Have you ever wondered how to relate to someone who has recently experienced trauma?
Maybe you haven’t been in that situation yet, but the truth is, most of us will eventually be the person in the trauma or else walk alongside someone who is. Knowing something about it can make all the difference in the world.
I’ve recently spent time in the very thick, but readable book, The New Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling – A Practical Guide for Ministers, Counselors and Lay Counselors by Dr. H. Norman Wright. I delved into this book a couple years ago when I was going through my own symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and I’ve picked it up again so I can encourage those around me going through similar things.
Dr. Wright explains trauma as “the response to any event that shatters your safe world so that it’s not longer a place of refuge. Trauma is more than a state of crisis. It is a normal reaction to abnormal events that overwhelm a person’s ability to adapt to life — where you feel powerless” (194).
We are all quick to recognize physical trauma — if a person falls off a ladder, has a concussion, breaks both legs, some ribs, and their wrist, we allow them months, if not years to return back to normal. That kind of trauma is easy to define, recognize, and forgive.
What most of us don’t know is that trauma of the brain can hide in a perfectly normal-looking body. “Trauma is a wound. It’s a wounding of the brain. It overwhelms the ordinary adaptations to life. Trauma creates PTSD” (200). “Traumatized people have alterations in their brain” (204).
What kind of alterations?
First of all, the left side (our analytical side) and the right side (our emotional, visual side) are normally connected (by the corpus callosum) and communicate with each other — so we can discern real threats from false alarms. For example, when your child jumps out of your closet to scare you, you scream and your heart pounds (right side reacting), but in less than a second, the left side of your brain reminds you that this is your precious offspring playing a joke on you: There is no true danger.
When you lose the connection between the two sides during trauma, you suddenly have no ability to discern between true threats and false alarms. The two sides can’t explain things to each other.
Then there’s the amygdala. It’s a little almond-shaped piece of your brain that alerts you to danger, whether you’re awake or asleep. It holds feelings, emotions, and especially fears without any ability to reason. The amygdala becomes enlarged after a trauma, overreacting to any perceived danger and even normal life events.
The frontal cortex can’t operate well after trauma either, leaving you unable to analyze and do your typical left-brain functions. Your memory is fuzzy, and you can’t find the words to express things.
I cannot tell you how happy I was to learn these things when I was experiencing symptoms of PTSD a couple years ago. For a year-and-a-half I thought I was going crazy. Not “I’m going crazy” as in a simple little phrase for someone to laugh at: I thought was going to literally lose my mental and emotional capacity to function normally.
Just to give you a glimpse into what I was like…
Physically, was I capable of driving? Yes. I tried it a few times, but I thought I would die. It felt like death to try. My heart pounded, my eyes blurred, the sound of my blood rushing through my veins filled my ears… I was convinced I was passing out, or having a heart attack, or just dying of fear. Even thinking about driving — sometimes even sitting in the front passenger seat brought on the symptoms.
2) Being in a public place sent me into panic mode.
I hated shopping. I dreaded restaurants. My heart raced in church. Maybe it was some degree of claustrophobia. Everywhere I went, I kept my eye on the nearest exit or window. I felt closed in. I had non-stop panic attacks. Naturally, I wanted to avoid these places as much as possible.
3) I KNEW something (else) horrible was going to happen.
Back in Haiti, our home had been broken into, Jarod had been shot at in our yard, I’d lived in an environment of intense spiritual warfare for eight years. We’d just experienced an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and I’d had to bring our five children to the U.S. on my own in the aftermath under suspenseful, stressful conditions, to say the least. Jarod stayed behind to continue relief efforts. The kids and I were safe in the U.S., but I could not feel safe. I just KNEW Jarod was going to die, or that I had cancer, or that some random criminal would attack us as we slept in rural Kansas. It was just a matter of time before the other shoe dropped.
4) Everything felt surreal to me.
I was experiencing “derealization.” I went through the motions of normal life — I heard myself talk, I saw myself moving around, but the feeling of detachment from myself was so disturbing that it threw me into even deeper panic.
So there’s a tiny glimpse of what trauma can do. Trauma is not just something imagined. It’s more than a person “overreacting” or “being dramatic.”
Something to remember, of course, is that everyone responds differently to different traumatic events. What may traumatize you might not have much of an effect at all on me and vice versa. “But for all of us there comes a point at which our defenses are overrun” (206).
