When you hear the word trauma, you might assume that it only applies to extreme situations. But when understood correctly, trauma is a reality that touches more people than you might think. The effects of trauma are wide-reaching on the soul, body and on relationships. And I believe healing the effects of trauma is at the center of God’s work on this planet.
Trauma is the word psychologists use to describe the impact of a painful, frightening, or overwhelming event. Specifically, the impact of a traumatic event exceeds your capacity to cope with or process what happened in a constructive way.
If an emotional injury is left unattended, a wound is created that doesn’t get healed.
Prior to the last few decades, trauma was understood primarily in the context of a terrible one-time event. For example, soldiers who returned from war experienced symptoms of trauma, including flashbacks, anxiety, and night terrors. Other horrific experiences, such as being raped, witnessing a murder, or a near-death experience were—and still are—also considered traumatic.
But psychologists began to realize that trauma was a much bigger player in people’s lives than originally thought. They started to realize that trauma comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, some big “T” trauma and some little “t” trauma, but all creating an impact. In particular, they started to realize the effects of relational trauma.
Examples of relational trauma include:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Sexual abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Constant manipulation or criticism
- Witnessing arguing or violence between family members
- Uncovering a betrayal, such as infidelity
- Perceived failures at school, work, or in relationships
- A sudden or unexplained loss
- Various forms of racism
The list could go on, but the key point to remember is that clinicians no longer think of trauma as the result of a rare, one-time event. In fact, psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk notes that “The consequences of caretaker abuse and neglect are vastly more common and complex than the impact of hurricanes or motor vehicle accidents” (The Body Keeps the Score, p. 143).
Instead, trauma more simply defined is unwitnessed pain.
Painful events bring on a cascade of complex emotions such as fear, shock, anger, and a sense of vulnerability. Stress chemicals, like cortisol, are released, affecting the brain, body, and responses to other people. If the pain isn’t acknowledged and healed through loving connection, a wound is created that can fester for years.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of trauma because they don’t have the capacity to process complex, emotionally charged situations. When left alone with any sort of pain, children will infuse events with meaning that is often self-shaming. As psychiatrist Gabor Maté says in his powerful film, The Wisdom of Trauma, “Children don’t get traumatized because they are hurt. Children are traumatized because they are alone with the hurt.” While our souls are designed to heal from painful events, they are not designed to heal in isolation from other people.
For example, maybe you were raised in a home where your parents fought constantly. If no one helped you understand what was happening, you may have told yourself the fighting was your fault, even though their arguments had nothing to do with you. Or maybe you were raised by a parent who was self-absorbed or absent from you emotionally. You may have told yourself that you were not worth being loved or cherished
As you grow older, you absorb these faulty messages deep down inside, outside of your conscious awareness. You carry them into your adult relationships. These messages linger, and they play a key role in what shows up as anxiety, depression, and unsatisfying relationships later in life. In fact, some form of trauma—whether big “T” or little “t”—lurks in the background of almost every human being who lives on this planet. It’s impossible to live in this world and not pick up a wound or two.
The Effects of Trauma
God designed you with a sophisticated, state-of-the-art system to alert you to danger in your environment. It’s your nervous system, which impacts your emotions, perceptions, and nearly every decision you make. This inner alert system helps you keep yourself safe emotionally and physically.
The problem is that unhealed wounds from your past affect this system, influencing how you react to situations in your present. These reactions are embedded in your body and operate outside your conscious control. Without realizing it, your brain automatically jumps to conclusions about a present situation based on past conditioning.
The Four Survival Responses
Please, Win over
In the face of real threats, these survival responses are constructive. But trauma can cause your body to misread a threat. For example it can cause you to react to minor threats—or even instances of healthy vulnerability—as if they were a major attack on your safety. Trauma can also cause you to underreact to actual threats. Your body can grow accustomed to a heightened state of arousal and stress. As a result, you might be drawn to the familiarity of stressful relationships.
You might already be familiar with the idea of a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When you sense danger, your inner alert system kicks into high gear. Your heart rate quickens, your palms grow sweaty, and your body grows tense as it prepares to protect itself.
If you tend toward “fight,” you might get louder, physically act out, or run head-first into a conflict. If you tend toward “flight,” you might run away, hide, or simply avoid any semblance of confrontation. If you “freeze,” you might find yourself shutting down all together. You might disconnect from emotional cues as a way to tolerate the pain. This is what psychologists call disassociation. If you “fawn,” you might jump into pleasing mode, where you impulsively try to fix, help, or soothe everyone around you, typically at the expense of yourself.
Think about your own relationships:
- Do you run headlong into conflict (fight)? Or do you move away from it as fast as you can (flight)?
- Do you sometimes find yourself checking out mentally or emotionally all together (freeze)? Or do you compulsively jump in to please or rescue others (fawn)?
The important thing to know is that these impulses are conditioned responses. Something happened outside of you that stirred up stress inside of you. So your body figured out how to respond to protect itself. Over time, that response became reflexive. That means your body learned to respond to certain cues in the environment—without you even having a chance to think about it.
Healing the Effects of Trauma
When a story of pain is witnessed with compassion, healing enters in. A new story of hope can begin to emerge. There are numerous big and small steps you can take each day to heal trauma. Here are a few to consider:
- Be gentle with yourself. Like any wound, trauma needs time and healing ingredients, such as safety, connection, and trust to heal. It’s okay that you’re struggling. God knows the whole of your story and is already working to create beauty for you.
- Take deep breaths. When you feel anxious, your body will tend toward a survival response. Deep breaths can help slow your instinctive response, giving you a chance to calm yourself before your react.
- Identify your safe places and people. Notice what makes you feel calm, creative, or connected. It might be nature, animals, a counselor, pastor, support group or a good friend.
- Move toward safety in small ways each day. It could be a moment of quiet, or a walk by yourself. It might be that you decide to move your body, drink water, or give yourself permission to rest. The important thing is that you begin to notice what safety feels like for you.
- Look for a trauma-informed therapist. Several healing modalities such as EMDR, IFS, or Somatic therapy are specifically designed to aid with healing trauma. Check out a list of books and counseling resources here.
We are wounded by others, and we heal in relationship to others.
Above all: remember that God is a God of healing. He is a God of saving or sozo, which means to heal; to be made whole. God wants to heal and restore your heart, soul, mind, and body. Healing is the heart of God’s work on this earth.
For the Son of Man has come to save [sozo] that which was lost. —Matthew 18:11