All posts tagged PTSD

Countering Trauma’s Impact (Part 3 of 3): Constrictive Symptoms

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 7: IDENTIFY GOALS that allow me to combat the impact of my suffering.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

Decreasing constrictive symptoms is primarily about regaining a sense of freedom. Without a sense of freedom, our emotions either inflate (hyper-arousal) or deflate (constriction), and our willingness to trust is understandably undermined. In the early steps of this material, you worked hard to re-establish a sense of safety. Hopefully you have experienced a significant amount of relief from the efforts. In this step, you will be building on that relief to re-establish a freedom of emotion and trust that the pending sense of danger inhibited.

Beginning to Feel Again

What do you do when you turn your television on and it starts way too loud? Chances are you hit mute before you start turning down the volume. This is the equivalent of what happens to emotions after a traumatic experience. Our emotions spike. They’re overwhelming. We mute them to survive. But we’re not sure how to turn them back on once we’ve adjusted the volume.

One of the problems is how much we begin to rely on control after trauma. We try to eliminate, or at least limit, the number of experiences that are not controllable-predictable. Emotions fit in that category. In order to feel again, we would have to surrender control. Our resistance to losing control becomes the lever that restricts our emotions.

The problem with talking about emotions and control is that we put them together and hear, “He’s saying I should be emotionally out of control. No thanks.” That is not what is being said. But you will have to surrender some control in order to experience healthy emotions again. Since we can’t willfully change-choose our emotions, what might this look like?

  • Listen to your favorite song and allow yourself to become unaware of your surroundings as your listen.
  • Say “yes” to the invitation of a trusted friend and engage the activity without trying to predict the outcome.
  • Listen to something you find funny and laugh out loud without concern for who hears you.
  • Share something that is meaningful to you with a trusted friend without worrying whether they agree.
  • Engage a new interest you’ve never tried without being concerned about how well you do.

These actions represent the opposite of the kind of choices we make in order to maintain a sense of control, and, thereby, restrict our emotions. You’ll notice that freedom is about what you’re not focused on rather than what you are. This is because emotional freedom is about giving yourself to a moment more than a technique you can master.

With that in mind, what are the best opportunities you can think of to express emotional freedom?

Your examples will be better than any of the ones listed above. They fit your life better. What is important is that you see that you don’t “do the free expression of emotion,” but you “do the things that are important to you without a preoccupation for how you perform or what people think.” As you do this with greater freedom and ease, emotions happen. Don’t focus on feeling particular emotions. Focus on freeing yourself from the patterns of thought that stifle emotions.

Don’t label emotions as “good” or “bad” but try to gauge how well they fit the situation. Unless we do this, “pleasant” begins to mean “good” and “unpleasant” means “bad.” Mistaking unpleasant for bad is a great way to constrict your emotions. After a trauma you will feel many unpleasant emotions that are situationally-appropriate.

You will also experience many that are historically-valid but not situationally appropriate; that is, they make sense in light of the past, but not the present. These are the emotions you need to cleanse of the destructive suffering story elements (step 4) and grieve the losses associated with them (step 5); which allows you to process these emotions without having to shut down in order to avoid unpleasant emotions.

Read Psalm 77. Notice how the psalmist navigates unpleasant emotions. Instead of being ashamed that “my soul refuses to be comforted” (v. 2), he voices this as a prayer to God. He is even honest to God that, at first, this prayer is ineffective – “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit fails” (v. 3). Not being caught up in what he “should feel” allowed the psalmist to be honest about what he “did feel” which allowed God to begin to restore his affections to health. Trust that God is strong and faithful enough to walk with you through a similar emotional journey.

Refuting Shame

Shame is a word with many definitions. This speaks to how multi-faceted the experience can be. In this section we will define shame as “feeling worthy of rejection because of one’s experience of suffering.” If we were talking about sin, this would be an accurate statement. Sin does merit separation and requires Jesus’ blood to wash away its stain. Shame treats the distress of suffering like the stain of sin and cannot find a remedy.

Nothing about suffering causes God to judge or condemn you. God’s response to your suffering is to offer comfort, not forgiveness. When we place our experience of suffering in the wrong moral category, we try to apply remedies (i.e., asking forgiveness, having more faith, increasing our spiritual disciplines, etc…) which leave us arguing with God (i.e., “How much more do You want from me?”) instead of resting in God’s compassion (i.e., “I am glad You are safe enough for me to hurt with.”).

In his book Mending the Soul, Steven Tracy offers five strategies for overcoming shame (p. 87-91; bold text only). While these strategies are worded to address suffering in the form of abuse, the principles are transferable to other forms of suffering.

  1. Clarify Ownership: There is guilt associated with suffering. You do not own it. You may own some guilt for how you responded. That is very different from owning the guilt for the suffering. Imagine the guilt for your suffering as a pile of dirty-stinky laundry. Whose is it? Refuse to do their laundry. Also, refuse to become bitter; that is another way of losing control. Emotionally set the laundry in the room of the person responsible and entrust what happens to that laundry to be handled between them and God.
  2. Accept the Judge’s Verdict: In the experience of suffering, God declares you innocent. Hear God say both, “Not guilty,” and “Much loved.” His resulting command is not, “Repent and believe,” but “Come near and be comforted.” His call is not “Believe more,” but “Trust.” These are not words too-good-to-be-true. They are not if-only dreams. These are the pronouncements of the sovereign God who has the final say in all matters.Read Hebrews 2:14-18. See the Judge come down from behind the bench. See “a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) who put on flesh – allowing himself to experience pain – so that he could compassionately speak to your suffering as an insider, not merely make judicial pronouncements as a detached bystander. Hear the words of your loving Judge spoken by someone who understands the weight and significance of every syllable. Allow these realities to make his words more believable than your own doubts, fears, and shame.
  3. Prayerfully Hand Shame Back to the Abuser: It is not vindictive to refuse to accept responsibility for pain you did not cause. Apart from owning and repenting of their sin, someone who inflicts suffering on another bears the weight of their sin. Handing shame back to them (refusing to accept the blame and live as if it’s your fault) can be an act of love clarifying their need to repent. Even if the source of your suffering is a non-person, leaving the shame in the hands of Satan – the author of evil in our world – leaves your hands open to receive God’s comfort and mercy.

    “One of the most empowering things an abuse survivor can do is to prayerfully hand shame back to his or her abuser. Theologians rarely discuss this concept, but it’s a frequent biblical theme. Biblical writers often asked God to shame their abusive enemies. Most likely, this meant asking God to do two things: (1) cause the abuser to be overwhelmed with shame for his or her sin so that they would repent, and (2) bring utter destruction on the abuser if he or she didn’t repent (p. 89)… For survivors of abuse, the most damaging definitions of forgiveness are those that conflate forgiveness, trust, and reconciliation and eliminate the possibility of negative consequences for the offender (p. 181-182).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul

  4. Choose to Reject: You cannot stop someone from blame-shifting. Even in cultures where “freedom of speech” is not a guiding principle of government, we cannot control how others interpret events. You can reject their interpretation. Oddly, the best way to do this is not necessarily rejecting them as a person; which usually leads to a verbal altercation. You can simply reject their message. Whether you view them as naïve, misinformed, blinded by sin, or intentionally manipulative, you do not have to counter someone who communicates shame in order to be free from their message. Not believing-embracing a destructive message is a way to disempower it even when you cannot (or is it wise not to try to) dissuade the messenger.
  5. Experience Authentic Community: The more ungodly messages or messengers you have in your life the more godly messages and messengers you need in your life. Make sure this ratio is in your favor. The kind of community you’ve been developing over the course of this study should help. If you still feel imbalanced-to-the-negative talk with the person(s) with whom you’ve been going through this study about how to expand the number of people who know you well enough that they become part of your healthy, authentic community.

    “Dealing with the trauma in the context of a safe connection allows the survivor, often for the first time in her life, to be herself in relationship to another (p. 128).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Read Psalm 31:14-22. If messages of shame are frequent for you, memorize this passage as something you can pray as often as you need. Realize this is a psalm, because God knew we would face the experience of shame frequently in a broken world and he wanted us to have words to bring to him when our experience of shame was thick. Notice how the psalmist goes back and forth between trusting God and refuting the voices of shame. Allow your prayers to follow this pattern so that, in refuting the voices of shame, you do not get locked down in those messages trying to argue with them.

Forgiveness and Trust

When trauma was inflicted by a person forgiveness becomes part of the process of learning to trust again; not necessarily trusting the perpetrator of the trauma, but trusting anyone. This is a delicate subject and one that should not be rushed. Sometimes when this subject is discussed it can begin to feel like God cares more about whether you forgive than that you were hurt. That is not the case. If you are not ready for this material, feel free to wait until its benefits become clear to you.

The subject of forgiveness begs the question of confronting the person who inflicted trauma upon you. When should this done? How should this be done? How do I know if I’m “ready”? In her book Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse Diane Langberg lays our four principles that should govern a confrontation (p. 168-177; bold text only).

1. Every Confrontation Should Be Governed by a Purpose:

Confrontation is not a necessary step for recovery from trauma. Forgiveness does not require a personal interaction. There are two common purposes for a confrontation that are unhealthy. First, some people think confrontation will bring neat closure. If your purpose requires a cooperative response to the confrontation it is likely too idealistic to have a positive outcome. Second, some people think confrontation will be punitive and bring a sense of justice. Even if the other person does “face their sin,” a revenge motif is rarely as satisfying in reality as it is in our imagination. Here are several types of purposes that would be healthy:

  • “I want to regain my voice and I believe having this conversation is an important step in that process.”
  • “I am going to make changes in my life that would only make sense in light of what happened. I don’t want these changes to come across as controlling or weird on my part, so enough of what you did will be disclosed to the relevant people so that these actions make sense. I am not asking permission, but making you aware. I want to make this decision in openness and not secrecy, because I refuse to live with any more forced secrets.”
  • “I want to give you the opportunity to repent as an indication your actions no longer overpower me. In the past, your non-repentance would have been a threat to my emotional well-being. I am stronger now. I want you to know I am entrusting you to God for either forgiveness based on repentance or punishment.”It is important that your goals for the confrontation not be dependent upon a positive response from the person who inflicted the trauma. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up to feel powerless in their presence again, and this can cause a significant setback. Notice how each of the sample purposes above can be accomplished even if the individual is still denying or shifting blame for what they did.

