How Trauma Affects Us

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In my last post, “What Makes An Event Traumatizing?”, I discussed various situations that can cause trauma. Many people are surprised to learn that even something like losing a job or witnessing a crime can be traumatizing. The common factor that causes an event to be traumatizing is helplessness. When we feel helpless to escape or rise up in a situation that’s terrifying, traumatization may be the result.

Many people have asked me how they can know an event has traumatized them. We may not remember that an event or circumstance was traumatic. We may have memories that are painful but not categorize them as traumatic. So how do we know if we have unhealed trauma?

I encourage people to look at their lives to see if there are signs that things are “off” or unsettled. I’m going to list some things you can watch for to learn whether you may have unhealed trauma, but first let me say this: if any of these signs are present in your life – even if you don’t have traumatic memories – it’s worth reaching out to a pastor, trusted friend or mental health professional to talk more about possible underlying causes.

Changes in Mood

Do you find yourself snapping angrily at people? feeling very anxious that someone will abandon you? experiencing sadness or even despair without knowing what’s causing it? People who’ve experienced trauma sometimes find their feelings overwhelming and seemingly unexplainable. They don’t understand why they have such strong emotional reactions when difficult situations arise. If your mood shifts suddenly, there’s a reason. You may not understand it, but your feelings are meant to be signposts. They show you what’s happening internally (if you’re paying attention to them). This is why it’s unhealthy to simply stuff an emotion or push it to the background for long periods of time. If you do this, it’s like ignoring the “Check Engine” light on your dashboard. Eventually the car will stop working.

Struggles in Relationships

Do you notice that you sometimes withdraw suddenly from conversation? defend yourself adamantly when there’s conflict? find yourself either shutting off your desire for connection or clinging desperately to a person you love? Most traumatizing events include a betrayal or loss of trust with another person. If you’ve been hurt deeply by someone at some time in your life, that pain will affect your current relationships while that wound is unhealed. And it’s not necessarily because you haven’t forgiven that person or because you don’t trust God with your pain. It may be because that memory was placed in your “procedural memory,” the part of your brain that records threat and works hard to keep those same threats from causing danger again. For example, if my parents divorced when I was a child and my father left and cut off relationship with me, I may have a deep fear of abandonment from those close to me. I may assume that when there’s an argument, my loved one will walk away and never return. The memory of my parents’ divorce is activating, showing me how to guard against further damage.

Bodily Symptoms

Do you have trouble sleeping? unexplained body aches? digestive issues? back problems? headaches? Obviously, all these symptoms could have various causes. But when a person has been traumatized, his body doesn’t fully go back to a state of rest after the traumatic event. He is continuing in a state of hyper-vigilance, watching for the next bad thing to happen. This causes massive stress on the body. Certain hormones course through the body, sending signals that a threat of harm is imminent. Living in this state can cause all the symptoms listed above. People sit in my office and say that they don’t know why they can’t rest. They feel frustrated that they’re always tense and can’t seem to settle down. Some of these people, as they process with me, discover that they have unhealed trauma.

What should I do if I think I have unhealed trauma?

My next post will begin to answer this question. But I’ll say again that if you’re struggling, the best thing you can have is another person. We are designed to walk this journey of life with others. Never alone. Talk to someone you trust. Ask for prayer. Seek help. This doesn’t mean you’re weak. It actually means you’re strong. You’re taking dominion.

What Makes an Event Traumatizing?

It’s a tough question, because we love to use hyperbole in order to bring emphasis to something. For example, a student may say it was traumatizing to come into class and suddenly be expected to take a pop quiz. A mom may say she was traumatized by having to stand in a long line at the store while her child hollered. Can these things traumatize us? Possibly. Just about any negative life circumstance can produce trauma, but we have to be careful with how we talk about it. We should never make light of it.

At the core of traumatization is helplessness. Any event, series of events or season of life can produce a sense of helplessness. When this occurs, we feel backed into a corner. We feel that we’ve lost our sense of dominion. “Dominion” is the word used to describe the gift God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He commanded them to be fruitful, to multiply, and to have dominion over every living thing that moves on earth. This is a high calling given to all humans. When we experience traumatization, we sense that our dominion is reduced, even taken away. Not by fault of our own, but because of sin trampling everything in its wake.

So what is helplessness? When your choices have been taken away, or when you’re so paralyzed that you’re unable to make the choices you want to make, you’re experiencing helplessness. At our core, we are not helpless beings. We are not meant to be at the complete mercy of someone or something else. Even babies are given a sense of dominion because they are able to cry out in order to be heard and seen and cared for. But what happens when cries go unnoticed over a period of time? What happens when a person experiences something grievous and has no one safe to ask for help? What happens when an event is so terrifying that the body shuts down and cannot respond by fighting or fleeing? This is helplessness.

