In my practice, individuals coming in with traumas make up a significant portion of those I see. In fact, many people coming in with depression and/or anxiety are experiencing this as a result of trauma, often without even realizing it.
Trauma can take many different forms. For many, when we think of the effects of trauma we think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This collection of symptoms first gained major attention after World War I and II, with many veterans showing difficulty readjusting to “regular” life.
At the time, we called this “Shell Shock,” and over the years the hallmark symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, intense anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares, have been given different labels, but the underlying process remains the same.
This can look like an abusive relationship or living in a high stress environment for a long period of time. In the case of the former, even if you were never physically hit, living in a constant state of fear and hyperarousal due to emotional and psychological pain can lead someone to develop symptoms of PTSD or another trauma-related disorder.
Think of a sports injury resulting from a long term “bad motion.” While throwing a ball with bad form a few times might not lead to an injury, repeated years of bad form will inevitably cause an athlete to experience a major problem. In the same way, one or two fights or periods of discomfort in a relationship probably won’t lead to PTSD, but months or years of abuse can build up and cause a trauma-related disorder to arise.
Beyond just the basic effects of trauma, I want to look at how trauma is received spiritually and offer a Christian perspective on this phenomenon. When I work with clients, I operate from a “biopsychosocial-spiritual” perspective — this means that there are four major realms I am thinking in and how your issues are affecting them: biology, psychology, social relations, and spirituality.
While the first three might be more obvious when thinking of mental health issues, and specifically trauma, spirituality is a realm that can both buffer and be affected by trauma.
Effects of Sin, Hope of Christ
From a Christian perspective, I would state that trauma exists in the world due to sin. Trauma is the result of something bad happening, I believe that we can all agree on. When we look back at the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, the world was peaceful and without strife in the Garden.
When they fell short and ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they committed the first sins. At this point, evil entered the world, and along with it, trauma. What this story shows us is that we have a choice, and ultimately, we have all chosen sin and now are even born with a nature that is of sin.
Beyond that, evil is in the world and bad things can now happen due to the Fall in the Garden (note — this is an incredibly simplified bird’s eye view of what is going on here, but is necessary to establish before going on).
Why Do Bad Things Happen?
For many, one of the great challenges people face when wrestling with a God who is supposed to be all-loving and all-powerful is this: Why do bad things happen?
I admit, this is a large question and well beyond the scope of this article (many books have been written on the subject, but I am a big fan of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain). However, I will try to give an overview of why there might be trauma, let alone any bad thing, in the world.
When the Fall occurred, we were separated from God — but why would he allow the separation in the first place? Well, that gets to the concept of free will. Without free will, we cannot truly love God as He loves us. That is a choice we have to make in our lives in order to follow God.
One of consequences of this, then, is that we have the choice and ability to hurt those around us. This means that war, abuse, assault, etc. come about from the free will of individuals that God allows us to have so that we can truly love Him back. If He constantly intervened, then we would have no choice but to recognize God and “love” would be cheap — non-existent, even. Again, this leaves us with some pretty nasty consequences, trauma being one of them.
However, free will only accounts from trauma from other individuals, not trauma as a result from natural experiences such as a forest fire or earthquake. Why does God allow these things to happen if He truly loves us? I will admit, this is an even harder question to answer.
Some speculate that pain is necessary in order to be redeemed, so natural pain and bad things in nature will “naturally” occur. Others have proposed that violence in nature is a direct metaphysical result of humanity choosing to sin — when we rejected perfection in the garden, we not only rejected perfect unity and communion with God, but with the Earth too.
Adam’s punishment was that “through painful toil [he/we] will eat food from [the Earth] all the days of [his/our] life,” thereby setting up an adversarial relationship between humanity and nature (Genesis 3:17, NIV). Again, I concede these are not reasons for trauma from nature that sit well with me, however they would sit worse if that were the end of the story.
Lucky for us humans, the story of God and creation doesn’t end with the Fall or somewhere in the middle of the Old Testament with Israel wandering in a desert until (literally) God-knows-when. Instead, we have a Savior who came to redeem us and He promises not only spiritual salvation, but physical restoration as well.
While it might not be in this life, the Bible talks about not only the resurrection of our souls, but the physical resurrection as well. In the meantime, the Bible teaches us that we should seek out healing and that God wants to take care of our needs.
It might seem strange, but let’s think about hunger as it relates to trauma. We all experience hunger on a daily basis, and luckily for most in Western cultures, it’s an easily remedied malady. However, for some, hunger becomes an immense pain that threatens existence.