2. Every Confrontation Should Be Done with Care:

Confrontation is better done a month too late than a month too soon. Confrontation should not be done until the progress made in the latter stages of recovery (reconnecting with life and relationships) has had time to solidify. In addition to assessing your personal readiness, attention should be given to whether others who may be affected by the confrontation (i.e., family members, co-workers, etc…) are in a position to respond well. Not accounting for the possibility of isolation based upon the factors can create a likelihood of a negative social response; which is another reason confrontations can become experiences that result in more regress than progress in the recovery process.

3. Every Confrontation Requires Maturity:

Abusive people and abusive contexts are not known for mature responses when their abuse is exposed. The factors that would prevent the confrontation from spiraling into immaturity (i.e., anger, theatrics, self-pity remorse, etc…) will need to be established by you – the one doing the confronting. Consider these guidelines to help you in this process.

    • Script what you want to say; whether you choose to read it or not.
    • Decide in advance what next interactions you are or are not willing to accept.
    • Decide who you want to be present for the confrontation.
    • Have a set response for both a denial and a counter-attack response.
    • Have a set response for the possibility you are frequently interrupted.
    • Decide on a time with a clear end and script your statement to fit the duration of time you are willing to give.
    • Decide on a place with a clear exit. In a context you’re used to feeling powerless, don’t allow yourself to feel trapped.
    • Plan what you intend to do afterwards to process the experience and calm yourself, if needed.

4. Every Confrontation Must Be Governed by Truth:

You are not opening a debate in which “both sides will be heard.” Your primary goal is not even to condemn (i.e., say “What you did was wrong”) but to expose (i.e., “I am no longer willing to live as if this didn’t happen”). Exposing trauma is sufficient to reveal its wrongness. You are offering the other person an opportunity to live in the light of truth and declaring your unwillingness to live in the darkness of lies any longer. If that much is accomplished, then the confrontation will have accomplished what can be reasonably expected from it for you and have the opportunity to be redemptive for the other person.

Whether it is wise or there is the opportunity to confront, forgiveness is an important step in regaining emotional freedom from the experience of trauma. In Mending the Soul, Steven Tracy offers five steps in the wise practice of forgiveness after abuse (p. 190-194; bold text only).

  1. Clarify the Offense and the Resultant Negative Emotions: Forgiveness is an emotionally honest practice. There is no “pretending everything is okay” in forgiveness. The first step in forgiveness is to name the offense immoral (not just a mistake or lapse in judgment) and, thereby, declare that it requires forgiving (not just excusing). It is important that forgiving not become an exercise in silencing your own voice. Put in to words what you are forgiving and the impact it had on you before taking the next step.
  2. Determine Appropriate Boundaries to Check Evil and Stimulate Repentance: Forgiveness is a socially wise practice. Forgiveness after someone has inflicted a trauma upon you does not require giving them a “full security clearance” back to your heart and life. Determine what is wise for the future of the relationship; if a relationship still exists. Willingness to accept these parameters without resistance or self-pity is an indicator whether this individual has changed enough to be considered safe.

    “A second element of boundary setting will in many cases be the first aspect of actual forgiving. Here the boundaries are set not only to protect the victim but also to check the offender’s evil and, in so doing, to stimulate repentance… The erecting boundaries to prevent abuse also serves to thwart, or check, their evil, giving them the ‘gift of defeat’ that can be used by God to stimulate their repentance (p. 192).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul

  3. Deliberately Let Go of the Right to Hurt an Abuser for the Hurt He or She Has Inflicted: Forgiveness is an emotionally liberating experience. This is what you have been wanting, a way to let go of the hurt and anger. In this step you are entrusting this individual to God for justice. Picture yourself handing over the case file to God and saying, “I have tried to prosecute this case. It was eating me alive. I trust you to handle it with a redemptive justice. I am returning jurisdiction for this situation to you.”
  4. Reevaluate the Abuser and Discover His or Her Humanity: Forgiveness is a soberly humanizing experience. Most abusers have been abused or traumatized in some manner. This doesn’t reduce their responsibility for what they did at all. It does mean they’re a more three dimensional person than we tend to see them as through the lens of our pain. We want them to be a monster, so we do not have to share humanity with them. We want them to be completely “other.” You do not have to experience sympathy, but forgiveness (with time) should allow you to begin to view this individual with a history that shaped them in ways that made it more understandable why they traumatized another.
  5. Extend Appropriate Grace: Forgiveness is a personally costly experience. You are giving up something. It would be nice if all forgiveness cost us was our bitterness. This grace should not take you outside the parameters you set in step two in this process of forgiveness. With time, it should mean that you would want for this person to be made whole by God’s grace; that they would no longer embrace the lies of Satan that made their actions seem plausible to them. You don’t need to think this often, only as often as they come to mind, so that the memory of them loses the “stickiness of bitterness.”

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

Countering Trauma’s Impact (Part 2 of 3): Intrusive Symptoms

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 7: IDENTIFY GOALS that allow me to combat the impact of my suffering.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

An important part of “reclaiming” your own mind is enhancing your ability to offset the intrusive symptoms of trauma. We want to get to the place where we can pick up and put down our thoughts at our own volition. We want our relationship to be like one we might share with a pesky house cat (written by a “dog person”); the cat may jump in our lap throughout the day, but if it is a time that we do not wish to entertain the cat, we want to be able to put it down and continue our day.

Decreasing the Power of Triggers

The big idea of countering intrusive symptoms is the ability to accurately gauge and respond to a troubling event. Intrusive symptoms gain their force by exaggerating (trigger events and panic attacks) or falsely generating (flash backs) the degree of threat in an unpleasant circumstance. In this section, we will look at preventing the “amping up” of intrusive symptoms. In the next section, we will consider how to “amp down” intrusive symptoms once they have surged.

“Not all danger is overwhelming; not all fear is terror (p. 199).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

Initial measures on decreasing the influence of triggers require placing intentional thought between the disturbance and our reaction. Admittedly, this is easier said than done, but it is both possible and worth the effort.

The first two major elements you should have already established in the earlier parts of this study: (1) establishing a sense of safety so that the triggering event is not magnified by a pervasive sense of danger, and (2) disempower the memory of the trauma through stripping of its false messages and grieving losses related to it so that each triggering event does not feel like the crescendo of a fatalistic story.

These areas of growth should greatly help you put intentional thought between the disturbance and your reaction. Now we want to add a four step process you can use when you encounter a triggering event. There is no magic in the steps; they are much more fire drill than incantation. They give you steps to follow towards safety when fear might seem paralyzing.

1. Stop

Stopping is different from “freezing.” Stopping is a choice to make life slow down when it wants to move fast. Stopping is an act of defiance against the effects of trauma. Stopping is the equivalent of stomping your foot, looking trauma in the eye, and saying, “Not this time. I’m in charge now and you don’t get to call the shots.”

On a side note, personifying your post-traumatic experience can be a way to make the experience seem less ghostly. If this type of imagery is helpful for you, be sure you’re the adult in the imagined dialogue; you are the one with the “final say” about how things will proceed.

2. Breathe

In this case breathing is more than a relaxation exercise; it is an indication of safety and peace. There is time to breathe. You are refusing to react on trauma’s false-rushed time table. But don’t let this defiance feed a reaction in anger. Anger is too closely associated with feeling threatened.

Imagine your trauma like an impatient child demanding to go to the park, “Right NOW!” What is the best response? Calmness. Anger gives the impression something is going to happen immediately; it is an indication the child is gaining control. Calmness says you are in control.

Taking the child tantrum imagery further, you can understand why the child wants to go to the park so badly and this gives compassion towards their immature demands. Similarly, you can understand why a trigger event wants a “code red response” and this allows you to be compassionate without acquiescing to your natural response.

This final point is more important than many people realize. If you are harsh with yourself for being stirred by triggering events, this will impede your efforts. You will feel condemned by your own conscience even when you respond wisely to triggers. Being patient with yourself is part of maintaining a sense of safety during and after the effects of a triggering event.

3. Think

The newly established pace of response should give you an asset you’ve not had to battle a triggering event: time to think. Your goal with this time is to assess how big of a gap exists between your real and perceived threat. Use these questions to help you make this assessment. 

  • How many options do I have in responding to this situation?
  • Is my fear or anger rooted more in this moment or its similarity to my past trauma?
  • What will my life look like in an hour if I respond well to this moment?

Our natural reaction during a traumatic trigger is to assume, “I have no options. This moment is as threatening as it feels. My foreseeable future is ruined.” When we respond based on these assumptions we compound the traumatic moment with foolish choices and the consequences seem to confirm what our initial fear foretold. It is by stopping to think and assess a situation that we can prove our fears to be the false prophets they are. The more times we can pair wise choices with triggering events the less believable our fears will become. Our trauma-hyped fears become like the bad friend who we learn not to trust because they break their promises and following their counsel gets us in trouble.

4. Choose

Choice is how you express power and voice. Whether or not your choice is “the best choice,” let it be your choice and not one forced upon you by fear. Don’t hold yourself to a standard of perfection in these choices; that would be unrealistic even if you weren’t battling the effects of a trigger event.

