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.

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. 

 

What to Do with Crippling Fear

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I wanted to touch on what happens when a person becomes so crippled by fear that they are unable to function in the ways they once were. This can look several different ways, such as panic attacks, fears of particular situations or objects (we call these phobias), fears that lead to compulsions and obsessive thoughts, general anxiety that keeps a person from being able to fulfill regular responsibilities, and anxiety as a result of trauma that has happened.

When a person becomes debilitated by fear, life comes to a screeching hault. It’s difficult even to look up and see other people and God, let alone just complete simple tasks that used to come easily. I want to emphasize that, although these fears may find their root in sin committed against us or by us, they work themselves out in such a way that keeps us from living our lives. Practically, we need to find tools to help us get through the day. So if this is you, I want to speak specifically to your struggle.

Go to the doctor. If you go to a general practitioner (not a psychiatrist), you’ll need to equip yourself to share things he or she may not ask. So before you visit your doctor, gauge your level of anxiety on a daily basis (for at least a month if you can). The best thing to do is write your anxiety level as a number on the calendar each day. The scale can be 1-10 (1 is no anxiety, and 10 is the highest anxiety you’ve ever felt). The criteria for diagnosis of anxiety disorder is that you be experiencing anxiety or worry for at least six months, but it’s helpful to have specific information for your doctor rather than just saying, “Yep, I’ve been anxious for more than 6 months.”

Important Note: If you’re experiencing panic attacks and/or intense fears that are immediately debilitating, do not wait a month to visit your doctor.

When you visit the doctor, go prepared to share the following information:

  • Give him/her your anxiety calendar and explain it.
  • Share any traumatic or stressful events that have happened in your life over the past year.
  • Talk about the areas of your life that are hindered or debilitated by this anxiety.

Keep in mind: doctors function in medicine. I know, duh. But remember that your doctor will almost certainly hand you a prescription for an anti-depressant or an anti-anxiety medication. Medication may be part of what you need in order to work toward healing and hope. However, it’s definitely not the only thing you need, and it may not be what you need at all.

After going to the doctor, arrange to speak with a trusted and mature Christian friend. Talk with him or her about what’s happening and ask for prayer in making good decisions regarding your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Finally, get in touch with a biblical counselor or program at your church that allows you to work through these difficult issues over a period of time. You are not designed to figure this out and get better on your own. You need the Body of Christ to walk alongside you. If you want to figure it out on your own, you’re probably functioning in shame. Recognize your need and move toward others and God, knowing that what you’re experiencing is not crazy or even rare. When life becomes overwhelming (which it does for everyone), it’s time to reach out with greater intentionality than ever before.

Do you have specific questions about fear and anxiety? Please comment on this post. If you want it to remain private, just let me know and I won’t post your comment publicly.