Deep Breathing for Anxiety and Trauma

“Don’t forget to breathe…very important.”

“The Karate Kid” was a movie we watched over and over again when I was a kid. If you’ve seen it, you remember Mr. Miyagi, the unassuming master who taught a bullied teenager the art of karate. Breathing was one of the primary lessons. It seemed almost comical to me that Mr. Miyagi had to remind Daniel to breathe during his exercises.

It’s not comical when I’m working with someone who’s very anxious or who needs healing from past trauma. Many trauma survivors have lost touch with their bodies. Sometimes it’s because their bodies betrayed them in a moment of terror. They wanted to run away or fight off their attackers, but their bodies froze and they were unable to defend themselves. Sometimes their bodies responded hormonally to physical touch that was unwanted, and they now hate those responses. Sometimes they simply stop listening to the signals their bodies give them because they don’t trust themselves to know what to do in difficult situations.

Getting back in touch with our bodies is a primary step in healing from trauma and anxiety, because we need to learn to trust ourselves again. We need to grow in the belief that our bodies are good, created by God and given to us as a gift. If you’re an abuse survivor, you may be cringing as you read these last two sentences. That makes complete sense. But if we want to heal, we need to reconnect – with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Even if you’re not a survivor of trauma, I want to encourage you to try the exercise I’m about to recommend. We all carry stress and pain in our bodies, and deep breathing is a way to release that stress and pain. It’s a way for us to exercise dominion in our bodies, to decrease stress and increase rest so that we can function with sound judgment and wisdom.

Diaphragmatic Breathing:

I recommend you sit in a comfortable chair with a high back so that your head is resting against something. You can also do this exercise lying down, although some people find it uncomfortable. The point is to be as comfortable as possible.

Close your eyes and take in the deepest breath you can, expanding your belly like a balloon. This hopefully takes six to eight seconds to achieve. Hold the breath in your abdomen and chest for three to four seconds, and concentrate on the sensation of being full of breath. Then slowly let the breath out of your body, which should take twelve to fourteen seconds. As you let the breath out, concentrate on how your body feels. Are their muscles that seem tense? What parts of your body feel relaxed, and what parts are holding pain?

Complete the exercise again, only this time concentrate on relaxing the muscles that seem tense as you exhale. Complete the exercise at least four more times, each time gaining greater muscle relaxation.

I recommend doing these breathing exercises twice a day. What you’re doing is teaching your body to respond to stressful moments by taking deep breaths. When we exhale slowly and relax our muscles, we’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system – the “brakes” of our nervous system. We need to tap the brakes when things get stressful, but we have inadvertently taught our bodies to keep the pedal to the metal, so to speak, when we’re stressed. We have learned that the answer to stopping stress is to work harder and get more done. The opposite is true.

Here’s what I noticed when I started doing these exercises (and many others have told me the same): when I consistently practiced these exercises while I was comfortable and at rest, my body started to automatically take deep breaths when I encountered something stressful during the day. Just like lifting weights helps a person be stronger for moments when they’re lifting the grocery bags or a child, deep breathing exercises helps us gain strength to de-stress in moments of tension. Try it out and send me a comment with your results!

The Abuse Crisis in the SBC: Where do we go from here?

I attended the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) National Conference last weekend, where I experienced both encouragement and frustration. Of course, I should expect this from a conference focusing on caring well for the abused. The SBC has a long history of covering up heinous acts of oppression and violence, so I entered the space with skepticism. In June at the Southern Baptist Convention, we prayed prayers of lament and heard stories of abuse within Southern Baptist churches. An advisory group (made up of some of my heroes in abuse and trauma care) published a handbook for pastors on how to care for victims. The ERLC chose to spend their entire conference training leaders on how to care for victims and survivors. But something stung at a heart-level for me as I sat listening to testimonies and lectures. These well-meaning and long-awaited endeavors are only the very first baby steps. I feel nervous about celebrating too quickly.

At the age of seventeen, I was sexually assaulted. When I worked up the courage to tell my youth minister, she looked at me blankly and asked what I was wearing when it happened. Praise God I had the wherewithal not to listen to her anymore. But it left me alone, with no one to help me process my pain. I had hoped she would give me resources and show me how to find a good counselor. Consequently, I spent the next several years in silence. 