Your standard should simply be: did I make a choice that I deemed to be wise and reasonable based on the information that was available to me in that moment? If the answer is yes, then you’re making progress. With time, once you are consistently making choices in pursuit of wisdom rather than in reaction to fear, the quality of your decision making will improve. But regaining your sense of autonomy and voice to choose is the first step.

Read II Corinthians 10:3-6. What we have discussed above is an exercise in “taking every thought captive” (v. 5), which does not just apply to theological arguments or moral dilemmas. Verse 3 describes our human tendency to react as if immaterial threats were physical threats. Satan loves to use hypothetical or traumatically-inflated threats to disrupt our lives. This is one of our enemy’s strategies for establishing a stronghold in our life. This does not mean that a trigger response is wrong. Remember, Satan would as gladly use suffering to disrupt our lives as sin, but God gives us the strength to take every thought captive both when the temptation is not to sin but also when Satan would use suffering as his means to disorder our lives.

Responding to a Flashback or Panic Attack

Flashbacks and panic attacks are more than sticky memories that are unsettling and hard to put down. They are experiences where the memory or fears associated with the memory of our trauma become more real to us than our actual surroundings. Instead of our present reality being in our cognitive-emotional foreground and the memory-emotions being in the background, this relationship is reversed.

The goal in battling a flash back or panic attack is to have our actual surroundings return to the foreground of our experience of life. Instead of being swept away in memory or emotions to such an extent that our present situation becomes inconsequential, we want to keep our roots in the here-and-now enough to withstand the memory or emotion.

Hopefully, this seems more doable than merely thinking you have to “stop the flash back or panic attack.” A strategy that only tells you what not to do is useless. One of the most effective ways to ground yourself in the here-and-now is through your five senses. Below we will talk about how to use each sense to return your present reality to the foreground of your experience when you are facing a flashback or panic attack. These strategies can also be effective if you feel yourself beginning to dissociate.

  • Sight – Go to a mirror and make eye contact with yourself. Allowing your eyes to dart around the room seeking a threat loosens your visual anchor to the present. “Own” what you do with your eyes. As you look at yourself, see a competent adult; this is particularly helpful for those who experienced trauma as a child and return to feeling child-like during their experience of a flashback or panic attack.Keep your eyes open. The darkness of having your eyes closed creates a blank canvass upon which your imagination can depict your memories or fears. Keeping your eyes open is a choice you can make that is a sign of courage and autonomy. It represents a new attitude which recognizes you are larger than your memories.
  • Smell – Keep your favorite scent handy; a potpourri sack or scented candy in your pocket. Pull it out when you feel a flashback or panic attack beginning. The deep breath you take activates both the calming influence of a pleasant smell and the calming effects of cooling the nasal cavity.Memory is more closely associated with the olfactory sense than any of the other five senses because the olfactory sense registers in the brain’s limbic system where emotion is also housed. Enhance the impact of your calming smell by having it present during activities you enjoy (i.e., favorite hobby, a warm bath, listening to calming music).
  • Touch – What are your favorite sensations? Smooth velvet. A leathery baseball. A cool ice pack. A warm cup of coffee (probably decaf at a time like this). Keep these things readily available. But as you access them, don’t view them as an escape valve. That only exacerbates the sense of danger. Choose them as an exercise of your will about what you will give your attention to.Another means of using touch is soothing self-touches. What do you do with your hands when you’re stressed? Wrench your neck. Ruffle-pull your hair. Scratch your skin. What if you chose soothing touches instead? Massaging your temples. Relaxing your hands and shoulders. These are ways to communicate to yourself that you are safe and are made more effective if you repeat the gospel themes from chapter six to yourself as you do them.Pets also make for excellent soothing touch encounters. If you’re at home when you begin to experience a flashback or panic attack and have a pet, call them to you. Stroke their fur. Pay attention to how they lean into your hand or the affirming purr they give. Allow this to help keep “your safe here-and-now” in the forefront of your experience.
  • Sound – Calming music, nature sounds, or even a white noise machine can help anchor you in your present surroundings. If you are sound sensitive, be aware of when you place yourself in high stimulation or high volume environments. These can increase your baseline stress levels without you being aware of it and leave you more susceptible to a post-traumatic reaction.Calling a friend is an excellent use of sound as a calming mechanism. Whether you choose to talk about the pending sense of a panic attack or flashback or not, the interactive quality of a conversation is an excellent means of grounding yourself in the present. If you are willing to talk about the experience, this can be a good way to counter its messages of doom; rarely does any fear seem as great or close once we speak it out loud with a trusted friend.
  • Taste – Whether it’s a soothing piece of sweet candy or a shockingly sour candy, you can always have a taste anchor in your pocket and there is no social awkwardness about accessing it. Panic attacks and flashbacks are foul experiences; having something pleasant tasting in your mouth can help counter the experience.There is also something casual about having a snack. While this is not directly linked to the sense of taste, it can be part of the experience of eating which is calming. The experience of fear is also physically draining, and the boost of energy from a healthy snack helps counter this.

What do you do with these? Don’t expect to sensory bomb your next post-traumatic experience into oblivion. Recognizing these are tools and how to best use them will take some time. Be versatile in your options. Think through the various setting in which you’ve experienced panic attacks or flashbacks and select counter-triggers that fit well in each setting.

Also, become aware of the early experiences that are indicative of a pending flashback or panic attack. These anchors are most effective if you begin to use them before the intrusive symptoms have their full momentum.

Don’t expect yourself to interrupt every panic attack or flashback. If you do, then you will feel like you’ve failed when you have one of these intense experiences. A sense of failure makes us prone to give up and stop battling. Use these approaches with the mentality of war; you don’t have to win every battle to be victorious in the war. Make sure you do not surrender the momentum of the larger journey just because a single encounter with trauma went poorly.

Read passages referencing the five senses. Use an on-line Bible concordance to find passages that reference “look,” “taste,” “hear,” “feel,” “aroma,” and other sensory-related words. Sometimes we reduce the experience of our faith to a purely cognitive exercise, as if God were a set of beliefs. As you review these passages, you won’t “taste and smell God,” but you can gain an appreciation for how God intends for us to use all five senses in our knowledge and enjoyment of him. After all, it was God who chose the number of our senses and he delights when we use them to experience more of the life he intended for us.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

Countering Trauma’s Impact (Part 1 of 3): Hyper-Arousal Symptoms

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 7: IDENTIFY GOALS that allow me to combat the impact of my suffering.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

An important part of solidifying a sense of safety from which to engage life is countering the mindset and habits that were generated by hyper-arousal symptoms. Being perpetually “on guard” does not allow us to feel safe (emotional response) even when we’ve convinced ourselves there is no reasonable, imminent threat (cognitive assessment).

The primary objective in countering hyper-arousal symptoms is staying grounded in the present so that you can focus on those things to which you want to give your attention. This may sound simple, but it is not easy. Take encouragement from the fact that your objective is not complex without beating yourself up when it is difficult.

Lessening the Habits of Hypervigilance

Post-traumatic symptoms create a “way of life” designed (often without intentionality) to keep you safe. Therefore, as you change this way of life, it may create a sense of being in danger. This would only be true if your hyper vigilant response was still warranted and was providing more relief than burden. If this were the case, you would not have persisted to this point in the study.

As you think about how a past traumatic event can create a lifestyle consider the following points from Steve Viars’ book (p. 131) in Putting Your Past in Its Place.

  • Today’s reactions become tomorrow’s habits.
  • Today’s choices become tomorrow’s influences.
  • Today’s anger becomes tomorrow’s bitterness.
  • Today’s thoughts become tomorrow’s beliefs.
  • Today’s desires become tomorrow’s idols.

The approach we will take to countering this dynamic will be twofold: (1) become aware of the moments when you are responding out of hyper-arousal habit, so that (2) you can relax in those moments and change your relationships to these responses. This is different from merely trying to “stop being anxious.” The goal is to relate to the anxiety differently. In effect, you will be thanking your anxiety for the way it kept you safe in the past but letting it know that its services will no longer be needed. You will only actually be free from anxiety if you have a calm-controlled “break up” with the emotion.

Begin by continuing to become more aware of when your response has more to do with your past experience of trauma than your present experience of threat. When these moments come, have a dialogue with yourself that might sound like this:

“I am anxious. Something about this moment reminds me of the past, or I am not yet fully comfortable being relaxed. That is okay. God is patient with me as I grow in this area, so I should be patient with myself. The important thing to do now is to stop fighting my anxiety (which only makes it worse) and remind myself that may be anxiety is no longer necessary. Once I have done that I can use relaxation techniques to counter the physiological impact of anxiety and to help my body return to a sense of calm.”

After having this kind of conversation with yourself you can use one of these relaxation techniques to counter the adrenaline surge that a hyper-arousal response will have created.

1. Breathe: This technique may sound odd. But deep breathing can have a significant impact upon the experience of anxiety. One area that the body monitors to determine its sense of safety is the temperature of the nasal cavity. When the nasal cavity is hot, it triggers the stress response. When it cools, the body turns off the stress response.

Think of the athlete who begins to breathe through his mouth as he runs. This causes his nasal cavity to heat up and triggers the adrenal system; part of the flight-fight stress response. Adrenaline provides an energy boost and intensifies his emotional state (hence the reactivity at many sporting events).

This is one reason many people feel relaxed when they smoke cigarettes even though nicotine is a stimulant. The calming power of the breathing required to rhythmically inhale a cigarette is more powerful than the medical agent in cigarettes are energizing. Awkwardly, this means many smokers are as addicted to breathing as they are nicotine; especially if their primary appeal to smoking is relaxation.

When you feel anxiety mounting, it is recommend that you take a few deep breaths in through your nose (drawing in cool air) and out through your mouth (exhaling the warmer air away from your nose). This will cool the nasal cavity. It does not extract adrenaline already released, but prevents the release of additional adrenaline. In this sense, it is the emotional equivalent of taking your foot off the gas pedal of your car more than stepping on the brakes.

