Coping with Trauma
Trauma. Anyone who has lived any amount of time has had it. It is part of Life. Those bursts of danger that stretch us to the limit….the car accident, the moment a spouse walked out, the season when a parent walked through the horrors of drug-addiction with a child, getting caught in the midst of a gun battle, hearing the thief enter the house in the dead of night, the rape, identity fraud, discovering a spouse is caught in pornography, getting a cancer diagnosis.
In my own life, there is scarcely a trip to Ethiopia that doesn’t have its moments of extreme stress. In the Nov-Dec ’08 trip, it was landing at RDU airport in a severe thunderstorm; I thought the plane was breaking apart with the wind gusts; an aborted landing (they call it “touch and go”) confirmed my suspicions about the seriousness of the situation. Now every time I board a plane, I “re-live” that stress.
In the June 07 trip, it was coming down the Burji mountain, on muddy roads, after 15 hours of constant rain, with steep inclines and sharp turns, sheer precipices on either side, no guard rails (of course!). In the May 09 trip, we had a similar situation, but far less dangerous.
In the past 2 years especially, we have had times of extreme danger that has left the soul seared with pain and stress, forever stamped with the event.
Walking through this cancer situation in a public way, we are getting testimonies of other journeys. The testimonies speak of the trauma inflicted by the journey, so I thought this would be a good time to put in writing how the Lord has impressed me in the past months regarding dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am not writing as a “professional” psychologist. I am writing as a simple person who lives with both feet on the ground and who firmly believes that the Lord Jesus is DIRECTLY connected to all that enters our lives.
Simply put, there are 3 “hooks” on which to hang these traumatic times.
The first hook is this: remember ALL of reality.
The tendency is to remember only the danger, the horror, the shock. Our minds are so seared with the pain that we cannot look beyond that to see the other aspects of reality in the situation. Specifically, we fail to see the ACTIVE presence of the Lord Jesus.
Let me say that again….we fail to see the ACTIVE presence of the Lord Jesus in the dangerous situation. It is as if the pain short-circuits our perception of anything except the danger. Fear blots out all other realities. We cannot talk about anything except the horror of the situation.
But we must sit ourselves down and purposefully, methodically, systematically look for the actions of the Lord Jesus on our behalf. We must name His arrangement of the timing of events, His strength and mental clarity in our actions, His protection from further harm. We must look for His gifts of aid through other people and His supernatural intervention in the chain of events.
Trauma leaves us feeling very vulnerable. Our underbelly is exposed. Our physical/emotional/spiritual viability is in question. We are about to come apart completely.
And it happens often in a split second, or perhaps a few minutes. The body’s adrenaline rises to meet the challenge briefly…and then we collapse in a heap of fear. Each of us has our own points of vulnerability, depending upon our personalities and our past history.
The danger is real. The risks are genuine. The situation cannot be escaped. This is no game.
But the danger, the risks, the vulnerability is only part of the reality.
The Lord Jesus and His faithfulness is the other part of the reality!
It is by the power of the Lord Jesus that we His children are kept in tact. It is His strong arm that blocks the danger from utterly destroying us. It is His knowledge, His “intelligence service” that intercepts wickedness that would overwhelm us completely. It is His covering of our minds that protects us mentally, keeping us from losing our sanity.
In my own life, I have to purposefully vocalize His active presence in these dangerous situations. It is easy to focus on the danger of the situation; it is not so easy to focus on the protection of the Lord Jesus. Writing a list of His actions helps. Telling the story only from the view of His actions is good. Perhaps writing a song (or poem) of praise works for you….it worked for the Israelites after the trauma of fleeing Pharaoh through the Red Sea and it worked for King David in his many traumatic situations.
The point of this “hook” is…..remember ALL of reality….His active presence as well as the danger.
The second hook is this: get back to normal activities.
The tendency is to put Life on hold while we process the trauma and re-coop some sense of normalcy. But we need to return to the normal activities of eating, cooking, shopping, traveling, working. Yes, we will be in a daze; it will feel surreal. The activities are done with numbed mind and body.
But there is something about the actions of normal life that help us to reconnect with Life, so that we are not “stuck” in the trauma. There is a soothing reminder in the activities that Life is still in tact; Life is stronger than this episode of extreme danger. Life goes on, and we will go on.
Sometimes I think about the Apostle Paul in this regard. How many, many traumas he suffered…ship wreck, beatings, stoning, imprisonments, betrayals, cold/hunger/poverty. After an episode of trauma, what did he do? Did he sit out the ministry? Did he go to a seaside resort to pamper himself as he processed the trauma?
Not that I can see in the Scriptures. The story of Paul’s life is largely written by a medical doctor, and if Paul dealt with his traumas in such a way, I would think that Dr. Luke would have recorded it.
No, Paul got up, brushed himself off, praised God for His active presence, and then went to the next town for continued ministry! He carried on with Life.
So, as we cope with a child’s drug addiction, or the horrors of a traffic accident, or the trauma of a rape…..it is important that we embrace the activities of normal life. Life does not consist wholly of the traumatic episode; it is much bigger than this incident of danger. We must continue in school, show up for work, care for the children. We must discipline our minds to focus on the work at hand. We must busy our hands and mind with the needs of the day. We must be active about Life.
For myself, I have found that if I ignore Hook #1, I have great difficulty in doing Hook #2. Somehow in the exercise of remembering ALL of reality, I am strengthened to continue on with Life.
Hook #3 is this: take care of yourself.
This is simple logistics. It is the “balancer” of Hook #2. As human beings, we are limited. We have limited emotional, spiritual, physical capabilities. The expenditure of those limited resources ebbs and flows with the variations of Life.
And when we pass through a time of great expenditure, we must adjust so that we can “compensate” and “renovate” our resources.
This is perfectly exemplified in my body right now. Major surgery is a great depleter of human resources. At every level there is strain. Common sense will recognize this depletion and adjust to compensate for the depletion. So everyone’s word to me in these days is: rest!
So even as I resume normal Life activities, I am “kind” to my body through good nutrition, listening to messages of fatigue, watching body mechanics for lifting, etc.
The same principle is true in re-cooperating from trauma. We must continue with normal Life activities, but simultaneously, we must pay attention to our depleted resources, and seek to rebuild them. This means more time with the Lord and His Word for spiritual replenishment. More time with godly, mature brothers and sisters (who will help us to remember all of reality) for emotional replenishment. (Beware of those who only want us to relive/vocalize the danger component of our trauma!) More rest and good nutrition and walks in nature for physical replenishment.
Life is full of trauma. It is the Lord Himself who keeps us from being destroyed by the trauma. The beginning of healing is to purposefully, consciously, methodically remember His active presence in the midst of the trauma. From this exercise will come the calm and peace that always flows from Him; His healing oil runs over the wound. The pain does not leave, but now it is mingled with calm as we see His strong arm acting on our behalf.
And from that calm, we have the ability to take up the normal activities of Life again, while simultaneously working to replenish our human resources of emotional, spiritual and physical strength.
And in the end, we are enabled to see Him in His glory, in His utter faithfulness, in His constant love, and in His absolute sufficiency. He is the One who sustains, who protects, who loves in the midst of trauma.
And so, our Trauma opens the door to Praise….joyful song to the Lord Jesus, our Guardian and Protector!
August 29, 2009