Our heavenly Father has allowed my painful story to create a passion in me for His glory to be revealed in the Church through the healing of His vulnerable ones. For twenty years I have looked around wherever I’ve lived and sought to follow the call of Jesus to bind up the brokenhearted. It’s been a beautiful journey, and I’ve learned so much along the way. Sitting at the ERLC Conference, I felt encouraged to hear about others who are doing the same all throughout the world. I realized how isolated I’ve felt all these years. Now I can connect with others, and hopefully we can grow together.

How do we do it? What are the next baby steps for us to take in this process of caring for the abused? Here are some steps I’m taking.

I’m tending my own garden. I cannot give what I do not possess. If I aspire to guide and empathize with others, I must be rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus, abiding in the vine. I must hear His voice clearly (which only comes with regular practice). I must continually pray Psalm 139:23-24, because His searching of my heart must be continual. My own growth and healing must be happening all along the way, and I should never assume I’m complete. To do so would be absolute arrogance. I believe that many ministry leaders are hiding their own wounds of abuse, and this is dangerous. If we cannot get help ourselves, how can we lead others to the help they need? My counselor and a few close friends provide safe spaces for me to process the ways in which the pain of others exacerbates my own pain. I think all those who lead others need to have such people in their lives. 

I’m creating safe spaces for survivors. I felt nervous at the Southern Baptist Convention because pastors were given a mandate to commit to the Caring Well Challenge. It’s not that I don’t think the challenge is good – I’m so grateful for clear steps toward growth. But what I wanted them to tell us is that before we charge forward in a grand step-by-step endeavor, we must locate those in our midst who have suffered abuse and ask them to teach us. And locating them does not mean announcing from the stage that survivors have permission to come find a leader to share their stories with. We must create spaces for safe interactions. We must stop asking them to do all the hard work of figuring out who to talk to and when. Something our church did this past spring was to hold a service of lament (including worship and testimonies), followed by a set-aside time in which members could go into the chapel and talk with an elder or deacon. Now that the ERLC Conference has ended, we’re creating a survey that allows people to check a box indicating they want to talk with an elder or deacon privately. I’m hopeful we’ll all get creative in orchestrating spaces in which to sit with victims and survivors.

I’m thinking about abuse care in ALL ministries within the church. Opportunities to care for the abused can’t only happen in our recovery and counseling ministries. People don’t usually self-select to join an abuse recovery group, and they usually don’t indicate on a counseling intake form that they want to heal from the wounds of abuse. They don’t feel safe talking about it, so we have to pay attention and ask good questions in everyday interactions with those in our church families. What questions do our small group leaders ask during accountability and prayer time? What opportunities are we missing when we train our children’s ministry volunteers, when we create our worship sets, when we plan our sermons, when we develop curriculum for membership classes and Bible studies? The possibilities are endless for ways we can demonstrate our love for those who are suffering. We just have to think holistically about it. 

I’m building an army. Abuse care is beautiful and fulfilling. It’s also painful and exhausting. I cannot do it alone in my church. And even if I could, I shouldn’t. As I’ve heard the stories of those in our church family who have suffered (or are suffering) abuse, I’ve begun to ask for their involvement. I’ve asked if they’re willing to write down their stories to be shared with our elders. I’ve asked them to pray that more people will feel safe to come forward with their stories. I’ve asked them to help organize events and sit on advisory teams to help our church continue to do this work well. You’d be amazed at the resilience and power lying beneath the surface in a survivor of abuse. We think deeply. We fight hard in prayer. We cling to Scripture. We see injustice clearly. We have great ideas. A pastor is short-sighted (and perhaps even foolish) who engages in the Caring Well Challenge without enlisting the leadership of those who have been quietly fighting the fight for years. This includes both survivors and their close friends and family members. (Note: Some survivors are not yet ready to engage in leading others. It’s important to assess where people are in their healing journeys in order to care for them as they seek to care for others. I’m planning to write about this soon.)

One final thought: I’m praying hard and want to encourage the leaders of the SBC and ERLC that the call to care for the abused cannot be a flash in the pan. Victims and survivors would rather we not discuss this at all than to discuss it for one year and then never speak of it again. I hope the SBC will create a position or committee designed to continue this endeavor and keep it as a priority among Southern Baptists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to spot partner abuse

I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, and she was describing her anxiety. She said she felt like she couldn’t get anything right. No matter what she did, it didn’t seem like enough. She wanted to be a responsible person, a person who was loving and compassionate. But she just couldn’t seem to fulfill those expectations.

I told her that I struggle with the same things. I shared that I’m naturally a perfectionist who holds myself to astronomical standards and beats myself up when I don’t get everything right. I said I’m learning that the Lord created me to be finite and dependent on Him. It’s ok not to be perfect.