2. Pace of Thought Reduction: Your emotional physiology systems respond, in part, to the pace of your thoughts. Recall the last time you had a conversation with a “fast talker.” You likely walked away from that conversation tense. This is because your mind had to keep up with their pace of speech, and it triggered a mild stress response.

Consider a child who thinks there is a monster in their closet. How are they talking when they tell their parents? Very fast. What is the instinctual response of a caring parent? To help the child tell their story more slowly. This is not just an attempt to understand what is being said, but part of the calming process.

There is something both calming and empowering when you feel the freedom to slow your thoughts. Changing the pace of your thoughts is a great way to remind yourself that you can make choices that matter – not just that change your circumstances, but also that significantly impact your emotions. Here are several practical suggestions.

  • Talk to yourself (as in the example above) instead of listening to yourself.
  • Read a passage of Scripture about God’s care to get your thoughts back in rhythm and remind yourself of pertinent truths.
  • Listen or sing along with a song that has a slow melody and encouraging lyrics.
  • Take deep breaths and focus on the sound of your breathing and the sensation of the cool air coming into your body.

3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Consider this exercise as you do it, then we’ll explain it. Flex the muscles in your hands making a fist as you slowly count to ten (also impacts pace of thinking). Feel the slight burning sensation as lactic acid builds in your muscles. Release the grip. Now do the same with your forearms; then biceps then shoulders.

As you do this, you are focusing your attention away from your hyper-arousal habits and countering the effects of stress in your body. The buildup of lactic acid in your muscles absorbs the free radicals that stress creates and causes us to feel tight after a time of prolonged stress.

As you do this with each muscle group from your hands to your feet, you are reclaiming your body from the effects of anxiety while willfully focusing your attention on what you choose. The physical exercise itself is actually much less impactful than the emotional impact it can have.

At this point it would be easy to just “run away” from the experience of anxiety; grateful to have escaped its grips. But this would leave us with a powerless-fearful disposition towards the experience of hyper-arousal. Consider the following alternative – have another conversation with your emotions (personifying is a way to make emotions more tangible and less ghostly).

To Anxiety: “Thank again how you have served me and are available to protect me still when a situation warrants. But you are being over-protective; like a big brother who won’t allow his younger sibling to grow up. I am stronger now. This doesn’t mean I’ll never need you. There will be situations when your presence is needed. But I will be calling on you less and less now. This is a good thing for me. Thank you, again, for how you’ve tried to protect me in hard times, but I look forward to seeing less of you (smiling with sincere appreciation and strength).”

Will this dialogue change everything? No. Can it help you not vilify the experience of anxiety? Yes. Can it help you change your relationship with an over-active emotion? Yes.

Read Psalm 42 and 43. Both of these psalms contain the kind of awkward internal dialogue that has been discussed above. In each, the psalmist is “taking his soul to task.” Notice it is not a self-scathing psalm. The psalmist is confused by his emotions, but is free to be confused about them in God’s presence and he searches for hope and relief. You might consider writing your own version of Psalm 42 and 43 to capture your experience as part of what you use to slow the pace of your thinking and combat the habits of hyper vigilance.

Responding Better to Post-Traumatic Agitation

Having your flight-fight response perpetually “on” makes it much easier to be agitated by relatively small life disruptions. Having experienced something traumatic can make it difficult to be compassionate to the relatively smaller things about which people around you are likely to complain. These factors combine to make anger, or it’s more passive counterpart of cynicism, a common post-traumatic struggle.

Responding proportionally to these agitants is an important part of reclaiming your emotional world. Often fear and numbness get more attention when it comes to emotional disruption that occurs after a traumatic experience. But controlling the altered experience of agitation is also an important part of re-engaging life and relationships in a healthy way.

It is important to view this part of the struggle as being liberated. Countering fear and numbness feels “more free” but countering agitation often feels “less free” or condemned. Curtailing our agitation will involve saying less or saying things less passionately than feels natural. It can feel less authentic; like you are losing your voice again. But this is not the case.

Think of it this way: countering post-traumatic agitation is what allows you to express uncertainty as uncertainty instead of uncertainty as anger. Anger is usually a secondary emotion when it is the result of a post-traumatic response.

  • A primary emotion is how we feel about a particular situation.
  • A secondary emotion is how we feel about how we feel about a particular situation.

Consider a classic example. A parent sees their child running towards the street. Their primary emotion is fear; they are concerned for their child’s safety. Their secondary emotion is anger; they are upset their child’s safety is in danger. The volume of their voice and sharpness of their voice makes it most natural for their child to interpret their response as anger. The follow up conversation is inevitably about trying to explain why the parent was scared instead of angry and why the child should show more caution.

After a trauma, uncertainty is a threatening experience that is hard to gauge because not knowing what to do was very dangerous during the trauma. Our response to feeling uncertain is self-protective. The result can be a tone of anger which provides a surge of strength and defiance that would give us the best opportunity to extinguish the uncertainty.

But do you notice how central allowing this post-traumatic agitation to remain makes your traumatic experience to your day-to-day life? This is what makes growing in self-control an effort towards freedom for you and not just an effort at “being nicer” for everyone else.

The approach to this struggle can be very similar to your approach to hyper-vigilance symptoms. Consider these steps:

  • First, you seek to be aware of this response as it is happening.
  • Second, based on your new understanding of the experience, you resist a sense of shame that would cause you to respond out of a negative motivation.
  • Third, you take steps to calm your physical reaction to agitation.
  • Fourth, you change your relationship to the anger; expressing gratitude for when it has served you well, but excusing it from being your emotion of choice in this moment.

Read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Okay, you may only skim over these books or reflect on the life of Jesus for this devotion. But one of the reasons we marvel at Jesus was his emotional control. One way to articulate what Jesus was doing is that he never allowed secondary emotions (his response to being in a difficult situation) overtake his primary emotions (his primary agenda or goal for influence in those difficult situations). Identify several events in Jesus’ life that correlate with your struggle with post-traumatic agitation. Place yourself in Jesus’ sandals. Allow yourself to get “rialed up” as you read. Read the passage again and use the steps above to lessen the post-traumatic agitation as you visualize yourself responding as Jesus did.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

After Trauma: Where Am I? – 3 Realities

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 6: LEARN MY GOSPEL STORY by which God gives meaning to my experience.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

Confidence in your ability to accurately interpret your surroundings is important. After trauma it can begin to feel like your assessment of your setting is either over optimistic or pessimistic; either you’re trying to convince yourself everything is fine or looking for the pending source of danger. The result is either fluctuating sense of mistrust or blind-trust that makes rest seem very difficult.

In a Dangerous World

Trauma does not make our world more dangerous than it was before; it opens our eyes to dangers of which we were blissfully ignorant. The beauty of ignorance is that it allows us not to ask certain vexing questions. The question now becomes, how do we not see what we know is possible?

We don’t “unsee” it through willful denial. Willful denial is a means of silencing your own voice. We know when we’ve just taken the batteries out of our emotional smoke detectors, and silence no longer brings peace. Instead, acknowledge and gauge the danger that is around you. After a trauma the presence of any danger or uncertainty registers as “code red.”

Part of the journey to peace of mind after trauma is re-establishing more degrees on your emotional safety thermometer. This can be done by asking yourself two questions, “What is the actual level of concern my situation warrants? What is an appropriate response to this level of concern?” It may take a while to be satisfied again with situationally-appropriate responses. But learning to accept and respond to day-to-day levels of danger is better than fluctuating between the all-or-nothing responses of denial-and-panic.

Read Matthew 10:16-24. Notice that Jesus goes out of his way not to minimize the dangers his disciples would experience. Reading his descriptions may even be unsettling. In response to these, Jesus calls his disciples to be “wise as serpents” (v. 16). Knowing and assessing the danger, Jesus wanted his disciples to take appropriate pre-cautions. Yet this vigilance, not hypervigilance, should still leave them “innocent as doves” (v. 16). There is an awareness of danger than does not rob us of peace. Likewise, there is a sense of trust that does not make us passive. Whether you feel like you consistently live in that spot now or not, know that God does not expect you to live alternating between bracing and pretending.

Question: What evidences have you seen of your ability to live in the emotional space between bracing and pretending? What relief do you feel knowing God approves of this?

You Are Not Alone

This merits repeating. We can feel alone because (a) we don’t think anyone understands or (b) because we don’t feel like we have anyone to talk to. This study is designed to counter both of those isolating narratives.

Hopefully in this study you have found vocabulary and concepts that make sense of your experience. Whereas, before, you might have felt unable to articulate your challenges and that was part of what made you feel like you were “crazy;” now you can invite someone into your journey. Allowing Christian friends to support you is what it means to experience the Body of Christ.

“The cross doesn’t answer all of our questions about human suffering, but it assures us of God’s compassion for human misery (p. 176)… Those who suffer often feel isolated and disconnected from others. They often feel no one really understands what they are experiencing… The beauty of the cross is that it connects Jesus with our suffering, particularly the suffering produced by abuse (p. 176).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul

Also, this study provides you with a resource you can use to educate those close to you on how to support you. Sometimes we avoid people, not because we think they don’t care, but because we don’t think they will understand. The thought of being the educator about our experience before we can be supported on our journey is exhausting. By merely asking someone to study this material along with you, you can avoid being stuck in this dual role.

Read Romans 12:15 and I Corinthians 12:14-26. God does not call your reliance upon others for support at this time “being a burden;” instead God views it as “being part of his body, the church.” God made us to live in community so that our pain could not exist without affecting others. God did this as a means of protecting his people and ensuring their care in hard times. In our individualistic culture, this can be hard to accept. Some of the narratives we must throw off are not just the personal meanings we’ve placed on our experience, but also the cultural values that are at odds with our recovery and God’s design for how we live.

