Understanding and Supporting Survivors of Trauma

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What is trauma and how can the church better serve those suffering from it? At the recent “Loving Your Neighbor” conference at Calvin Seminary, Dr. Danjuma Gibson, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care, offered helpful guidelines both for understanding the nature of trauma and responding compassionately as a church. Since many—but not all—abuse survivors will have symptoms unique to trauma survivors, Dr. Gibson's guidelines are incredibly important to keep in mind when interacting with abuse survivors.

Trauma defined generally is an event so destructive it overwhelms a person's belief in their ability to survive. Prof Gibson's current working definition of trauma is "actual or perceived encounter with a material or existential threat of self annihilation.” Trauma can result from first-hand experience of actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence, or from repeated exposure to these dangers. This definition matters because it's important for people to understand the symptoms unique to such life-shattering events are not comparable to the kind of ordinary difficulties we often casually refer to as “traumatic.” Trauma symptoms are the unique responses to situations that completely shatter a person's capacity for meaning. These are events no person can be prepared for, what Prof. Gibson describes as “emotional, physical, and spiritual violence that God did not create us for”—meaning that traumatic events are ones that would not happen in an unfallen world and are things we were not created to be able to endure or “handle well.” As events that overwhelm the body’s survival capacities, they challenge any theological attempts to understand them at an existential level; no matter how strong a Christian someone is, emotionally and existentially they will not be able to “fit” what happened to them or a loved one into any coherent framework of God's sovereignty.

Symptoms of trauma include a sense of powerlessness and disconnect from the present. Someone who has endured trauma may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder in which the trauma survivor shifts into a new baseline of “hyperarousal,” or permanent alertness to perceived potential threats at a far higher level than the average person. Similarly, persons with PTSD have symptoms of “intrusion,” where the traumatic event keeps replaying in their minds, like a tape on repeat.

When we say not all abuse survivors have symptoms related to trauma, this does not minimize the serious effects of any form of abuse; rather, it is an attempt to emphasize the symptoms distinctive to events that include the “threat of self annihilation.” Some events will cause severe trauma for nearly anyone, while other events may cause trauma symptoms for only some people.

How can the church love those who suffer from trauma? Understanding trauma is a vital first step, one that may prevent some of the most severe harm the church often does to trauma survivors—when it guilts them by urging them to “move on,” to not “be a victim.” Remember that trauma by definition is something beyond a person’s natural capacity to heal from. Trauma so overwhelms a person's body that they are “stuck”—like when a computer freezes because it is taking in more than it can handle. It is therefore incredibly insulting to someone suffering from trauma to urge them to “move on,” to not “live in the past,” or to “trust God more.” All of these platitudes ignore the nature of trauma and what it does to a person—it is not something that a person can heal from by sheer willpower or desire for healing.

Similarly, the church can help by not becoming an additional perpetrator of trauma. Entire systems such as church institutions or communities can be complicit in causing additional trauma to victims. “Systems,” whether Christian or secular, do not like disorder and “negativity,” both of which are the natural expressions of trauma. Because of this they will often retaliate towards the threat a victim challenges to the order and compliance of their system by trying to silence the survivor’s story and experience—particularly if a survivor is accusing someone trusted and loved in the community of inflicting abuse.

Finally, the church can support survivors of trauma by journeying with them in their pain in all its chaos and brokenness, not rushing in with a narcissistic desire to “fix” their pain, which will only cause more damage. We must remember that someone else’s suffering, as Dr. Gibson puts it, “is not about us.” It will be important for survivors to tell their story, “over and over again until they get it right.” It is vital to allow chaos – any time someone who has not endured trauma tries to manage the chaos and shut down a survivor’s hyper-arousal they feel to the survivor like a perpetrator—an incredibly damaging experience for someone who has mustered the courage to tell their story.

Finally, it’s important to understand that no single person can adequately support someone in his or her struggle to survive after a trauma. Survivors will need a wide range of support, a “continuum of care.” For survivors to feel truly supported, the church will need to become a system that is more “comfortable” with pain and chaos, and willing to enter into that experience along with survivors of trauma. Toward that goal, the Scriptural tradition of the Psalms is an invaluable resource forward for survivors to hear the words of someone who understands their pain. The Psalms also contain a rich lament tradition, which needs to become a regular part of the worship experience, a way to “weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

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Thanks for this excellent article Monica, and also for the wise words from Dr. Gibson! May we, as the church, heed these words as we increasingly learn to walk alongside those who have experienced trauma. 

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