Trauma, by its broadest definition, is everywhere. In various segments on the nightly news, in one Bible story after another, and the lives of our closest friends and family – stories of trauma abound. I would argue that every person will experience trauma, to some extent, in their lifetime, and many experience layers of it. Trauma is inevitable, and the effects of trauma can be both numerous and powerful.
Healing from trauma is never a simple task, and yet, when we take the steps to become more aware of how we have been impacted by our own experiences of trauma, it is then that we can begin to loosen the grip that those effects have on us. Though it may seem like a daunting, undesirable task, tending to our experiences of trauma allows for a restored sense of wholeness, relational well-being, and freedom and purpose that God intends for every one of us.
What is trauma
Before diving into the wide spectrum of effects of trauma, I’d like to first offer a general definition and description of what constitutes trauma. Simply stated, trauma can be defined as an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by the individual as a physical and/or emotional threat, requiring them to move into survival mode – either physically or emotionally.
This survival mode is commonly understood as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, and in the face of trauma, it usually occurs involuntarily, without thought. Other primary components of trauma include a sense of helplessness and lack of control over the situation, and the shutting down of parts of oneself in order to cope.
Given this definition, we can imagine many situations that might be experienced as “traumatic.” Some of them are one-time occurrences, such as in the case of being involved in a car accident, witnessing violence, physical or sexual assault, or the sudden loss of a loved one.
Others are chronic – that is, the trauma is repeated or prolonged, such as with ongoing bullying, childhood abuse or neglect, or domestic violence. Finally, complex trauma occurs when the victim has been exposed to multiple traumas, often beginning with adversity during childhood.
Common effects of trauma
It is important to note that the effects of trauma vary widely, depending on many factors, including but not limited to:
- The type of trauma that occurred
- The individual’s attachment tendencies (those with secure attachment tendencies typically have greater natural resilience to new trauma)
- The presence of other mental health conditions
- Exposure to previous trauma
This means that it is completely normal for two people to respond to the same event in completely different ways or levels of intensity (say, for example, with siblings whose parents are divorcing, or two people involved in the same car accident).
The potential effects of trauma might be sorted into the following categories:
Emotional: The individual may have feelings of anger, sadness, fear, helplessness, decreased confidence, and/or anxiety. They may experience panic attacks, flashbacks of the event, hypervigilance, or emotional numbness. Most damaging of all, many people develop feelings of self-blame and shame, with the idea that they should have done something differently to avoid the trauma, or that they should be able to “get over it.”
Mental: These symptoms might include elevated levels of dissociation, decreased ability to concentrate, difficulty making decisions, and memory lapses about the trauma.
Physical: Initially, the individual might experience stomachaches, headaches, increased muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, and/or a change in appetite. In the long term, trauma that is left untended can lead to many chronic health problems.
Relational: Trauma may lead to a tendency to withdraw or self-isolate, a decreased ability to trust, decreased interest in sexual or emotional intimacy, and an overall decreased ability to maintain healthy relationships.
Spiritual: Trauma can have a significant impact on our image of who God is, and on how God views us. Trauma may bring about the belief – or at least the fear – that God is distant or even non-existent. It may lead to a deep, felt conviction that we are better off depending on ourselves, or that we don’t matter all that much to God.
Again, everyone experiences trauma uniquely. Some will notice just a few of the above symptoms, and some will experience several. Some symptoms are external and obvious to others, while some are internalized and hidden, but every bit as powerful. The symptoms you notice soon after the trauma may be completely different from the ones you experience many years later.
Regardless, I want to emphasize that it is normal to experience uncomfortable or painful symptoms and emotions in response to trauma of any degree. These painful events and circumstances are the opposite of what God originally intended for our world and for each of us, and so it is natural that our bodies and our brains would respond with protest.
Can’t I just leave the past in the past?
So far, I’ve painted a bleak picture. Trauma is painful to experience and painful to talk about. For this reason, among others, trauma often tends to go unaddressed. Some people minimize or dismiss the harm they’ve experienced, avoiding honest acknowledgment of their pain, telling themselves “It wasn’t that bad” or “Others have experienced worse.”
Others feel deep shame stemming from their trauma narrative, which causes them to hide rather than expose themselves and risk vulnerability. Some may have received harmful (and inaccurate) ideas from faith communities, or from Scripture taken out of context, which encourages their shame and hiding. And many simply don’t recognize how their stories are continuing to play out and therefore seeing no need to revisit them.
Why healing from the effects of trauma is worth the effort
The reality, however, is that when trauma is left untended, there are consequences. Author Brene Brown said it well: “When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” Yes, trauma will always leave a mark, but it does not have to maintain power and control over your life. It takes great courage to begin to address your trauma, but here are a few hope-filled, life-giving reasons why the demanding work of healing from trauma will be worth the effort it takes.
First, tending to your trauma can bring a greater sense of wholeness and peace to your life, strengthening your sense of who you are, apart from your trauma. Through this process, symptoms can decrease, or even be eliminated. For the symptoms that remain, you can learn to cope in healthier ways – ways that honor both yourself and those with whom you interact.
When I work with clients who have suffered trauma, I seek to nurture a posture of self-compassion, kindness toward self, and curiosity rather than judgment toward one’s own story. In doing so, clients are better able to grow in self-awareness of how their current issues or tendencies might be trauma responses and can then begin to move in a new direction.
Secondly, and also important, is that tending to trauma promotes growth and healing in our relationships with others. Trauma causes us to defend, detach, and lose trust in both others and ourselves. Human beings are inherently relational beings, built for deep connection with one another, but trauma disrupts that connection, teaching the body and mind that connection is unsafe, or unreliable. This disconnection then further compounds the pain and struggle.
You may have heard the phrase, “Hurt people hurt people.” When we have unresolved trauma and pain in our lives, we often then use others (usually without even realizing it!) to somehow soothe or resolve that pain – whether it be with strangers, friends, our spouse, even our children. One of the most loving acts we can do for others is to seek healing from our painful past.
Finally, healing from the effects of trauma can bring with it a renewed understanding of who God is (and is not), and the depth of His care and love for you. It encourages you to approach God with honesty and lament and helps uncover ways in which trauma has affected your relationship with God.
When the lies that trauma creates are recognized for what they are, it becomes easier to see and live as who God created you to be, bringing a newfound sense of purpose, hope, and freedom.
Trauma comes in many forms, and it impacts us all in some way. The effects of your own painful stories may be obvious to you or to others in your life, or you may simply be starting to notice and wonder how your past trauma is showing up in your present circumstances.
Either way, I believe that healing from trauma can only take place within the context of a safe, trusting relationship. If you sense the need to address your trauma, I encourage you to reach out for help. The goal of the treatment of trauma is not to help you “get over it,” but rather, to integrate those scars and losses into a new way of living, and I would be honored to join you in that process.
Nadine Burke Harris, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, 2018.
Carrie Clark et al., Treating the Trauma Survivor: An Essential Guide to Trauma-Informed Care, 2015.
Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 2014.
“Trauma”, Courtesy of Susan Wilkinson, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Waves”, Courtesy of John Towner, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Clouds over the sea.”, Courtesy of Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Clouds over the sea.”, Courtesy of alevision.co, Unsplash.com, CC0 License