Question: What are the experiences of being less alone that you’ve already begun to experience? What are the steps you could take to make this theme more dominant in your recovery?

On a Journey

When the scenery is changing it can be hard to get your bearings. As you process your trauma, you are changing in the ways you would have had the trauma not occurred (i.e., normal maturity) and your experience of the trauma is changing (both based upon the journey of recovery in this study and the way you think about the trauma due to new milestones in your life). All of these factors help to make sense of the frequent disorientation you may feel.

Think of the person who was sexually abused as a child. Processing this trauma will change with time; when they hit puberty and begin having sexual desires themselves, when they marry and sex becomes something that is intended as a good experience to express love, and when they have children and now feel the pressure to protect their child in ways they were unprotected. All of these changes represent a journey.

Also consider how the experience of trauma changes with time. Initially, the intrusive, constrictive, and hyper-arousal symptoms feel foreign and strange. Then they become the unwanted new-normal that is perpetually fought against. With healthy interventions they become less prevalent and intense, but still may be intensely triggered by close associations or life markers (see paragraph above). These changes also represent a journey.

Read Psalm 23. Notice that this well-known Psalm depicts a journey of a sheep with the Good Shepherd through perilous times to a place of safety. The sheep, with whom you are invited to identify, travels through barren country where skill is needed to find green pastures and water (v. 1-3) and traverses dangerous places where the terrain is unsafe and a staff is needed to protect against predators (v. 4) before coming to the place God had prepared for them to ultimately dwell (v. 5-6). Imagine the doubt and fears the sheep must have experienced along the way. Realize that the hope of the sheep was not in its surroundings, but in its companion.

Question: How does understanding your experience as a journey help you not feel as lost or dismayed in moments that are disorienting or feel like a regression?

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

After Trauma: Who and Where I God? – 3 Answers

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 6: LEARN MY GOSPEL STORY by which God gives meaning to my experience.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

There are many God-questions that arise during and after the experience of trauma. It is nearly impossible to persistently battle for hope and peace without asking questions directed to or about God. The things discussed below should not be new. They are meant to be crystallizations of what you’ve been learning. Allow these truths about God to become cemented in your story; these truths should increasingly feel like “refuges” as opposed to “wouldn’t it be nice” statements.

“Because Satan seeks to distance us from God by distorting all of his wonderful attributes, it’s essential for abuse survivors to clarify who God really is (p. 172).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul

God is Near to Those Who Are Suffering

There is a danger in reading our Bibles in search for God’s answer to trauma. It begins to make God feel like an absentee father; as if all he offers us is a letter in the mail. A letter would mean both that God cared and that he was far away. This would be both encouraging and disheartening; God’s words would seem sincere but powerless. This is why we must pay careful attention to the thing God most repeats and we most overlook when he speaks about depression-anxiety.

Read I Peter 5:6-9 and Philippians 4:5-9. The most neglected aspect of both of these passages is the nearness of God. We come to these passages seeking God’s “answer” for the thing that causes us to be afraid. As we search for principles and practical steps, we miss that the first and main thing God offers is himself. When we doubt or rush past God’s presence, we begin to expect knowledge to accomplish what only relationship can provide. Yes, God does offer us strategies and truths to combat effects of trauma, but these are not the first and most important things he offers.

Pause and ask yourself, where have you seen evidence of the nearness of God? Don’t short-circuit the question with; “if God were near, then the trauma would not have happened.” This criterion blinds us to all of God’s care. We become like the children who cannot receive any of their parent’s love or care after an event that damaged their trust. The response may be understandable, but it makes the damage of mistrust permanent.

Question: As you reflect on the evidences of God’s nearness, how can you calls these to mind during hard times?

Our Pioneer

People who have experienced trauma want to know that someone has been where they are and come out on the other side. Has anyone known this level of betrayal, pain, and rejection? If so, can I learn from their example? Even better, could I draw from their strength and find a way to be infused with their victory? These kinds of questions are generally met with an awkward smirk that communicates “wouldn’t it be nice.” But the answer to these questions is, “Yes!” The answer to these questions is, “That is what the gospel is all about.”

“[Jesus] is a Man of Sorrows and intimate with grief. He was left alone, regarded with contempt. He is scarred for all eternity. His suffering has left its tracks across his face. His hands and feet carry marks of the violence done to him. He was afflicted, struck, crushed, stripped, and oppressed. Suffering does that, you know; it leaves its mark over those who must endure (p. 31)… Jesus was storming the gates of hell even while he bowed himself to our finitude and brokenness (p. 57).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse

God pioneered the road you are traveling. It was an impossible road before His God-man feet cleared the path you are struggling to walk. By His grace, we have in the gospel both the map and the resources by which to travel it. As you find yourself wanting to give up or wondering if it’s possible, reflect on what it was like to walk this road with no forerunner carrying the weight of the world’s sin. Don’t use that image to discount your struggle, but to grow in appreciation for Jesus’ sacrifice. Your experience should magnify your understanding of what Jesus did. What Jesus did doesn’t minimize what you’re going through.

Read Hebrews 12:1-3. Notice it says to “consider” Christ “so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted (v. 3).” What does it say you should consider in order to gain this encouragement? Part of the reflection is that Jesus walked “despising the shame (v. 2)” of his journey. Jesus really did walk the road you are on. He has carried the weight alone and offers to share your load with you (Mathew 11:28-30). In this way, the summary of how the gospel ministers to sin is the same as the summary of how the gospel ministers to suffering – Jesus in my place.

Question: What encouragement do you take from knowing that Jesus was your victorious pioneer on this difficult road?

Capable of Transforming Suffering

We often think that transformation requires elimination. We want the transformation of our traumatic experience to result in the elimination of symptoms related to our trauma. This is not a bad desire, but it would require removing this experience from our story (the impossibility of rewriting history) rather than redeeming the presence of the trauma within our story.

We think of the elimination model of transformation because it is most common in our experience. We see it when a water droplet is transformed to vapor; the droplet no longer exists. But God’s transformation of suffering is usually much more like the change in our memories of a loved one during grief. These memories transform from experiences of pain to precious treasures (that may still evoke sadness).

The memory of our trauma will never have the sweetness of our memories of a loved one who has passed, but this example does provide of us an example of something painful that has been transformed without being eliminated and helps us remember that the presence of pain does not mean the absence of God’s redemptive work in our suffering.

Read Hebrews 11:13-16. Notice this awkward interlude in the midst of Hebrews 11, a chapter commonly referred to as the “Hall of Faith.” We would say that God worked mightily in the life of each of these individuals. They are the upper echelon heroes of the Bible. But also notice that the cliff notes-highlights we read from their life are not the same as their experience of these events. Their experience of following God by faith is much more similar to your experiencing of trusting God in the midst and aftermath of trauma than you might have thought.

Question: How does the idea of transformation without elimination change your expectations of what it would mean for God to work redemptively in your traumatic experience?

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

After Trauma: Who Am I Now? – 3 Perspectives

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 6: LEARN MY GOSPEL STORY by which God gives meaning to my experience.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

The experience of trauma does not allow us to “move on” with life “as if nothing happened.” At the same time, we do not want to believe that this experience should define us. We have an identity and dreams that transcend this experience, yet they are inevitably shaped by our trauma. How do we make sense of this?

Changed and Unchanged

You are living with a real tension. You are the same person you have always been. But also life is different and so you are different. Both realities have to be reckoned with in order for you to make sense of your experience in a healthy way.

First, you are you and will always and only be you. You are the person living the life and story God has given you to live. The “new you” cannot write a letter to the “old you” (or vice versa) and it be read by two different people. When you think of yourself as “a different person” you give your trauma the same significance as your birth and conversion (new birth). It is important for you to know that there is a “you” that transcends these painful events.

Second, you are less naive than you were. Events and experiences cannot be unlearned. You may begin marking time as “before” or “after” your trauma. This is appropriate for any major life event – graduation, marriage, having children, the loss of a parent, retirement, etc… It’s just that trauma intrudes into our lives without warning. Also, certain actions, words, places, or emotions may not be experienced the same way again. This is the effect of every life experience (we are changing day by day), but traumatic moments create more change that is unwanted in a very short period of time.

Read Galatians 2:20. In this verse we see Paul wrestling with the changed-unchanged dynamic. Paul is changed – “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Paul is unchanged – “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith.” Paul was no less dependent upon God after his conversion than he was before. It was just that after his conversion, Paul realized how dependent upon God he was. Similarly, as you grapple with how you are both changed and unchanged many of the things you “know-know” now here true before you appreciated their full weight. Paul was probably shocked at how cavalierly or unprepared he lived before his conversion. Similarly, you may experience a sense of fear-guilt for how naively you may lived before your trauma. After conversion we see God’s protection over our pre- and post-conversion life. Similarly, you need to begin to see God’s protection over your changed-unchanged life.

Question: How has trying to make sense of life as either-or, changed-or-unchanged, made it harder for you to gain a sense of peace or stability? How does this both-and mindset alleviate those challenges?

Strong Enough to Be Weak

Hopefully one of the primary things you’ve gained from this study is the strength to be weak. Nothing makes us crumble at our core like the perceived need to be stronger than we are. Conversely, nothing maximizes the strength God gives us like the freedom to acknowledge our need for grace, help, and encouragement.

Having the language to describe your experience and the awareness to know that others who experience trauma face similar challenges afterwards should give you the social strength to be weak. Knowing that God understands your experience and is compassionate towards suffering should give you the spiritual strength to be weak. Realizing that “weak” is not a derogatory social class under “the strong” (which is a fictional class of people we think could handle trauma), should remove the shame associated with being weak.