Helplessness can occur in a vast number of settings and situations. This is why I cannot tell you through a blog post whether your circumstances were traumatizing. What I can say is that if you feel a strong sense of helplessness and you don’t have the resources to return to a state of dominion within a reasonable time frame, you may become traumatized. Not everyone who experiences a “traumatic event” becomes traumatized. (I use quotation marks because the label “traumatic” is culturally influenced and changes over time.) But let me give you a list of things that can easily be traumatizing:

  • Abuse of all kinds (sexual, physical, emotional, financial, verbal and spiritual)
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Natural disaster
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Combat exposure
  • Captivity
  • Life-threatening illness or injury
  • Severe human suffering
  • Serious injury, harm or death you caused to someone else

These events may seem obvious to some, but here are some less obvious things that also can be traumatizing:

  • Bullying
  • Racial discrimination
  • Loss of a career or lifetime dream
  • Financial ruin
  • Being stuck somewhere without help
  • Getting lost and not having the resources to find your way
  • Witnessing any of the events in the first list
  • Listening to stories of trauma from others (as happens for counselors and other helping professionals)
  • Rescue work (such as firefighters, police officers, game wardens, park rangers, etc.)

Have any of these things happened to you? Did you feel a sense of absolute helplessness? Did your body respond by becoming numb, by heart palpitations, by shortness of breath and/or severe muscle tension? Did you have anyone you could safely tell about the event?

Finally, it’s important to note that some people experience terrible events but somehow do not develop traumatization. In my next post, I’ll explore with you how to learn whether your negative life events may have been traumatizing. Stay tuned, and please share this post with anyone you think may be helped by it.

I’d also love to receive your questions and comments. This helps me plan future posts, so please send me a reply!

Is Anxiety Rooted in Trauma?

People are talking about anxiety right and left these days. It makes sense – so much is happening, and we don’t know exactly how to handle all the pressures and difficult circumstances coming our way. The word “anxiety” has become something of a buzzword in 2020. What do we mean when we use that word? Is anxiety caused strictly by stressful external circumstances? Why do some people seem so even-keeled, while others get bent out of shape over the simplest things?

The answer to whether anxiety is rooted in trauma is not a simple one. I would never want to diagnose anyone over a blog post, but I would like to offer some simple questions and markers that may help you determine what kind of anxiety is plaguing you. At its root, anxiety is defined as a sense of dread that can range from mild to debilitating. But there are different reasons you could be experiencing this kind of dread. Some people dread the future because something horrible has happened in their past, and they’re doing everything they can to keep bad things from happening again. If this is true for you, your anxiety may be rooted in traumatization.

Many people don’t connect their anxiety to traumatic incidents in their past because they’ve never been challenged to do so. Especially in Christian circles, anxiety is seen as something to kill, something to overcome. So we don’t necessarily take the time to be curious enough about our anxious feelings to ask questions about them. But if you’re wondering whether some of your anxiety comes from a wound in your past that hasn’t healed, here are some questions you can ask yourself. I recommend you consider these questions, but then make sure to talk them through with a trusted and wise friend who can help you discern whether there are next steps to take in the process of healing and freedom:

  1. What kinds of people, places or situations do I want to avoid?

    When I experience a situation that leads me toward feelings of anxiety, it’s natural that I may want to avoid that type of situation in the future. For example, if I am forced to make a presentation in class and I get so anxious that I have heart palpitations and shortness of breath, I probably won’t volunteer to be a presenter at a conference. It’s normal (though sometimes not best) to want to avoid what brings anxiety. But those whose anxiety includes a history of trauma will avoid situations, people or places because they evoke strong and visceral sensations that can play tricks on their brains. For example, I may feel anxious about dark alleys. If I enter a dark and empty street and suddenly feel a sense of panic in my entire body, as if I’m back in the dark alley in which I was attacked as a teenager, perhaps that particular situation evokes anxiety because the trauma of being attacked has not yet been healed. I know that’s an extreme example, but even fears of situations like being alone in a room or standing in a small space could be rooted in a memory of something traumatic. So the key is to explore whether avoidance may be rooted in a traumatic memory.

