How Understanding Trauma Helps Us Love God Better

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You probably cringed a little when you read that word. Trauma is a word that suggests real pain and serious struggles. It feels like a foreign concept to how we often envision the Christian life to be. We assume it’s something that only happens to people who have lived a tough life or are surrounded by the wrong people. But these assumptions are so far from the truth. I couldn’t recognize trauma when I experienced several types of abuse in my own life. I even endured mental and emotional abuse from someone who called himself a Christian. I have seen it in my family when they experienced a serious loss. I have recognized it in my friends’ lives, but only after I understood the signs.

So how would understanding trauma have helped in any one of these situations?

Many people, if not most, have experienced trauma, but how people are supported is key. Understanding and learning about trauma will help Christians to recognize those struggling around us, get them the help they need quicker, and love them in the best way possible.

As we learn how to care for the hurt, we are helping them carry the weight of their burdens.

Definition of Trauma

Trauma is not just one type of situation. Traumatic events can consist of car accidents, the loss of a close loved one, or witnessing something traumatic happen to another individual. Abuse, war, and natural disasters are more common sources of trauma, but it can come in all shapes and sizes. How it impacts the individual is key in determining whether the event becomes traumatic for them. Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events.

Being Aware

As someone who has experienced abuse in several separate situations, I felt alone and isolated. I felt shameful and became very private with every aspect of my life. I had shared little bits of information from a few of my situations with family, friends, and church members, but counseling was never suggested to me. Instead, I was advised to pray and read the Bible. While these are important disciplines which gave me some comfort, I needed a Christian counselor who understood what I was going through and to guide me through the healing process. I needed someone that could guide me through my panic attacks, trauma, and anxiety in a way that didn’t feel like a Bible was just thrown at me and someone shouted, “You’re healed now!”

With any counseling situation, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ sign for mental health issues resulting from trauma. Counseling is all about the individual and the events that they have been through.

Here are common signs of a traumatized individual:

  • Change in character
  • Anxious or nervous behavior
  • Exhibiting self-destructive behavior
  • Feelings of shame and/or guilt
  • Struggling with sleep or diet
  • Withdrawal from relationships
  • Inability to focus on work, other responsibilities
  • Moodiness
  • Dissociation (presenting as “spacey,” not paying attention to conversations, having no memory of events shared with others)

This list is not exhaustive, and everyone reacts differently as no two traumatic situations are the same.

Noticing can be a great first step in helping.

How to Love Well

Individuals going through counseling are are exposed to their story over time, little by little. This gradual exposure helps to bring the hurtful memories back together and become integrated into the story of the individual. These traumatic moments can never be taken away from the person because they are part of their life. They will at some point share their life story with someone, so we as Christians need to be ready to comfort and care for these people when they do share.

When someone is hurting or sharing about their trauma our first thoughts tend to be sympathetic. We want to comfort them. Here are a few ways you can react that are helpful:

  • Validate their experience and feelings
  • Ask questions that show that you are paying attention
  • Allow someone to speak their mind without giving advice
  • Remember you are not there to fix the situations but to support
  • Do not touch them unless you ask our they ask you to

Even if you do not know someone’s story but you suspect that there could be trauma or serious hurt in their life, consider the following as a guide for interacting with people in your church:

  • Be aware of how you approach an individual and let your presence be known.
  • Physical touch (hugs, touching an arm, a playful punch) can be triggering. Be careful to ask first and try not to assume.
  • If you see a switch in mood or behavior, give the individual support privately. Ask the individual what gender adult they would like to talk with and create communal support for them by bringing this trustworthy individual into the conversation.

Bringing it all together

Hard things, like trauma, are what we tend to avoid the most. It is uncomfortable and we struggle to know the right words to say. But we can’t get hung up on the idea of doing things ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We need to focus on handling these situations well and be prepared to learn from others. As we learn how to care for the hurt, we are helping them carry the weight of their burdens. This helps us to love both people and God better (Galatians 6:2).

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Kayla Jankowski

Kayla Jankowski is currently pursuing her MA in Biblical Counseling and Christian Education. After having experienced an emotionally abusive relationship and several other traumatic events, she has found a passion for teaching others about trauma and mental health. She lives in Trinity, North Carolina with her husband and their two goofy cats.

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