Read Matthew 5:3-6. The beatitudes are the epitome of being “strong enough to be weak.” In each beatitude Jesus describes a state of being that we would find undesirable as “blessed.” Yet, with a little reflection, we realize that it is trying to be what we consider “strong” that exhausts us. When we are willing to be poor in spirit, meek, hungry, and thirsty we find that life is better. We find there is more strength in willful God-dependency than in self-sufficiency.

Question: How have you grown in your willingness to be “strong enough to be weak” during your experience of trauma?

Capable of Influential Choices

Being weak does not mean being voiceless or lacking the will to challenge things that are wrong or undesirable around you. Balancing the emotional freedom of being able to be weak with the volitional freedom of having a voice is one of the great post-traumatic challenges. It is another area where we are prone to think in either-or categories rather than both-and.

Begin by making a list of important choices you are free to make which are unrelated to your trauma. Never allow yourself to view these parts of life as insignificant. If you do, then only those parts of your life where your trauma holds its strongest influence will be deemed significant. That centralizes your trauma in a way that will cause it to always dominate your life story.

  • Examples: matters related to caring for people who are important to you, eating a healthy diet, exercising to care for your body, practicing your faith, etc…

Now make a list of the important choices you can make in response to the effects of trauma in your life. In step seven, we will expand the number of strategies and responses available to you. The longer and more effective this list becomes the less powerless you will feel.

  • Examples: If you struggle to identify choices to place on this list or the next, you will receive examples in step seven.

Finally, make a list of the choices you can make to remove the presence of this type of trauma from your life and the life of others. If your trauma cannot be removed (i.e., the experience of law enforcement officers entering life-threatening situations to save others), then make a list of the redemptive benefits your sacrifice provides.

Read Psalm 127:1-2. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the influence of your choices and begin to think that all the pressure to make the world a safe place again is on you. Psalm 127 speaks to this experience. It does not refute the efforts of house builders and watchmen. Both are good and warranted. But it emphasizes that God makes effective our efforts. Our role is merely faithfulness. As you think about the influence of your choices, remind yourself that it is God who blesses these choices so that he can give you “his beloved sleep” (v. 2).

Question: How have you grown in your ability to see the influence of your choices while resting in God’s utilization them?

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

10 Losses to be Mourned after Trauma

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 5: MOURN the wrongness of what happened and receive God’s comfort.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

Most of the losses that come with trauma are not tangible. Rarely do we have scars or missing limbs that would provide evidence to others of the trauma we faced. It can be argued both ways whether these physical marks would make the experience of trauma easier or harder. Either way, the majority of losses related to trauma do not have indicators which can be seen.

This makes it easier to believe, “I should just get over it. If there’s nothing to show, then there’s nothing to complain about.” If this were true, then you would not have studied this far into the material. Below we will examine ten losses commonly associated with trauma.

Don’t use these items as a check-list, but as a prompt to make vague things clear. You may identify your “top 3 losses” or you may find a way to better articulate your losses which are not precisely captured in the list below. Either way, if you are able to put into words the losses you’ve experienced, then this list will have served you well.

1. Loss of a Sense of Safety:

Trauma makes it harder to trust the world around you. When calm means “the threat is hidden” instead of “all is well,” your relationship with the world around has fundamentally changed. The impact of this loss can be mitigated with time, but for as long as the disposition of feeling unsafe persists; this is a loss to be grieved.

An often overlooked aspect of this loss is its effect on our sense of humor. When the world is not safe, it is “no time for laughter” or laughter becomes a veil behind which we try to hide how uncomfortable we are. Either way, the pure and free ability to laugh and enjoy the ironies of life is, at least temporarily, lost.

2. Loss of a Sense of Competence:

When is my mind going to be high jacked by the past next? What will I be doing, that is important enough to warrant my full attention, but gets lost in a memory or a wave of emotions? Can I trust myself to engage the things that are important to me and those I love while my mind is so easily diverted? Will I ever be able to trust my own mind again?

These questions easily reveal the loss of confidence that can occur with post-traumatic symptoms. The resulting insecurity is an experience to be grieved. Again, focus and confidence can be regained, but for as long as they are absent, mourning is an initial appropriate response.

3. Loss of Trust:

The loss of a sense of safety takes on an interpersonal dynamic when it begins to impact relationships; generalized uncertainty begins to be experienced as mistrust. Your ability to enjoy relationships and others ability to enjoy relationship with you is disrupted when trust is strained without cause… at least without cause that emerged from an offense in that relationship. 

The result is strained or superficial relationships that result in a sense of loneliness. The first step towards resolving this dynamic is grieving. Allowing yourself to admit and feel sad about this loss is the type of vulnerability that will need to be expressed in the relationships you long to have. Grieving is part of healing.

4. Loss of Emotional Regulation:

How important is this event? This is the baseline question of emotional regulation that is impaired by the experience of trauma. Intrusive and constrictive symptoms of post-traumatic stress combine to make it exceedingly difficult to discern how significant a moment is and, thereby, how you should respond to it.

The inability to trust one’s emotions is an experience to be grieved and part of the healing process. Even if you do not know what response a situation warrants, you know what response your confusion warrants – grief. This can serve as a baseline from which to begin establishing greater emotional regulation and inviting people into your journey.

5. Loss of Sense of Proportionality:

Accurate comparison is a life skill that we don’t appreciate until it becomes difficult. As we’ve already mentioned, our sense of humor and conflict resolution skills are strongly rooted in our ability to discern the appropriate size of things: in conflict, “over-reactions” assume proportional reactions and, in humor, dry humor assumes the listener can pick upon the difference between a “normal” response.

Imagine shopping and seeing a sign that says “50% Off” but not finding any original price. This is a depiction of the post-traumatic experience. You know you should feel “less” or “more” at any given moment, but all of the factors above impair your capacity to know what that means. In those moments, your emotional options are anger, fear, passivity, or grief. Grief is the healthiest.

6. Loss of Identity:

Who am I now? Like it or not, trauma usually becomes a before-after moment in our lives. We locate events by identifying whether they happened before or after our experience of trauma. When an event takes on this magnitude, it becomes part of our identity.

This does not mean you are a “new person” but it does mean you’re not “the same person” you were (which is true as a result of dozens of experiences across our life). Because the experience of trauma is so profoundly negative, it is appropriate to mourn these changes in identity, even if God promises to use them redemptively. Often we silence our grief by believing that sorrow over past events dishonors what God has done to provide salvation or promises to do in the future.

7. Loss of Innocence:

It would be nice not to automatically assume the worst. Innocence assumes things will “just get better” or “be okay in the end.” Trauma has a strong tendency to remove this assumption. In some cases, it makes this assumption feel offensive, not just absent.

Innocence is not the same as naivety. Innocence is good. One of the things that will make heaven a place of eternal peace is the restoration of our innocence. Because innocence is good, the loss of innocence should be grieved. Grief is how we rightly celebrate the goodness of something lost until God restores it; partially-progressively here on earth and completely in heaven.

8. Loss of Childhood:

Trauma in childhood robs us of more than innocence, it robs us of the ability to develop physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually with the assumption we will be cared for. Each aspect of our development must reckon with the presence of this trauma and seek to make sense of it.

Grieving is itself a return to childhood. When we grieve we get to be small, distracted, and cared for. It is not the same as getting to live relatively care free from the ages of 3 to 18, but, in the absence of this opportunity, grief is a step towards experiencing something child-like as an adult.

9. Loss of Virginity:

In cases of sexual trauma, this can be one of the most profound sources of shame. It is the nature of sex to create strong emotional bonds, for better or worse, whether sex is chosen or forced. This aspect of sex serves a magnifying role on the effects of trauma involving sex.

It is important to remember virginity can only be given, it cannot be taken. The experience of having sex stolen is not the same as giving yourself to someone in love. God does not judge you for your experience of having sex forced upon you and no future relationship, at least one that is based upon honor, would judge you either.

This lack of judgment, however, does not mean there is no reason to grieve. The association of sex with aggression is an experience to grieve. As we’ve stated several times above, the vulnerability of grieving this experience is a first step towards vulnerability necessary to enjoy sex in marriage as the gift God intended.

10. Loss of a Sense of God’s Presence:

When pain is near, God feels far. When pain is “up in our face,” God often feels “out of sight.” Pain is such an intense, internal experience that the idea of God being with us, near us, or in us no longer matches up with our experience of life.

While this experience is real (it accurately depicts our experience), it is not true (it does not accurately represent reality). The realness of this experience merits grief. God does not require that our responses be theologically accurate in order to receive his compassion. In the next step, we will seek to counter the falseness of this experience. In this step, it is okay to grieve the felt-realness of God being less close than your pain.

Read Matthew 5:4. It is easy to resent mourning. Whatever causes mourning is bad. But God calls the experience of mourning “blessed.” Why? It is the tenderness of grief that prevents our hearts from growing hard in a broken world. This is why mourning may feel risky; it is the first step in being vulnerable again. You can acknowledge the impact of your suffering and be honest about your suffering story without being vulnerable. Mourning requires placing yourself in a position to be comforted by another. This should begin with God. Let the thoughts you have as you go through these materials become conversations with God. Let God’s knowing be prayerful-confiding not divine-ease-dropping. Then your mourning should be expressed with your counselor, mentor, or close circle of friends who are going through this material with you.

“It is only when we have the courage to truly face the hurt, disappointment, and loss created by abuse that we meet God face to face. Ironically, mourning the losses from past abuse allows us to meet God in the present and provides hope for the future (p. 156).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

Trauma: A Story Frozen in Time

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 4: LEARN MY SUFFERING STORY which I use to make sense of my experience.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

To understand how a trauma created a story “frozen in time,” it can be helpful to understand how trauma moves from an experience to a narrative. That journey progresses from (a) facts / experience, to (b) emotions / reactions, and then takes on (c) meaning / significance.

