There are times in life when words fail us. This can be especially true for people who have experienced some type of traumatic event. The loss of a loved one, an unexpected accident, a devastating diagnosis or inflicted harm can render even the most resilient person speechless, panicked, and emotionally overwhelmed. And because humans tend to be empathetic beings, observed trauma can quickly become the internalized trauma of those who watch, read, or are otherwise exposed to the originating traumatic event.
While none of us can predict whether or not we will experience a traumatic event, the probability of being either personally impacted or vicariously exposed to the trauma of another person, is fairly high. After all, when you stop to think about it, we are all a bit like water balloons living in a world full of sharps. Lest we forget, this is not God’s perfect world. This is the fallen version and sometimes this less than perfect world with its less than perfect people facilitate painful human events and trauma.
So… if you intend to live in an imperfect world, you will probably have to deal with some form of trauma, either in your own life or in the life of someone around you. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there are a number of ways you can reduce the impact of trauma on your own life and come alongside and facilitate healing in those who have been exposed to traumatic events.
It might be helpful to remember that even though we collectively tend to use the word trauma to describe an event that happens to us or someone else…
Trauma is actually a reaction… based on a belief.
For example, different people can and do react to similar experiences in markedly different ways. What would be extremely traumatic to one person, might be considered mildly distressing to another.
Perception plays a huge role in whether or not an experience is considered traumatic.
This is why we can’t make determinations about whether or not an event or experience is “traumatic” for another person. Such determinations can only be made based on that person’s perception. Likewise, your own perceptions and beliefs determine whether or not you experience life events as traumatic or not.
“Unbearability” The cognitive core of trauma
A traumatic response occurs when a person perceives an experience as unbearable. In other words, the person believes that the event, experience, situation, or circumstance exceeds their relational, emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual resources or capabilities. If a determination is made that the situation is unbearable, that belief or perception becomes the fuel upon which trauma feeds.
Trauma is often categorized as either acute or chronic. An acute traumatic reaction (sometimes referred to as a big T trauma) is generally triggered by a real-time, in the moment event. For example, the event took place on a particular date, at a specific time, and at a precise location. A chronic traumatic reaction (sometimes referred to as a small t trauma) stems from an ongoing event that took place over a longer period of time and could have occurred in varying locations, times and circumstances. Both acute and chronic experiences can result in debilitating traumatic responses.
Once the unbearability threshold has been met, the person’s thoughts, emotions, and actions quickly align with the belief, which can result in a number of internal and external manifestations. Thus, emotional deregulation and decomposition are actually the results of an internal, systemic failure, or overload. The demand becomes greater than the supply resulting in a breakdown of functionality. The ability to speak may break down and emotions may feel overwhelming as fear, panic, and intrusive thoughts cloud that mind and trigger the body’s defensive survival mechanisms. Over time, these reactions can become deeply embedded patterns that influence every aspect of a person’s life.
The path to healing begins with helping the traumatized person develop or experience a safe, supportive and compassionate environment. The process is a balance of helping address the immediate need for physical safety, security, and connection while simultaneously providing a new healing narrative that challenges the embedded, destructive beliefs and perceptions. Acceptance, validation, patience, compassion, truth and time are all necessary components that facilitate healing and promote health.
Healing begins as an internal work that flows outward to others.
The most salient aspect of healing traumatic woundedness, however, is the development of resiliency and deconstruction of the unbearable mindset. It is a both/and process of clearing out or pruning out negative, destructive beliefs and replacing them with positive, life-affirming perceptions and belief systems. It is an inside out process that begins as an internal reconfiguring that then manifests in external expression. (Think biblical mind renewal process)
Christ demonstrated the powerful principle of right thinking at the last supper, just before he submitted himself to the trauma of the cross. Christ’s steadfast belief in the Father and the plan, allowed him to transform the unbearability of the coming trauma into a confident assurance. His actions changed the unbearability of trauma into a catalyst for redemption and new life. In short, he provided a template for taking those things that the enemy meant for harm and transforming them into the very experiences that allow us to compassionately come alongside others as they seek newness of life. As the second letter of Corinthians tells us, God comforts us in our times of trauma and distress so that we can come alongside others with that same kind of comfort when they are in distress and in need of encouragement (I Corinthians 1:3-4).
Traumatized individuals require assurances of safety, comfort, compassion, community, validation, love, patience, time, truth and covenant relationship with God and others. They need strong, resilient shoulders upon which to lean and compassionate hearts that can bear their lament. They need to experience the steadfast commitment of covenant communities that never give up and will fight their inner demons as if they were their own.
Turning the tide of trauma is not an easy task. It requires major shifts in one’s perceptions and beliefs and the resolution of the unbearable mindset.
Impossible you say? Never…
“for we have the mind of Christ and do hold the thoughts, feelings, and purposes of His heart”
(I Corinthians 2:16).
If we live in this Truth, trauma incrementally loses its power, emotional distress resolve, and the unbearable becomes nothing more than a distant memory of something that happened a long, long time ago.
Grace and peace,
Chrysalis Connections, LLC
Teresa M. Walters, MA, LMFT, LAC
204 Hobbs Street
Plainfield, IN 46168