Then she started to cry. She said she didn’t know how to accept her imperfections. She wanted to be allowed to be human and finite, but she wasn’t sure she could have a more realistic standard. Something in the way she said it made me wonder. So I asked, “Do you hold yourself to an unrealistic standard, or are you trying to be perfect in order to please someone else?”

Her head went down. She stopped looking me in the eye. The silence dragged from seconds to minutes. I knew she wanted to say something, so I just waited. Finally, with eyes still lowered, she said, “I’ve lost track of all the ways I’m failing. And sometimes I don’t even know I’m failing till he gets home. I don’t remember till it’s too late.”

She’s not anxious because she’s a perfectionist. She’s anxious because she hasn’t followed all of his rules perfectly. She’s in an abusive relationship.

Sometimes partner abuse is hard to spot. It can be subtle. It can develop so slowly that it’s imperceptible to the observer. Many women who are struggling with anxiety are actually staggering under the weight of an abusive partner, but they don’t even know to call it that. To them, it’s just how relationships work. And in the Christian world, it can be even more devastating because partner abuse is happening under the definition of wifely submission.

It’s time for the Church to say some really clear things. Submission never means following someone’s rules to avoid punishment. It never means sacrificing the health and safety of yourself or your children in order to appease someone’s preferences. It never means laying yourself on someone else’s altar. This is not submission. It’s abuse.

In whatever ways we have allowed abuse to continue in the name of submission or humility, we need to repent. We need to learn what to look for and how to get help for those who are suffering at the hands of someone else. Abuse is happening right under our noses, to women and men and children. To the elderly and the disabled. We need some education, and we need boldness to advocate.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a great website. That’s where I’ll point you in beginning your education (click HERE). This website defines domestic abuse and gives warning signs to look for. You’ll also find the Power and Control Wheel, a very helpful tool that describes ways in which someone will exert power for selfish gain.

Here’s the Hotline’s list of signs your loved one may be experiencing partner abuse: (https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/)

  • Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry
  • They make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  • Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive
  • They have unexplained marks or injuries
  • They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family
  • They are depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality

Of course, your friend or loved one may not exhibit all these signs, but if you notice even a couple of them, you can ask a few questions to learn more:

  • “I noticed him putting you down, and that bothered me. Does that happen a lot?”
  • “You seem worried about making him mad. Do you feel worried about that often?”
  • “He seems to get jealous easily. Do you see that with him?”
  • “I noticed that bruise. It looks painful. Because I love you, I need to ask – did someone give that to you?”
  • “You seem distant lately, and not because you want to be. I’m wondering if you feel pressured only to be with him, like you’re not allowed to spend time with your friends and family.”
  • “I can tell you’ve been down lately. I want you to know I’m here for you and would love to support you in whatever you’re going through.”

(In these questions, I’m using the female pronoun to describe the abuse victim, but keep in mind that abuse happens to both men and women. No one is exempt from the possibility of being victimized.)

If you ask a few of these questions and sense that the person’s answers may indicate partner abuse, trust your instinct. It’s not your job to investigate. It’s your job to support. You can simply tell your friend that you’re concerned about the relationship, that something doesn’t seem healthy. Ask her if she’s willing to share these concerns with someone more knowledgable, like a professional counselor. Offer to go with her. She may not want to do it, because she feels responsible for protecting her abuser’s reputation. If she doesn’t want to get help, ask if she’d be willing to look at some materials about healthy and unhealthy relationships. You can print some materials from the Hotline website to talk through with her.

I don’t recommend that you go behind your loved one’s back in trying to help her. She is living a life under someone else’s power. You want to communicate the opposite to her. She is her own person. She deserves to make her own decisions. She has dignity and worth. Ask her what she wants to do and give her options, but don’t make decisions for her and don’t pressure her.

If she shares with you that children may be endangered, you should report to CPS. Don’t wait, and don’t wonder whether it is actually happening or just suspected. The safety of children is always imperative, and it’s not up to you to figure out – only to report. To report child abuse in Texas, call 1-800-252-5400, or www.txabusehotline.org. The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-4-A-Child, or www.childhelp.org.

 

How should men care for female survivors of sexual abuse?

“I was bit by a big dog when I was a kid, and now I’m afraid of all big dogs.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my friend. It’s a natural instinct for her to recoil from something that reminds her of a dangerous situation. In fact, it’s a God-given instinct for survival. I don’t fault my friend for the way she feels – it’s just the way she feels. And I’m not defensive that she doesn’t want to be around my black lab, no matter how friendly or lovable. Her experience has changed her perceptions and interactions.