  2. What’s my reaction time when I feel anxious?

    When our anxious feelings are triggered by traumatic memory, it can seem as if the stimulus evokes an immediate reaction that doesn’t allow us to engage our logical minds. The fear response is a God-given function of the brain that is meant to help keep us alive in a dangerous and life-threatening situation. It’s possible that your brain carries “procedural memory” of something that was dangerous, which is stored in a different way than most memories. If your brain carries a procedural memory that tells your body to immediately react because a threat is present, you will go into “flight/fight/freeze” response without even realizing why. It will also sometimes seem silly to you, as if you shouldn’t be so keyed-up about a perceived threat, but your reaction is strong and quick. Sometimes this type of reaction happens because your body is being triggered by a stimulus that reminds your brain of a traumatic memory.

  3. What thoughts are connected to the feeling of anxiety when it occurs?

    A lot of people have trouble putting thoughts next to their feelings. When I ask what they’re thinking in connection to an anxious feeling, they don’t know right off the bat. That’s ok. But I encourage you to be curious about your anxious feelings. Ask yourself what you’re thinking. If your thoughts seem to go to extremes, there’s a possibility that anxiety is being provoked by unhealed trauma. For example, people who have been traumatized may have extreme thoughts such as, “No one is trustworthy,” or “Every place is unsafe.” You can have these thoughts without having been traumatized, but these kinds of extreme thoughts can be categorized as “absolutism,” which is a potential marker of traumatization.

  4. What’s happening in my body when I feel anxious?

    When anxiety hits, we often have bodily responses. Our hands sweat, our hearts race, our muscles tense up. These responses are our bodies’ way of alerting us of anxiety, but they’re also designed to help us either fight or flee in a dangerous situation. But when a threat or a perceived threat has ended, our bodies are supposed to return to a state of equilibrium. Both chronically anxious people and people with unhealed trauma have trouble getting back to that state of calm. People who have been traumatized often perpetuate a state of “hyper-vigilance,” both in their minds and in their bodies. It’s as if they’re waiting for some threat to come around every corner. Because they’re constantly on the lookout for danger, their bodies stay keyed up and have trouble becoming calm. Again, chronic anxiety can also include a constant state of bodily tension, but people with unhealed trauma will often share that they cannot sleep or relax.

Again, you cannot diagnose traumatization from any written source. If your answers to these questions lead you to believe you may have unhealed trauma, talk with a trusted friend or counselor. We are NEVER meant to walk through difficult things alone. The most constant factor in a person’s healing is the presence of a safe and compassionate person.

Why Are You Sleeping, O Lord?

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The words of Psalm 45:23-26 ring deafeningly in my ears:

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

This is actually in the Bible! It sounds so accusatory toward God, and it’s definitely filled with bitterness and sadness. The Sons of Korah (who wrote this song to be sung by God’s people) intentionally used language that was so strong and harsh to express the despair felt collectively by the Israelites.

When I read this psalm a few weeks ago, I felt something that surprised me – relief.

If this passage is right there in the middle of the Bible, surely there’s something I’m meant to do with it. Surely there’s a posture that I’m allowed – even encouraged – to emulate when life throws me to the ground.

Grief.

It comes in a thousand forms, and it doesn’t walk a straight line. Anyone who’s grieved a terrible loss will tell you that the “five stages” model doesn’t do it justice (although it’s a helpful tool). Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. And then some more bargaining, and then some guilt for being a little bit happy. And then a barrage of cussing and spitting directed at those we love. And then sleep that doesn’t seem to relieve us. And back to denial. It’s exhausting.

As I watch our world collectively experiencing the thousand forms of grief (whether or not there’s an awareness of it), I’m drawn to Psalm 44. I’m comforted by the fact that even though the world cannot handle my anger or my fear, my God can handle it. In fact, my God wants me to bring my questions and doubts and frustrations to His ears. That’s the difference between a perfect Father and an indifferent judge. My questions aren’t judged as irrelevant, and my doubts aren’t deemed a lack of faith or prayer. Only in the wrestle with questions of “Where are you?” and “Why is this happening?” am I able to come face to face with the God who sees. And asking the question is, in itself, an act of faith. Pouring out my grief before God means I believe that He’s actually listening. What a gift.

The answers don’t come quickly or easily. In fact, I may not get an answer. What I get is a PERSON. Someone who’s right there in the middle of it with me. Never leaving and always abiding.

This is something I love so much about my God. And as a believer, I know I am called to represent Him in the world. If I cannot hear other people, if they cannot come as they are with their questions and doubts – how will I mirror God’s character? I must be a listener first. I must believe that a person who’s screaming (just like the psalmist) has experienced something so excruciating that a scream is all they have left. And I must not be afraid of the expressions of grief that are happening all around me. Caring about people means letting them be themselves and seeking to show them the heart of God amidst terrible pain.