So how can we help when we see someone else going through this?
1) Understand the stages and react appropriately. (p. 229-230)
A) The Cognitive Stage. The traumatized person has to gain a clear understanding of what happened. They need to discuss/write about/remember the events and get to where they can see it objectively instead of emotionally. In this stage they will be able to reduce guilt and understand that things were truly out of their control.
- We should encourage our traumatized friend/relative to process everything instead of telling them to “stop re-hashing everything,” “get over it,” or “you don’t need to keep putting yourself through this.” Remember this is part of the healing process.
B) The Emotional Stage. Even though they are able to see things more objectively now than before, the traumatized person has a myriad of emotions to feel and process at the gut level.
- We need to remember that even though quite a bit of time may have passed since the trauma, our friend/relative is going to have to release these emotions. Allow them to cry it all out, express (in a safe way) their anger, grief, anxiety, etc. We shouldn’t act shocked that they haven’t gained control of their emotions yet, even though the rest of us were able to “move on” long ago. They won’t be in this stage forever and they need it to push through to healing.
C) The Mastery Stage. The traumatized person becomes a survivor, allowing their experience to shape their perspective on life for the better. They have found the meaning and purpose that God intended them to find.
- Remember that it can take a very long time to get here (like the friend that fell off the ladder). Once they are here, affirm them and rejoice with them. They will be greatly encouraged when you share what you’ve seen God doing in and through them.
2) Empathize instead of fixing.
How I LOVED good listeners as I healed from trauma – people who validated what I was feeling.
How I HATED the cheerful pat answers that I already knew – “Well, just remember, God’s in control.”
How I LOVED God’s Word and people who shared beautiful verses out of love and empathy.
How I HATED when verses were given to me for the purpose of fixing my annoying problems.
3) Don’t avoid the traumatized person.
You probably feel very awkward around this person, because you have no clue what to say, and you are afraid you’ll say the wrong thing. But really, the worst thing to do is nothing.
– Give your friend a hug.
– Tell them that you are praying for them.
– Tell them that if they’d ever like to talk with you, you’re there for them.
– Tell them that you’re so sorry for what they’re going through.
– Tell them you’re really glad to see them.
– Don’t be afraid of awkward silences or tears. Your presence through both is appreciated.
4) Forgive your friend/relative for not being normal right now. Be patient. Serve them.
If you are really close to the traumatized person, you’re going to become very frustrated. This person who used to be there for you is going to let you down right now. They won’t be cheerful, they won’t return your smiles, they might not even answer your questions. They may not thank you for all the nice things you’re doing for them. They’re going to seem rude. Just remember, they feel like they are in another world. You might be completely surreal to them. They can’t remember if they told you thank you or not. They probably can’t remember their own phone number sometimes. As you serve them, and they don’t respond to you, remember that we don’t serve for the praise of man — we serve Christ himself.
5) Help them seek professional help from a Christian counselor. And a doctor.
There are going to be unexplainable, “unsolvable” issues. Like my driving phobia. There is no logical explanation for why I didn’t want to drive, and no logical explanation for why I wouldn’t drive. I just could not. No amount of reasoning with me, reading Scripture to me, preaching at me, or bribing me could change that. I (and those around me) needed professional help to understand this and work through it. God brought healing over the course of months and years, through counseling and through the diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. Once enough healing had taken place, I was able to do the work to press through my panic. No, it didn’t magically disappear, but I was healthy enough on all levels to be able to work through it. (That took a lot of patience on the part of those around me.)
6) Understand “compassion fatigue.”
Know that following a crisis or trauma, we all have a tendency to grow weary of the burden. When we’re not the one directly impacted, we are ready to get on with life. That’s normal. God did not create us to dwell in a perpetual stage of sorrow. Just be aware that your traumatized friend is also fatigued of his/her own issues. You may want to write their name on your calendar every week or every month to remind you to check in on them. Your emotions and thoughts are moving on to other things, but you can still let them know they are not forgotten.
7) Pray for them.
Jesus knows, far better than I, any counselor, or you, what the traumatized person needs. He brings healing. Pray fervently for your friend. Christ is the True Physician, The Holy Spirit is our Comforter. Pray His blessing on their lives.