Since the recent news about perpetrators of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, I’ve had several conversations with men about the experience of a female abuse survivor. These men are asking me questions because they know my story. They know I can relate.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was seventeen, and I was forced into a sexual encounter by a peer. The pain of that moment still grieves me, but equal to that grief were the horrifying days and months following the abuse, in which well-meaning Christians affirmed the dreaded voice that was haunting my every thought: “It was your fault.”

The damage is great. Vast and far-reaching. Since that season of my life, I have read and studied and met individually and in groups with countless women like me. Our stories are all different, but all with common threads. We all felt overwhelming shame, betrayal and fear. And we all heard the dreaded voice. We couldn’t make it stop. It told us we were to blame.

We were trying to make sense of something senseless, so we believed we caused the trauma. That allowed us to feel a sense of control, to build a system in which we could prevent further trauma if only we could do everything perfectly next time. But let’s be honest – we didn’t know any of that. We were just drowned in shame and fear, and we fought our way to the surface the best way we knew how.

In building this system, the creation of categories became a survival tactic. The location of the abuse was now off-limits. The clothing I wore, the size and shape of my body, the way I interact with the opposite sex…on and on. My list became very long, and it grew each time I had a flashback to the abuse. But at the top of my list was one word. MEN.

In the same way my friend recoils from big dogs because of her interaction with one bad one, I became afraid of men. I began to assume that they all thought of me as a piece of meat, not even good enough to be swallowed but only to be chewed up and spit out. This was not a true statement, of course, but my brain had created a category to keep me safe. Until healing occurred, this category was the only way for me to function.

So what should you do if you’re a man who wants to care for a female sexual abuse survivor? How do you interact with her? What does she need?

Use your ears.

If you are someone she trusts enough to receive her story, that’s a gift. The moment you know what she faced, you have become someone unlike her abuser. You have been trusted with something very vulnerable and tender. So there’s no need to defend your gender. There’s no reason to try to educate her or admonish her. These are moments of ministry – the ministry of listening. Whatever she shares is precious. Take it to heart, and let her know that you are honored to receive her story.

Believe the best of her.

The voice in her head takes a long time to go away. For some, it never goes away. She expects others to perpetuate that voice and tell her she was to blame for the abuse. She’s wondering what you think the moment you hear her story. She doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you because you’re a man. She has very good reason to believe that a man will betray and belittle and dehumanize her, because she’s experienced it firsthand. While you’re not to blame for the abuse, someone in your gender was. That means you can help by being someone who looks her in the face, who smiles kindly, who affirms that what she experienced was a vile and abominable evil.

Push below the anger.

Many men I’ve encountered are able to express their anger and disgust that someone could perpetrate sexual abuse. But I have found few men who are willing to dig below the anger into how they feel. Anger is a secondary emotion – it stems from something else. What do you feel beneath the anger? Is anger a shield that allows you to stand in righteous indignation without actually experiencing empathy?

Empathy comes when you admit that you don’t understand and humbly ask for help. Some think they are empathizing, but they’re actually just sympathizing (i.e., “I understand because I experienced something similar”). You cannot understand what someone has faced, no matter how similar your experiences have been. Empathy means you ask for understanding, desiring to sit in the ashes with someone. It means you want to experience it yourself alongside them. This is so painful to do, and many men refuse.

If you’re interested in experiencing empathy regarding a woman’s experience with sexual abuse, start with this question: What if she were my wife? my daughter? my sister? my best friend? my mother? my girlfriend?

Let that question sink in. All the way down to the core. What if? How angry would you feel? How sad? How terrified? How hopeless?

Now look into that woman’s face. She IS your wife, your daughter, your sister, your best friend, your mother, your girlfriend. She is.

Link arms with her

She may have been walking on the road to healing for a long time, or she may have just begun. Ask her how you can serve her. You are most likely not the person she’ll continue to talk with about her abuse, but she needs someone (or several someones). Find resources in your church and community that specialize in caring for abuse survivors. Help her access those resources, and then commit to walk alongside her as she heals. She needs faithful men in her life, men who combat the lie that all males dehumanize females. And remember that she may share her story with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically and completely safe. She needs other women, primarily, to be her support system. Operate as her advocate and resource-provider, and keep asking her how you can serve her.

I hope this post generates many other posts! Please send me your comments, stories, and questions.