  1. Facts / Experience: This is what you began to sort through in step 2. Every story is filled with facts and events; people who do things, places where things happen, and things that are used for purposes. What happened? Who did it? How long did it take? These basic questions can become confused after a trauma because the experience is so surreal we wonder, “Did it really happen? Can this be true? Is this really possible?”
  2. Emotions / Reactions: This is what you began to identify in step 3. Emotions are part of the experience, but they are more subjective than the facts of the experience itself. While facts and experiences remain the same, emotions and reactions change with time. Perhaps you were terrified at first, angry as reality set in, and now ashamed. The narrative you use to explain the traumatic experience would likely change as these reactions changed.
  3. Meaning / Significance: Now in steps 4-6 you will articulate, grieve, and replace the way you understand your trauma. Who you see as guilty-innocent, active-passive, aware-ignorant, complicit-irrelevant, etc… changes the nature of each character and relationship in your story? What you believe is safe, possible, or warranted now is part of your story. How the experiences impact your future aspirations, how you answer the “why?” question, and how you believe other people should respond now is part of the story.

Whatever we come to believe at the level of meaning-significance becomes the background music of our lives. We perceive each moment or respond to each moment as if it adheres to the tone of this music. It becomes the assumed explanation, tone, or outcome for day-to-day experiences.

“One observer describes the trauma story in its untransformed state as a ‘pre-narrative.’ It does not develop or progress in time, and it does not reveal the storyteller’s feelings or interpretations of events (p. 175).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

“Life goes on, and so does much growth, but the trauma itself and the lessons derived from that trauma are sealed away, unaffected by new experience in information. I often tell survivors that it is as if part of their thinking got frozen in time (p. 133).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope

The result is that we get older and wiser. We gain new experiences, skills, and relationships. But when something resonates with our trauma experience, we have a strong tendency to allow our suffering story, the meaning we placed on our suffering, to explain, define, or consume that present moment. Whether it is as intense as a visual-auditory flashback or as subtle as a misplaced heightened sense of alarm, we revert back to the suffering story as our grand narrative.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

13 Types of Impact Frequently Experienced After a Trauma

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 3: UNDERSTAND the impact of my suffering.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

While there are many similarities in the responses people have to trauma, no two responses are the same. In chapters two and three you are seeking to identify the “finger print” of your traumatic and post-traumatic experience. You should be taking comfort in the fact that you are not alone, while also realizing there are unique challenges in countering your post-traumatic experience. It can be difficult to keep these two realities in balance.

Read Proverbs 14:10 and I Corinthians 10:13. Our experience confirms that both of these passages are true and that the tension between them is real. We experience our sorrows in a way that no one else can fully enter our pain (Proverbs 14:10). Yet the challenges we face out of our experiences have been experienced and overcome by others. As you study additional ways that trauma may have impacted you, hold on to both of these truths. There is uniqueness to your experience that merits a very particular compassion and there have been enough people (including Christ – Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16) to experience what you’re going through for you to have hope.

 1. Flashbacks:

Flashbacks, as the most intense of the intrusive symptoms, can easily make you feel “crazy.” It is as if your sense of time and five senses revolt on your mind. You no longer feel in control of your own life. Understanding how traumatic memories imprint differently from common, narrative memories can help offset this sense of being crazy. One way to contrast this difference is that narrative memories are retrieved as if we were watching old movies of our life, while traumatic memories are retrieved as if we were living the past experience. In narrative memories we watch ourselves from a distance, while in traumatic memories we remember from behind our own eyes. This is a normal (meaning majority experience) for how traumatic experiences imprint differently from casual ones.

“Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative in context; rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images (p. 38).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

 2. Lens of Extremity:

When life has been threatened or, in some other way, all of your adaptive techniques have been proven utterly inadequate, then it becomes much harder to live a “normal day.” Knowledge of the extreme circumstances of life are hard to unlearn or unknow. Usually when trauma hits, it strikes unexpectedly and unannounced into otherwise normal moments. So post-trauma, it can be harder to feel safe in “normal” moments again, because this is just the kind of moment trauma interrupted previously.

“Even after the victim has escaped, it is not possible simply to reconstitute relationships of this sort that existed prior to captivity. For all relationships are now viewed through the lens of extremity… No ordinary relationship offers the same degree of intensity as the pathological bond with the abuser (p. 92).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

3. Loss of Voice:

Abusers threaten harm if you tell anyone. Shame says no one will like you if you tell anyone. Fear says that no one would believe you if you told. Despair says there is nothing anyone could do if you told them. You would rather just live as if the trauma never happened. Habits say if you start talking, then they will no longer be available to help you manage life as well as you are right now. There are so many voices competing to silence your voice and if they win then you are all alone with your pain.

“To fail to speak is awful. To speak is equally awful because the telling makes the story real (p. 34).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope

“To live with chronic abuse is to live in silence, to be shut up. The voice of one so abused has been crushed. The victim is made inarticulate by intense fear… What is the point of speaking when no one will listen? She has shut up by the threat of abandonment, which will surely come if the truth is told. She lives in a world where voices lie, distort, and deceive. She can survive in such a world only if she to learns how to lie, distort, and deceive. So she lies to herself and distorts the truth of her life in order to survive. She deceives herself and others, pretending she is really all right, when, in fact, she is dying inside. As the years go by, her voice is less and less a representation of her real self, until she finally reaches the place where she can no longer even hear herself (p. 77).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse

4. Doublethink:

Trauma happened. Life continued. Your world changed radically. The rest of the world didn’t notice – teachers still gave tests, bosses still assigned projects, children still needed to be fed, laundry still needed to be washed, telemarketers still offered “great deals,” etc… It is easy to live in two conflicting worlds, especially when the trauma you experienced was abuse as a child by an authority figure who should have been trustworthy. Children should be able to trust their parents or teachers. Parents and teachers define what it means to be “good” – they make the rules by which punishments and rewards are earned. If parents and teachers are bad, then the child is all alone in the world – a thought too scary for the child to consider. Yet the child instinctually knows abuse is bad. The result is that the child learns to live with two diametrically opposed thoughts (my parents are bad; my parents are good) somehow “reconciled” in their mind. This is what is called “double think.”

“When it is impossible to avoid the reality of the abuse, the child must construct some system of meaning that justifies it. Inevitably the child concludes that her innate badness is the cause. The child ceases upon this explanation early and clings to it tenaciously, for it enables her to preserve a sense of meaning, hope, and power. If she is bad, that her parents are good. If she is bad, that she can try to be good. If, somehow, she has brought this fate upon herself, then somehow she has the power to change it (p. 103).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

“It is not unkind or ungodly to thoroughly assess the truth about one’s own family. It is necessary for emotional and spiritual health (p. 148).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul

5. Ambivalence:

Weddings are a common place to experience ambivalence – two simultaneous but opposite emotions; it is common to simultaneously feel happy and sad, like laughing and like crying at a wedding. The experience of trauma multiplies the frequency with which we experience ambivalence. Quiet time alone is both desired for its respite and feared for its vulnerability. Meaningful conversation is both desired for its bonding capability and feared for its manipulative potential. Opportunity is both desired for its opportunity to bless and feared for its potential to implode.

“Many survivors have a deep fear of intimacy and commitment while they simultaneously longed for closeness. This ambivalence causes a push-pull effect that vacillates between idealizing and devaluing others (p. 89).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse

6. Stunted Emotional Growth:

This is particularly true for people who experience trauma in childhood, but has implications for those who experience trauma at any age. We emotionally mature as we (a) identify the appropriate emotional response to a situation – type and size, and (b) become more consistent-natural at giving that response in comparable future situations. Trauma disrupts “a” and “b.” What is the appropriate response to trauma? Thinking about comparable future situations creates a fear response that magnifies future experiences in a way that makes our reaction disproportional.

“A funny thing about emotions, though, is that if you deaden yourself to one side, the other goes with it. If you want to feel joy, you will have to deal with grief. If you want to feel love, you will have to face fear. As you begin to feel and struggle with emotions long dead, hold on tightly to the fact that as surely as you pass through the painful ones, so you will eventually come out on the other side (p. 109).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope

7. Shattered Sense of Self:

“Who am I now? How has this experience(s) changed me? I feel like I responded to life one way BT (before trauma) and another way AT (after trauma), but I don’t want this event to play that kind of seismic role in my life… but I also don’t want to downplay its significance… but I also don’t want to make excuses for future behavior. I’m confused and I wish I could think about my trauma and its implications less.” Some version of this inner dialogue is very common for those who have experienced trauma.

8. Reenactments:

What do you do when you’ve lost something? Retrace your steps. What do you do when a situation surprises you? Replay the events looking for what you missed. What makes a situation feel uncomfortable? When it is different from our most common or dominant experience or similar situations. How do we best learn new skills and information? Repetition. All of these dynamics are in play when it comes to the tendency to re-enact (physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, etc…) facets of a traumatic experience.

“There is a driven quality about these reenactments, as if the survivor is attempting repeatedly to find a way to master the unmasterable (p. 66).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse

9. Excessive or Dismissive towards Planning:

Planning can either become savior or unicorn to those who have experienced trauma. Some people respond as if their purpose in life is to account for every variable that could leave them vulnerable again. Their life and the life of those they love are believed (at least emotionally) to depend on their foresight and preparation. Other people take trauma as evidence that life will happen with its full force regardless of what we do. Planning is futile. They know what the word means, but find it practically useless (like the word unicorn). The best approach – because it’s believed to be the only approach – is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in each moment with little thought to each decision’s future implications, because life has proven itself untrustworthy.

