PTSD: How the Church Can and Needs To Respond with Hope and Healing
Many trauma survivors might encounter someone in the church who expects them to just be able to move on from their past. They mistakenly believe that their inability to do so represents a failure to live up to Philippians 3:13-14, which states, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (In context, Paul was talking about righteousness through Christ, not trauma or trials).
Some survivors get chalked up to being spiritually immature, because they do not seem to be apprehending the victorious life Christ died to offer, getting compared to the Israelites who wandered in circles in the desert, many of whom never reached the promised land, because of their unbelief.
Others get told they just need deliverance, because of perceived spiritual oppression, and that by verbally stating they struggle with PTSD they are giving the enemy unnecessary ground; hence, the best place to start is to renounce the diagnosis.
Other accusations may have to do with believing survivors are simply not trusting God toward quicker healing or being ungrateful for what they have today, because it seems like they are always focused on the fear from and devastation of the past. Recently a preacher from the pulpit was heard declaring that if we are able to eat Yoplait yogurt in an air-conditioned room at church, our past could not have been that bad, so get over it.
I wish I was making these scenarios up. They are not being told to bash the church, but to point to the need for further understanding of what PTSD stems from and why it can be such a chronic condition. The truth is, survivors need more understanding and support from the church, not less, so that it can be a catalyst of healing, not further wounding.
A Different Approach
As a licensed Christian counselor, I can attest that the above lines of thinking are insensitive, hurtful, and simply untrue. Though I would not deny the possible spiritual components behind any issue, with trauma, for we are holistic beings, we must start from a different premise—physiology. There is actually a real science behind this condition that makes it different than sheer stubbornness. But first let’s begin with a quick run-down of what PTSD actually is.
Where it All Starts
Trauma can be defined as experiencing an event that is overwhelming and intolerable. Examples include rape, war, violence, natural disasters, witnessing someone else’s murder, or anything that threatens the integrity of one’s life and/or well-being.
While many survivors may be resilient and return to some sort of sense of normalcy, albeit not without the trauma affecting their life narrative, others are not that fortunate. The development of chronic PTSD (symptoms occurring for more than three months after the event) depends on several factors, such as age (younger persons do not have the ability to cope like adults do), magnitude of and proximity to the event (low vs. high level of violence, bystander vs. participant), its source (e.g., storm vs. at the hands of a trusted individual), or chronicity of exposure (i.e., single event vs. multiple).
Regardless of long-term effects, we all tend to have similar physiological reactions to a perceived threat. Information at exposure to the threat is picked up through the five senses and hits the sensory cortex of the brain where basic interpretation of what is going on takes place, which then gets passed onto the amygdala, which is responsible for detecting the possibility of danger. I like to call this center the “fire alarm.” Once the fire alarm goes off, the brain triggers a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, which leads to either fighting off or running from the threat or playing dead. This is determined and executed before the person even has time to carefully analyze the situation and make a conscious decision and is based on the fire alarms deduction of the best possible chance of survival.
From here, the fire alarm dispatches the “fire department,” akin to the release of adrenalin and stress hormones to facilitate speeding up the heart, breathing, blood sugar, and energy levels to enhance chances of survival. Some may have heard stories of enhanced strength and speed, such as someone being able to lift a car up after an accident; this is why. A feedback loop then gets created so that continual assessment of the threat is done and regulation of the dispatching of these “fire fighters” takes place. Once the threat is over, the body usually returns to a state of homeostasis, akin to the fire fighters returning to the station and the fire alarm quieting, creating a state of calm again.
In PTSD, however, this feedback loop never quite shuts off and the brain thinks it is still in a state of emergency. In this case, a person stays in a state of hyperarousal or dissociation (mostly flat and shut down), or oscillates between the two states. This reaction only serves to overwhelm the coping repertoire, which then leads to avoidance of anything that serves as a reminder of the trauma. However, this only serves to reignite symptoms, leading to what I call the jack-in-the-box effect, which is experienced as intrusive and quite scary, leaving the nervous system constantly rattled.
