need another sermon on forgiveness and self-control. They need love and understanding.

In my next post, I will explore ways in which the church can respond to traumatized people to help them find healing.

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3 responses to “Understanding Trauma

  1. This is a very difficult and little understood topic for most people. The Church (my denomination in particular, because of it’s institutional nature) really needs to pay attention to this and USE this information to help people heal. Especially in cases where the predatory person is a respected member of the church family, community, or even of the clergy (my mind still boggles, sigh) the victim MUST receive the support and validation that an educated community can provide. This would go a long way toward alleviating some of that secondary trauma, the shame and guilt that the victim is forced to bear (as your younger self was, though I ask blessings upon your parents for supporting you!) so that the community may maintain its structure or “pecking order” if you will, in its continued and comfortable fashion, undisturbed.

    There’s a country song out just now, “who you gonna blame, the star of the game? Or the girl in the freshman class?” We still let these things happen because we don’t want to “make waves” with the popular or powerful people. Until we get a little moral courage and start holding those responsible for these rapes (for that is what they are) accountable for their actions, I fear there will be increasing numbers of victims who will need our real tangible support, and not merely our prayers.

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