Recovery from trauma requires that we consistently focus our brains’ attention on that which contributes to the reversal of our trauma.
My alcoholic father and depressed mother created seven children. My younger brother and I spent our days and nights in anticipation of the drunken violence that accompanied our dad’s homecoming. Individual identity and rights were surrendered in the system designed by my mother to enable our survival. I was the provider of financial resources, and every morning at 3:00 a.m. I reported to my job at the bakery. Esteemed psychologist and trauma expert, Dr. Diane Langberg, describes very well what trauma victims encounter, “Human beings who experience trauma feel alone, helpless, humiliated, and hopeless” (2017). This statement is exactly how my brother and I felt regularly.
Professor, counselor, and scholar, Dr. Heather Gingrich, suggests that recovery from the experience of trauma occurs in three phases. The phases include “achieving a sense of safety and stability, trauma processing, and consolidation and resolution” (2013). Reflecting on trauma literature, counseling victims, and my personal experience have all led me to the conviction that, minimally, moving through these three phases of recovery to healing requires that:
- We receive with gratitude the benefits derived from grace-based relationships. The book of Ecclesiastes (NKJV) declares, “Two are better than one…” (4:9) and “… woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up” (4:10) and “… a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4:12). Men and women are created in God’s image, who has existed from eternity past in the trinity’s relational matrix. In the words of Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, to be human is to be “hardwired for relationships” (2012). My journey out of trauma was possible because an amazing group of people over a long period “graced” me with the gifts of support, hope, and love. In Ephesians 4:29, Paul describes grace as listening well, identifying what is needed, and then flowing with love and support into the vacuum that has been created by the need.
Grace communicates to trauma victims the message that they can face together what they cannot face alone. In that messaging, hope rises and provides a sense of safety for the first time. Without that sense of security and stability, processing the trauma necessary for recovery cannot begin. Grace first appeared for me in the form of a guidance counselor who found me a job with reasonable hours, and then a coworker invited me to church. It continued with a pastor who patiently lived out God’s love for me, a wife who loves me in every way possible, my adult children, fellow professionals in the mental health field, and scores of friends.
- We exhibit the courage and readiness to process our trauma. My annual wellness checkup was always accompanied by heightened anxiety and white coat hypertension, but I did not live in a doctor’s office. Typically, I managed my life quite well. In college and grad school, I felt the need to perform with excellence and was always anxious about grades. It was not until I was 34, in a busy pastorate, when I experienced a virus that sapped my strength and left me shattered physically and emotionally that I realized something was still broken inside. At that time, I did not know I needed to better understand the thoughts and emotions I was having and their connection to my childhood immersion in trauma. In my role as a pastor, I was a man apart, and it took me a long time to develop the vulnerability and transparency required for processing my experience with trauma.
I never considered seeing a counselor for help with processing my experience, nor did any of the people around me make the recommendation. The power of shame from feeling weak, flawed, or simply not good enough kept me isolated and cut off from the resources that could have helped me better understand my thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, I later found myself in relationships with people who manifested grace so powerfully that I was convinced I could open up to them and process my brokenness. I was ready to move beyond my fear that confessing my inner brokenness to them would diminish me in their eyes. I know now that hiding the brokenness and isolating from the help found in healing relationships are prominent features in Satan’s plan for trauma victims.
- We understand the negative effects of trauma on the brain and recognize that those influences can be changed. Brain science has revolutionized how we understand the damage trauma has on the development of the brain. In the language of neuroscientists, “what fired together in the days of our trauma has wired together” (Siegel, 2012) the neural pathways of our brains and profoundly influences our subsequent thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relational styles. The resolution of trauma requires the conviction to have significant power to change the relationships that have been the source of suffering and the neural pathways formed in response to the trauma. Commenting on that power, Tim Jennings, board-certified psychiatrist, states, “… we have the power, by use of the will, to choose what neural circuits receive continued use in our brains. Over time neural circuitry changes as certain circuits slowly degrade and others strengthen” (2012). When supported over time by grace relationships and attention to specific processes, this power of choice produces changes in our brains that impact how we behave, achieve relationships, and manage our thoughts and emotions.
- We take responsibility for a disciplined engagement with the processes leading to the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. Processing my thoughts and feelings with those I trusted enhanced my understanding of the damage done by my experience with trauma. The consistent support experienced in these relationships, combined with time in Scripture and literature on trauma, provided me with valuable resources to enter the resolution and consolidation phase in my recovery. At the same time, my understanding of God’s relationship to my suffering and its value for maturing me as a person and Christ-follower grew immeasurably. At that point, the challenge before me was to understand and commit to the processes that would allow for the consolidation of my progress to reverse the patterns I had nurtured due to my trauma experience.