As a staff, we have discussed the reality that we don’t serve in a vacuum. We are human and the people we serve are human, each carrying hopes, fears and pain. We asked Stacey Blank, licensed EMDR therapist to teach us more about trauma and its effects on us and the people we serve. We gained much from our time with Stacey. Below are some highlights.
Trauma is ‘when what we know and what we feel gets split.’ I love the clarity of that definition.
Classic clinical definition: exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. But now we see that trauma occurs as an exposure to something deeply distressing or disturbing that creates physical or emotional shock
Big T trauma: on this day, this event happened and then an event stays physiologically and emotionally after it is over. PTSD is when the event or experiences stay for a month or longer.
Little t trauma: getting bullied, coming home from school to an empty home and you fear being left alone. smaller, perhaps recurring events, but they add up to create a trauma response in you.
Some trauma is of course caused with malicious intent, but many “little t traumas” are not from malicious intent, but they become trauma because of how the person’s brain processes them.
Trauma causes us to believe lies about self and about God and we live out of those beliefs, out of a felt need to protect ourselves. We create our own ‘self salvation strategies’ depending on self to survive rather than God. We make conscious and unconscious agreements with self about others and these agreements become idols that grip us and leave no room for God. Example: someone who holds fast onto fear as a protection mechanism so he or she decides to be afraid of everything all the time, thus ‘protecting’ themselves against surprise. Trying to ‘out fear the fear’ is a technique of self survival or self salvation.
So many survival techniques actually serve very well when we are children (we don’t have power, we’re trying to navigate an adult world) but they can be strangleholds when we are adults. So repentance then becomes a tool of healing because a person can repent of what they are holding fast to and choose to trust God over trusting self.
Understanding trauma helps us gain a better view of what is going on with people when we perceive an over reaction or confusing response during an interaction. Asking ‘what is getting stuck in the brain? what is getting stuck in the spirit?
Brain’s adaptive information processing (AIP) system: is like a digestive system (take in food, process nutrients, discards the rest.) AIP: takes in an experience, processes it and discards rest. When an unprocessed memory is triggered, we have an emotional disregulation. We over or under react and it is automatic. That is the sign that something in our memory needs to be processed. The way material gets stored in the brain is what keeps our system from not “digesting” in adequate ways. Undigested experiences are due to the meaning we put onto an experience. Meaning is subconscious and we don’t “make meaning” consciously, we operate out of our subconscious meaning making.
“When negative reactions in the present can be tracked to an experience in the past, we know they are unprocessed.”
(note, these questions are in the context of a church staff engaging people in the midst of church ministry environments.)
Q: How does a non credentialed leader help someone when they show up “triggered” without making it worse. i.e., our fear is that moving toward the person, we’re afraid that we will make it worse for them.
A: Understanding what you are really afraid of by approaching the person. “First, check your own pulse.” We all do our own work to become as healthy as we can be. Our own issues and traumas get triggered by interacting with others. Before I understood trauma, I thought I might actually be a crazy person under the surface. My physiological and emotional reactions to relational situations were triggered by trauma. So when you are concerned that you will make someone worse, first “do your own work” – are you afraid because you believe emotionally disregulated people will shatter if you touch them? etc.
Q: What is the point where we refer vs help? where is the line between us and a professional?
A: Trauma certainly must be addressed by a professional but you can still triage. A ‘triggered’ person needs to know they are cared for and listened to. So listening and caring is a fundamental baseline in the midst of ministry deadlines.
Q: What should you never do? And if you then do that, how can you recover it?
A: Prescribing is not helpful. If someone is upset, telling them to not be upset is unhelpful. Invalidating is the worst thing to do, therefore validating is simple and great. Being mindful to the person in front of us can be a simple and profound way to care. (as opposed to being mindful to the task at hand.)