The statistics of people who have experienced trauma at some point in their life are monumental. One in four women has been sexually abused, one in five individuals (male and female) has been sexually molested, one of three couples engages in physical violence, and one in four children are beaten to the point of having marks on their bodies.
What these numbers miss are the stories behind the suffering. I am speaking to those who have been in the moments, hours, and years that these statistics represent. The amount of pain and suffering that we as humans encounter in this broken world has deep and lasting impacts.
How do we face the pain that we have directly experienced and the weight of knowing that trauma is happening all around us?
Where is God in the midst of trauma?
These questions can feel overwhelming at times, I know, and often go unanswered. How does this suffering fit in the world of counseling — and more specifically, Christian counseling?
Our brains have the beautiful and terrifying ability to “rewire” based on our experiences and intentions. Our brains are our strongest ally and greatest deceiver, allowing us the grace to rebuild and playing the role that we need to continue surviving in the face of unbearable situations, what I will henceforth call trauma.
Our brains consist of a network of cells that communicate through synapses. When we do just about anything repeatedly, it creates a synaptic response system in the brain, which creates a synaptic link in your brain, and the more you use the same synaptic link, the easier it becomes for your brain to follow that same pattern. You may hear this concept in the context of learning a foreign language: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Think of that same principle in reverse: “You use it, you keep it.”
These patterns can be in the form of actions, thoughts, and sensations. For example, when you see candy, you may immediately reach for it and eat it. Your brain is conditioned or “wired” to want to eat candy because your past experiences have taught your brain that candy = good.
Now, you can rewire that if you feel the need to lose some weight, but that will take effort because your brain has already developed the pattern that candy = good.
In this same way, trauma can train your brain. A traumatic experience may not even need to be repeated to train your brain to respond in a certain way because of its traumatic nature; it can create deep and lasting effects after one experience.
Ways the Body Responds to Trauma
Often times, when an individual faces a traumatic experience, the brain responds in relatively predictable ways. I will explain a few ways the body reacts to trauma below, but if at any point reading this you begin to identify with these reactions, I encourage you to continue reading to treatment options and decide if talking with someone about trauma based therapy might be a next step for you.
At times, what is happening to or around someone in a traumatic situation is too much for the brain process. In situations like these, the brain dissociates. It removes consciousness from what is occurring around it in order to protect you from the unbearable nature of the circumstances.
This can be a beautiful and protective coping mechanism to get you through an experience. What can become concerning is when you are no longer in the traumatic situation and your brain is still trying to protect itself and dissociate from what is happening around you.
You may find yourself “zoning out” or unable to remember parts of your day or parts of your past. Sometimes you begin to notice this years after you experienced trauma. Sometimes it only comes up when you are attempting to engage in a new kind of relationship that requires a level of intimacy you’re not used to, or you encounter someone or something that triggers a trauma response.
At times you may notice the symptoms before your brain has revealed to you what the initial trauma even was. Finding yourself unable to engage in life in the way you want is scary and confusing to say the least, but also a completely normal trauma response. And the good news is: There is hope.
Let’s look at one example: being a child in a home where there is physical violence, done by and to anyone in the home, creates elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels being released in the body. Even when not in the home, the child will continue to have elevated stress hormones being released.
This can have many adverse effects, one of which is hypervigilance. This might look like sitting in class and hearing a door bang shut and the child jumping out of their seat or cowering from the door, while a child with “normal” stress hormone levels might take that in stride as part of the classroom experience.
This can become an issue when the levels of stress hormones begin to interfere with daily living. For example, someone who has experienced trauma may begin to notice they are jumpy or it takes a self pep talk to walk to their car at dusk. They may struggle to be in crowded rooms, suspicious of those around them, or have difficulty meeting new people for fear that others are not safe to be around.
Often this looks like becoming easily overwhelmed by seemingly simple tasks or everyday environments because your stress hormone levels may be trained to a traumatic situation where constant vigilance saved you from harm, a useful coping mechanism with difficult, lasting effects. There is hope for working through this response.