How does Jesus treat hunger in the Bible? Well, He provides a way for us to take care of it. When He feeds the 5,000, He makes fish and loaves appear and last for everyone. Note — He could have made the hunger simply not exist for everyone, but that was not quite His style.
He provided sustenance, but the people still had to eat. Now think about the fishermen — there was a miracle where Jesus caused so many fish to fill into the fishermen’s nets that it strained the boat and net. But first, what was Jesus’ command?
He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.— John 21:6, NIV
Jesus did not just make a thousand fish jump into their boat; they had to cast their nets first. Note that when the problem was hunger, He provided fish. When the problem was a lack of fish, He told them to cast their nets.
So how does all this fishing relate to trauma? God provides a way to deal with our problems — all our problems — but first we often have to take a step towards that solution.
By all means, I encourage you to pray for healing from trauma and for trauma to not occur. God can and does work miracles, but even when He “works miracles,” that can look like putting a practical solution in front of us. Working and living with the effects of trauma can occur in the same way.
When experiencing trauma or a trauma-related disorder, reaching out for help is the first step. God gives us fishermen and farmers to bring us food, doctors to do the healing work, and therapists to help handle trauma, anxiety, and depression.
More than just praying harder for the mental pain to go away, I propose we utilize the women and men that God has put in these roles as spiritual and psychological healers. Christ came to give us hope and ways for us to make our world a little bit more like heaven, and healing from trauma can be a part of that process.
Trauma-Related Disorders and Treatment
I’d like to switch gears here a bit and talk about how trauma can manifest. As already mentioned, PTSD is sort of the “Big Bad” of trauma disorders and probably the most well known.
Usually PTSD will occur within three months of a traumatic event, with the individual suffering from a mix of flashbacks, nightmares, restlessness, anxiety, depression, and/or behaviors that are greatly going out of the way to avoid triggers reminding them of the trauma.
If this is something you are dealing with, know this: many great treatment options exist! It is a well studied area and many treatments, both in therapy and medication, exist that can help with the symptoms and lessen their intensity and frequency over time.
Perhaps you have experienced some negative events, intense stress, or even a large trauma, but don’t feel like you would “qualify” for a PTSD diagnosis. You might, then, fall into a category of an Adjustment Disorder. This is a broad spectrum of disorders that indicate you have recently experienced something bad, or are still suffering from the consequences of something bad, and are having a hard time adjusting to life with that.
This can look like depression, anxiety, or a mix of both. Quite often people who are living with an adjustment disorder go without treatment because it’s not “bad enough,” or they feel like they should just be able to push through.
As I mentioned earlier, trauma is real and God gave us ways and people to help through it. If you find yourself dealing with mild to severe anxiety or depression resulting from a specific instance, getting into therapy can be immensely helpful.
Christian Counseling as a Trauma Treatment Option
So what does trauma treatment look like, then? Some buzz words to look for when looking for therapists are those who are “trauma informed,” or do therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Lifespan Integration, or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, but nobody calls it that).
CBT seeks to help you understand what are the thoughts and emotions that are going along with your behaviors and figure out what is helpful and what isn’t. The underlaying assumption is that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions will all affect each other, and by forcing yourself to think differently you can help your emotions and behaviors to change.
Lifespan Integration and EMDR are two specialties that help to put memories of trauma in their place in your life story. Sometimes we “store” trauma physically in our bodies, and working with these physical sensations while thinking through our life story can help us to process the trauma and put them in place, helping the memory of that event to feel more like a “typical” memory, and not one that is so vivid and painful compared to all the rest.
From a Christian perspective, therapy around trauma often involves working through some of the simple “whys” that exist — “Why did God let this happen? Why am I feeling this way?”
As I mentioned above, these are complicated questions, but therapy is a place where these can be wrestled with. As you being to heal, you can begin to feel God’s grace further and delve into what salvation and redemption can truly be.
Having a place where you can process this out in the open without judgement can help to diffuse some of the anxiety it causes, even if the answers don’t become fully apparent. While trauma exists in the world and it can be a heavy burden, God has put us therapists in place to help you through it. Reaching out can be the first step in letting God perform a miracle in your own life.
“Alone,” courtesy of pixabay.com, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Sunlight,” courtesy of D. Jameson Rage, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fishing boat,” courtesy of Alexander Andrews, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hope,” courtesy of Lina Trochez, unsplash.com, CC0 License