I’ve learned over the years that those who cannot tolerate the grief of others have not yet entered into their own grief honestly. The best way to do this is to first take it in prayer to God. Emotion is not an enemy. It’s an arrow pointing us toward redemption.

The Trauma of Racial Injustice

The past few months have brought the whole world together onto common ground. COVID-19 makes everyone nervous, no matter where we live or how much money we have or how strong our immune systems are. The sentiment I most frequently hear from people is that we’re all ready for it to be over. We’re eagerly anticipating a downturn in diagnosed cases. We’re watching the news for reports that smart people in laboratories are working tirelessly to find a vaccination and an effective treatment. We have hope that we’ll get through this, because we have history to rely upon. We’ve seen other diseases vaccinated. We’ve watched the economy turn around for the better. We’ve been encouraged as businesses increase supplies and take measures to keep people safe. Hope is a powerful force that keeps us all moving forward.

But what if we couldn’t see over the horizon into something better? What if we watched as scientists stopped believing COVID was dangerous and decided to give up trying to create a vaccine? What if ranchers and farmers stopped supplying their goods to stores so they could have more for their own families, thus emptying everyone else’s food supply? What if nobody took action to help those who lost jobs because of this pandemic? What if hope diminished and even disappeared because everyone decided just to fend for themselves and ignore the plight that others are facing?

As I’ve watched the tragedy and atrocity play out regarding the murders of George Floyd and so many others, I’ve been struck by the overwhelming juxtaposition between how many of us view the COVID-19 crisis and how we view racial injustice.

We have hope that COVID will end and all will be well again. African Americans don’t have history on their side to remind them that things will get better, that other people will use their positions of influence to support, defend and advocate for them. Instead, they look at history and see a cycle of violence that continues to roll over and over through countless generations. I’ve heard people asking why people have to protest so strongly. This statement proves that we don’t understand. We are only seeing from our white perspective.

I’m a trauma specialist. It’s what I’ve studied for 20 years. When I see what’s happening in our nation, I’m not a bit surprised at the protests and riots. I don’t advocate for violence, but I can see how it happens. A woman who lives with an abusive husband runs out of choices pretty quickly. She tries everything she knows to work within the system she’s been handed. When nothing works, she has two options: she can decide she’s the one who’s wrong and figure out how to obey his every demand (even though that doesn’t stop the violence), or she can rise up. In order to rise up, she has to have hope that something can get better. She has to believe she is worth being protected and loved. She has to have outside support from those who are not being abused. And sometimes when she rises up, she screams. Sometimes she pushes back. She senses that she has no other way to make her voice heard.

This is the same scenario I see playing out on a systemic and national scale.

I’m white, and I’m growing to realize how much privilege and power my whiteness gives me. I’m also learning that we white folks love to pat ourselves on the back about how much progress has been made in racial equality. My stomach turns as I think about the abusive men I’ve encountered who say the same thing about their marriages.

Maybe we are expecting a tall glass of iced tea and a foot massage because we mowed the backyard on a hot day (using our riding lawn mowers), when there’s a 40-acre plot just out of sight that’s overgrown with weeds and grass up to the waist. But that plot of land isn’t infringing on our afternoon pool parties, so we’ll leave it be. Not until that overgrowth and chaos comes to our doorstep will we venture to do anything about it. And even then we may just try to pass the work off to someone else.

I am not stating that all white Americans are the abusers and all African Americans are the abused. I’m simply pointing out that the trauma inflicted against African Americans is abusive, and we must advocate for their healing, hope and equality. Those of us who have stood by passively and watched as abuse has occurred are culpable as well. We have kept silent, and we have chosen to defer the work to someone else. We may care, but we feel powerless to make change. We may grieve with our black brothers and sisters, but we’re afraid to do the wrong thing. We’re way past due to advocate. To stand alongside. To create change that will last longer than just one turn of the cycle.

Seeking to understand brings hope. Safety brings healing. These are principles in trauma care. Black Americans have experienced trauma after trauma, and our job is not to control the narrative. Our job is to come near, to advocate, to use our power for helping others. Most of all, our job is to point people (including ourselves) toward the only Hope that will ever change the world. That Hope is Jesus Christ.

I long to see justice flow down. I long to see hope revived in every heart. I want to be a part of the healing.

If this post resonates with you, please share it. I’m planning to write more on the subject of trauma and racial injustice. I’d love to hear from you about this topic! Please leave a comment or complete a contact form.