In my days as a novice therapist, I was terrified to work with trauma survivors. I had been given tools and plenty of support from supervisors, sure. But as a trauma survivor myself, I worried I wouldn’t support them adequately. My greatest fear was to re-traumatize people. Graciously, in the decade since, God has utilized therapy, relationships and His goodness to mend me and grow my confidence to walk with the wounded.
Lately, there is no shortage of news regarding survivors of trauma and abuse. Just recently Time magazine named the “silence breakers” of the #MeToo movement as their person of the year, and as I write, fires plague Southern California. While sexual assault is finally making headlines, it’s not new, nor are the multiple ways people can be traumatized.
But what exactly do we mean when we say trauma, or more accurately, traumatic stress? According to leading researchers like Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine, it’s when a person’s natural threat response is activated in their body, but their ability to cope becomes overwhelmed and ultimately stuck in a hyper/hypo vigilant mode.
Thus, the traumatic event(s) become “stuck” in a person’s body instead of being stored as a normal memory. This inability to properly integrate the event into the narrative of their life is what results in symptoms such as flashbacks, disturbing thoughts, physical ailments or emotional volatility.
According to The Sidran Institute, 70 percent of Americans will experience at least one major trauma in their life and 20 percent of those folks will go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As Christians who want to love well, it’s vital we recognize our role in supporting the hurting within and without our walls.
God’s Heart for the Hurting
From Genesis, God modeled how He values people when He made us as the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:27), and then when He was finished, He called us “very good” (Genesis 1:31). He tells us He is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), He is with us in all types of tragedy (Isaiah 43:2), and through the incarnation of Jesus, He walked with and healed the hurting (Luke 17:11-19; John 8:7).
So then, how can we be the hands and feet of God toward those who’ve experienced trauma? In the last several decades more information and research has become available and combined with biblical wisdom, it has something to teach us.
One of the primary ways we can love people who’ve experienced trauma is by offering our safe presence; free from judgment, shame, pat answers and unsolicited advice. Interestingly, Jesus models this for us when He calls himself Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). While He could have chosen to reveal himself in any way, He decided to come near to us in all of our broken humanity.
God’s desire for each of us is to know His nearness and goodness, and beyond that, He commands us to give this love to each other too (John 13:34). Yet, when someone has been traumatized, their natural warning system has been damaged, and it tells them to live in constant high alert; it’s as though there is danger lurking around every corner. However, when a relationship feels safe to a traumatized person, it can be life changing—quite literally helping to rewire the person’s brain.
Van der Kolk explains it this way in his landmark book, The Body Keeps the Score:
Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health … numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection again becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma … for our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.
Stay the Course
Trauma recovery requires incredible perseverance and courage. Beyond the rewiring of a person’s brain and body, most individuals healing from trauma will also face toxic levels of shame about who they are and their story (van der Kolk). In order to successfully process and integrate all these pieces with a trained therapist, survivors need people who are in it for the long haul; with all the messiness healing entails.
This certainly doesn’t require perfection, but instead faithfulness. Relationships that consistently display commitment and solidarity in the difficult phases of life build upon the safety survivors are relearning. In turn, this helps survivors stay committed to their own healing.
Further, it’s in these vulnerable places we, the Church, have the privilege to remind survivors they are loved (John 3:16), known (Psalm 139) and welcome right where they are in their process (Romans 8:38-39). And just as God is exceedingly kind with each of us (Psalm 117:2), folks in recovery have permission to be kind to themselves, too (Mark 12:31). As relationships grow deeper and safety continues to thrive, survivors will find it easier to “own their story” and find resilience in the face of shame.
Connect to Resources
Finally, while the stigma around mental health issues is lessening, seeking trauma informed counseling or resources for recovery is often still taboo. Yet, when a friend or family member normalizes the need to have additional support, it becomes significantly more likely a person will follow through. After a safe, connected relationship with a survivor is created, it can be helpful to strategize with them the ways you can help them connect to resources.
Do they need someone to watch their kids while they go to counseling? Would they feel more comfortable going to yoga class if you joined them? Do they need someone to sit with them in the doctor’s waiting room? All of these simple elements can provide important support as folks move toward healing.
Jesus demonstrated to us repeatedly how He cared for the hurting and the disenfranchised. But for us, fragile humans that we are, learning to be with someone else’s pain can be overwhelming. Yet, if we can remain connected to the ultimate healer in Jesus, we will find courage to create safety in our relationships and the resilience to love well. It might matter more than we know.