The Reason Behind It
Why would the brain do this? Simply put, God designed the brain to be an anticipatory mechanism. The only way we are able to navigate the present moment is because of our ability to recall the past. This holds true with everything from simple object recognition to relying on past emotionally-charged events with others to help us size up and react to the person we are standing in front of in the here and now.
In other words, none of us are ever really able to live fully in the present. However, for those with PTSD who have to live with a constant feedback loop of perceived threats, all it takes is a shred of similarity between a past and present event for this feedback loop to kick in again and a trauma reaction to ensue, even if it seems out of proportion to what happened. This is called a trauma trigger.
Physiological arousal, such as what was highlighted above, can take place, along with emotional arousal, which tends to be in the form of intense distress, almost to the point where the survivor seems to be reenacting the past.
When I was five years old, I was at a Fourth of July fireworks celebration. When the first crackling of fireworks began, a family member hit the deck as if he was at war again, even though this was an entirely different and much safer event. He was quite upset over being triggered and the rest of the family concerned and confused, which is typical when someone gets triggered.
For trauma survivors, there is no appropriate sense of time or emotional distance, or physiological arousal between the past and the present. This is because a traumatic memory, by very nature being too overwhelming to process, does not get processed as a normal memory and filed away in the hippocampus (memory center), but rather, is stored in fragmented pieces all over the body, as if right under the skin to be easily set off by the next trigger.
For those witnessing reaction upon reaction of trauma survivors, no wonder they seem stuck in the past. For trauma survivors, they feel like they are living in hell with no escape route. In all actuality, their brain is constantly delivering a feedback loop, because that is what helped them survive in the first place, and whenever another perceived threat that may be similar to what happened comes, the brain exhibits the same trauma reaction out of a motive of further survival. It’s as if the brain would say, “Hey, I’m just trying to have your back.” However, this can be a very confusing, frustrating, overwhelming, and shaming experience.
In addition to physical and emotional reactions and a rattled nervous system, trauma survivors’ view of themselves, others, the world, and even God has also been negatively impacted. The truth about traumatic events is that they tend to break all the rules we are so naturally inclined to rely on, such as “Family members should be safe,” “Vacations are times of rest, not disaster,” “I am able to protect myself and my family on a basic level,” or “I have a reasonable amount of control over my life.”
When these “rules” get broken, it becomes frighteningly easy to question the very meaning and point of life, so reckless behavior or a sudden disinterest in engaging in life activities can be common, in addition to social isolation. In fact, new take-aways are common, such as, “The world is a very dangerous place,” “People cannot be trusted,” “There is something wrong with me at a core level,” or “If trauma like this can just randomly happen leaving me to barely escape with my life, I should not expect a future for myself.”
Trauma is not rational, it just is, and is a result of living in a sinful, fallen world. No amount of trying to explain it away or offer trite encouragement tends to help survivors, and certainly no amount of questioning why they can’t just move on helps.
How Can We Respond with Hope and Healing?
- Show an appreciation for their struggle with the constant feedback loops of perceived threats.
- Acknowledge the legitimacy of being forced to wrestle with the sovereignty of God’s hand at play in their traumatic experiences.
- Have compassion for the realness of having difficulty trusting and even connecting with others again.
- Offer understanding for the temptations to engage in reckless behavior and difficulty hoping again for a bright future.
- Acknowledgment that excessive guilt, shame, and worthlessness from feeling so defiled are real and not so easily shaken.
- Affirm the validity of survivors even having a hard time talking about and working through what happened to them due to constantly feeling overwhelmed go a long way in coming alongside survivors in their healing journey.
In fact, trauma survivors’ ability to return to full functionality and a place of thriving is usually a longer and harder road than what most of us would dare venture down, because having the courage to cultivate new, healing experiences by intentionally overriding very loud “fire alarms” trying to convince them that these situations are threatening, and being willing to have all the lessons that helped them survive re-written is not for the faint of heart.
Of course, coming to peace with God and being able to lean on the Christian faith is crucial in this process, because healing is available through the cross and possible to attain. Yet can you now see how different the struggle with PTSD really is from just refusing to move on from the past? Not just as a licensed counselor, but from a trauma survivor herself, I hope this deeper understanding will help cultivate more of a sense of compassion toward others in the church who struggle with it, too.