10. Deterioration of Problem Solving Skills: The points above should make it clearer how the effects of trauma can deteriorate at one’s problem solving skills. It is hard to emotionally-size experiences, which is necessary to discern how to respond to them. One has a love-hate relationship with trust, which is necessary for healthy relationships. The ability to anticipate a hopeful future is compromised, which is foundational to the hope necessary to carry out the solution to any difficult problem. Bottom line; life is harder and because few people know why (trauma is often kept secret) it feels like no one cares, so why keep trying? There is more hope than this paragraph indicates, but if it captures where you are, then that is where your journey begins – not just with hardship, but also with being understood.

“A great many coping mechanisms are destructive. The cycle is very similar to the abuse cycle. You feel; it hurts; you find some way to disconnect (p. 142).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope

“In the mind of the survivor, even minor slights evoke past experiences of callous neglect, and minor hurts even though past experiences of deliberate cruelty. These distortions are not easily corrected by experience, since the survivor tends to lack the verbal and social skills for resolving conflict. Thus the survivor develops a pattern of intense, unstable relationships, repeatedly and acting traumas of rescue, injustice, and betrayal (p. 111).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

11. Self-Harm: Self-harm rarely makes sense, even to the person who is doing it and finding relief in the pain. There are at least two dynamics that can account for the relief experienced through pain. First, the body responds to significant injury by releasing opiates; natural pain killers and an addictive drug-experience. Second, the experience of pain can trigger a dissociative experience (described in chapter two) which allows the individual to feel like they are getting outside the moment. In the traumatic moment both the release of opiates and dissociation are forms of God’s protection, but when we begin to manipulate these reactions outside times of actual trauma they change from provisions of God’s grace to means of self-destruction.

12. Depression: The influence of post-traumatic symptoms is emotionally exhausting. Questioning everything, struggling to trust anyone, not knowing when an intense emotional trigger may emerge taxes the body and mind. Even when these experiences are understood, they create emotional fatigue. Before they are understood, all of life can begin to feel futile.

“Protracted depression is the most common finding in virtually all clinical studies of chronically traumatized people… The paralysis of initiative of chronic trauma combines with the apathy and helplessness of depression. The disruption in attachment of chronic trauma reinforces the isolation of depression. The debased self-image of chronic trauma fuels the guilty ruminations of depression. And the loss of faith suffered in chronic trauma merges with the hopelessness of depression (p. 94).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

13. Exaggeration of Gender Stereotypes:

Whether it is gender stereotypes or personality traits, trauma shows a tendency to embolden our natural tendencies. It would make sense that when we feel threatened we would rely on our natural strengths more and that our character weaknesses would be exposed as we engage day-to-day struggles with an intensity that assumes our survival was on the line.

“Trauma appears to amplify the common gender stereotypes: men with histories of childhood abuse are more likely to take out their aggressions on others, while women are more likely to be victimized by others or to injure themselves (p. 113).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.

12 Factors that Contribute the Intensity of Trauma’s Impact

This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 3: UNDERSTAND the impact of my suffering.”

To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

There is a danger in discussing the factors that contribute to the influence of a trauma. The danger is that we begin to do emotional math, “If my trauma only had 70% of the factors listed below then that means someone else’s trauma is 30% worse, so I shouldn’t complain.” The fallacy is that “could be worse” does not mean “not that bad.”

Do not use this material to silence yourself. Its purpose is to validate your experience and give you words to talk about why your trauma has impacted you the way that it has.

Another way to say this is, “Suffering is not a competitive sport.” Just because someone else got hit by a truck doesn’t mean your knee surgery hurts any less. God’s compassion is not in limited supply, so we do not have to “make our case” in order to get as much of it as we can. We do not have to “justify our need” in order to be heard.

Read Matthew 7:7-11. In light of the discussion above, ask yourself, “When I pray, am I envisioning a God who is this free with his compassion?” If the answer is “no,” do not feel ashamed. It is common to doubt God after experiencing trauma. God is patient with that response as well. That is why he inspires so many psalms of lament and despair to be included in the Bible. As you consider the factors that influence the impact of trauma, remind yourself after each point (after each sentence, if necessary), God cares and he wants me to bring each of these factors to him (I Peter5:7). God is not annoyed or impatient. God does not expect me to “just get over it.” God is patient like a good father should love his child after a tragedy (v. 11).

1. Intensity of the Trauma You Experienced:

This is the first of three measures of the “size” of the trauma (intensity, duration, and frequency). The three factors constitute the most significant determinants of the trauma’s impact.

“The most powerful determinant of psychological harm is the character of the traumatic event itself. Individual personality characteristics count for little in the face of overwhelming events. There is a simple, direct relationship between the severity of the trauma and its psychological impact, whether that impact is measured in terms of the number of people affected or the intensity and duration of harm (p. 57).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery

Factors related to intensity would include:

  • level of personal pain (physical, mental, or emotional),
  • exposure to violence,
  • reasonable expectation of possible death,
  • coercion towards making a decision that violates your conscience,
  • being coerced to harm someone or something you love,
  • having harm threatened against someone or something you love if you don’t comply to a demand,

As the number or profundity of these factors increase in the trauma you experienced, the greater the intensity your trauma would have.

2. Duration of the Trauma You Experienced:

The longer a trauma lasts, either duration or frequency, the greater impact it will have. As the trauma endures, the experience of that trauma changes from “the exception to an otherwise safe life” to “the normal experience of my life.” The emerging sense of futility makes it easier to stop resisting the trauma. As we see in a later point, the resistance of trauma is a psychological buffer against the impact of that trauma.

3. Frequency of Traumas You’ve Experienced:

As a trauma is repeated, we can easily adopt a sense of failure due to our inability to make it stop. Powerlessness is not only experienced in the moment of trauma, but also in the intervening moments when we reasonably expect the trauma to recur but are unable to prevent it. Later, after the traumas have ceased, it becomes harder to believe we could prevent a future trauma were the opportunity for it to arise. The result is that a sense of powerlessness and bracing seeps into our “peaceful moments.”

4. Age When You Experience the Trauma:

We can only face a trauma with the emotional and cognitive resources available at the time we face that trauma. For children, that means they must process a trauma with the maturity and life experience their tender years affords. Later milestones in maturation will be affected as the “life lessons” of this trauma are part of the young person’s maturational foundation. This is not as deterministic as it sounds, but the effect should not be minimized and must be accounted for in order to be countered.

“A child is emotionally unable to refuse, modify, or detoxify a parent’s abusive projections. The power differential is too great and the projections too toxic and overwhelming. Furthermore, the child actually lives in the emotional world and fantasy life of the parent. This is the child’s reality (p. 322).” Richard T Frazier in “The Subtle Violations—Abuse and the Projection of Shame” in Pastoral Psychology

5. Passivity in Your Response to the Trauma:

Resistance, even when it is futile, helps maintain a sense of personal autonomy and voice. When we emotionally surrender to an experience of trauma it feels like the trauma has stolen another facet of our personhood; the political captive who stops believing he’ll be rescued, or the rape victim who stops resisting (this is not consent) her attacker. This is not to label anyone “weak” or “inferior” for reaching this point. But merely to identify a factor that accounts for an increase in the impact a trauma will have.

6. Your Emotional Stability Prior to the Trauma:

Trauma is an experience that is “more than we are prepared to endure at the time we are required to endure it.” If your general disposition is one that does not handle stress well or you were under intense stress prior to your experience of trauma, then the degree to which a trauma would have surpassed your ability to cope with it will be greater.

 7. Reactions from Loved Ones:

If, upon disclosing your experience of trauma, those that you trusted responded with disbelief, silence (i.e., acting as if nothing happened), minimization, misunderstanding, or blaming you for the experience, then this will increase the impact of your trauma. While this is generally true of all traumas, it is even more relevant for trauma related to various forms of abuse – physical, emotional, or sexual.

8. Violation of Trust Associated with the Trauma:

This impact-factor includes two variations. First, if your trauma came at the hands of another person, then the more reasonable it was for you to trust this person (i.e., parent, teacher, pastor, etc…) the greater the impact will be. Second, drawing upon point #7 above, if your trauma is exacerbated by the negative response of a loved one, then the more trust that existed in the relationship in which you felt betrayed, the greater the impact will be.

9. Broader Social Reaction to Your Experience:

It is not just the reaction of our “inner circle” of trusted people that contributes to the impact of a trauma. The broader social reaction does as well. Protesters against a war add to the post-traumatic experience of veterans. Pastors who speak about rape or prejudice without understanding increase the impact of these experiences. Social silence on issues that are public enough to warrant a public response also intensify the impact of trauma as it feels like “the whole world is complicit” in a cover up.

10. Number of Post-Trauma Hardships Created:

There are many hardships that can result from a trauma: disability, job loss, loss of a loved one, emotional instability, and stigma just to name a few. These hardships serve as triggers for post-traumatic memories, add to the sense that the past keeps infringing upon the present, and feed a sense of powerlessness.

11. Significant Events Associated with Your Trauma:

A house burning at Christmas time, learning of adultery on your anniversary, or a car accident in which your child dies at the intersection near your house would be significant events in close associate with your trauma. Not only do these serve as triggers, they add to the sense that you will not be able to escape the memory of the trauma (powerlessness again).

12. Your Interpretation of the Trauma:

Do you believe this trauma means you’re cursed, forsaken by God, marked for life, broken beyond repair, deserving of these kind of things happening to you, or an indication of a powerful lesson God couldn’t teach you any other way? These types of beliefs are what we will wrestle with in steps four through six. People instinctually seek to make sense of our experience. Adults ask “Why?” as naturally as a baby cries. We think understanding will give us “closure” and allow us to “move past” the traumatic experience. While this is overly optimistic about the ground that can be gained through an accurate perspective on suffering, the better we make sense of our traumatic experience the better we will be equipped to counter the impact of our suffering – steps seven to nine.

As you examined these various contributors to the impact of a traumatic experience, what did you learn?

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.