I hold the belief that well-being must take into account our bodies as a whole, mind, body, and spirit. Trauma interrupts this connection. Somatic symptoms of trauma often look like unexplained physical pains. This may be a headache, stomach ache, or difficulties with sleep.
It is completely normal to experience these symptoms as a trauma response, but often completely confounding as well. Why do I have a stomach ache everyday at 2pm? Why does the thought of going to school make my head hurt?
While not every physical ailment is associated with trauma, it is common that some are. This is something to pay attention to, especially in children who may not have the words or developmental capacity to process trauma in any other way, so their body speaks for them. There is hope for identifying the cause of somatic symptoms and treating the root of the issue rather than the symptom itself.
While it is hard to control every thought that pops into your head, some thoughts are more than you can handle at a given time. A common trauma reaction is to have “flashbacks” about what happened to you in the past that dramatically interrupt your day. This looks different for everyone and can sometimes be induced by or associated with somatic responses.
It might be a specific smell that immediately takes you back to where you were when the trauma occurred and you may begin to re-experience or re-play the trauma in your mind without the ability to stop.
For many people, this leads to embarrassing and awkward encounters with those who are around you when this happens or re-occurring pain when your brain replays the trauma over and over. There is hope for stopping this cycle.
The list goes on, but for the sake of time, I will simply list a few other trauma responses. These responses often leave an individual with some combination of symptoms, from unexplained intense emotional reactions, explosive behavior, debilitating fear, difficulty making decisions, depression, anxiety, substance use, risky behavior, as well as guilt and shame for the consequences of these responses. That is not a complete list and each and every individual experiences and processes differently.
It can be difficult to know what to do with your own trauma response and equally as difficult to know what to do with a loved ones’ trauma response. The good news is that there are multiple forms of treatment for trauma with highly successful results.
Treatment Options for Trauma Recovery
Before beginning, it is valuable to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops adverse responses. Resilience is a subject of much study in the mental health world and sometimes people recover on their own.
Also, it is absolutely not a sign of weakness to need support around trauma. Pain and suffering is not what we were created for and it is normal to be affected by trauma. If at any point after a traumatic experience you begin to experience symptoms, I encourage you to seek healing.
Trauma Based Therapy: Treatment Options
Healing may look different for each individual, and is not limited to this list:
The first step is to be kind to yourself and understand that reacting to trauma is normal. If you begin to notice patterns in your brain that were not there before and that interfere with your life, understand that this is normal and does not have to be permanent.
This is a fancy word for talk therapy. It means going to a therapist and talking, and often times getting to a point where you can talk through the traumatic experience.
Depending on the therapist and your personal experience, there are a number of therapeutic interventions that have been proven to be effective. Trauma Focused CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is one that I have seen work for many of my clients. Narrative Therapy is another approach within talk therapy, which I sometimes use with clients.
To start talk therapy, it is important to look for a therapist that you feel a connection with before beginning trauma focused talk therapy. The most important first step is finding a therapist who has worked with individuals on trauma-related concerns in the past, and learn from them what the best treatment option might be for you.
I use this term loosely and in reference to any therapy that focuses on the body’s physical response. This may be yoga and breathing exercises or physical movements all the way to massage therapy. I personally try to incorporate breathing exercises and paying attention to where in the body you feel effects of trauma during talk therapy.
The final and often times most important aspect of working through trauma is faith. How can a good God who loves you allow you to suffer like you have? Let’s talk about it.
I invite you to contact me or another professional in our online counselor directory to schedule your initial risk-free appointment.
Van der Kolk, B., & Pratt, S. (2015). The body keeps the score. [United States]: IDreamBooks Inc.
“Fog,” courtesy of Etienne Desclides, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forest,” courtesy of Norbert Toth, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Disappear,” courtesy of Simon Matzinger, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunlight,” courtesy of Ricardo Gomez Angel, unsplash.com, CC0 License