Category Archives: ptsd
This year the Global Community of Practice is on the theme of generational trauma (and its antidotes). If you aren’t coming, you may wish to access the live stream link below and watch the main sessions. I believe the link will contain the means to text or type questions and comments to what you are seeing. A moderator will review the comments and questions to be included in large group discussions so your thoughts may well be part of the global discussion.
See Agenda flyer listing the program for the next three days. The times listed are Eastern Daylight Time. Be sure to note the time that Diane Langberg is speaking on Tuesday on “living with generational trauma” and her closing on Thursday afternoon. There are many other can’t miss moments: devotions by Rev. Gus Roman and Carol Bremer-Bennett; presentations by Dr. Michael Lyles, Carolyn Custis James, Rod Williams and many more.
Live stream link: abs.us/COPLive
Check out this opinion piece (rebuttal) published in Psychology Today by Jonathan Shedler. It challenges the notion that randomized control trials (RCTs) are the “gold standard” to determine the best forms of treatment in the real world. While RCTs can answer certain questions, he argues they cannot answer the most important questions. As a result, the APA recommended treatments are all short-term treatments but will not be able to tell us whether those who undergo the treatment really get better and what options are available for those who drop-out of treatment (there is a significant drop-out rate with several of these recommended treatments).
For those interested in this controversy, I’d like to find out if you have (a) heard anyone challenging Shedler’s criticism and (b) what alternatives are offered by them. I’ve seen zero challenges to his piece to date.
What if you read the bible through the lens of trauma? Some passages are quite obvious–catastrophes are all throughout the bible. But are these stories of trauma in the bible merely keeping a record of pain or attempts to deal with the trauma, to put the world back proper perspective after chaos?
Consider this 2015 video by Rev. Dr. Robert Schreiter entitled: Trauma in The Biblical Record. He gives some background about this newer way to read the bible through this lens and then ends with 3 examples. I’ve just ordered this book on the subject, but those wanting to jump ahead may wish to know about it as well.
Does a resilient individual appear as if stress and trauma has not lasting impact? Does it mean we bounce back as if it never happened? Are there better ways to think about resilience in real life?
In 2014 I gave a presentation reviewing the topic of resilience (definition, examples, threats to, and helps) at our annual Trauma Healing Community of Practice hosted by the American Bible Society.
Sometimes we consider only resilience as an individual trait. I spend a bit of time talking about community resilience. Video is 25 minutes and associated slides (not embedded in the video) can be found here: 2014 COP Resilience.
Yesterday I posted information about summer courses at BTS. I’m really excited about Heather Drew’s course that explores therapeutic activities beyond talking about our struggles. Do check that out! Today, I’m posting about an upcoming trauma healing facilitator training (initial and advanced equipping) being held here in Philadelphia May 1-4, 2017. More on that in a minute.
But first, a change…
For the last 17 years I have been teaching in and leading Biblical Seminary’s counseling programs (now housed in our Graduate School of Counseling). I know I’m very biased, but I think our programs deliver training that transforms—mature counselors who learn how to listen and walk with others through difficult times. Over the years we have been able to develop licensure and ministry-oriented counseling programs as well as the Global Trauma Recovery Institute. This last certificate program enables participants to enter into cultures and communities and support trauma recovery without causing harm.
I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, due in no small part to supportive administration, excellent students, and fantastic staff who every day make BTS look great! But, after months of thinking and praying, I have decided to step away from the leadership of the program and full-time employment at BTS. Beginning July 1 I will assume the position of Director of Training and Mentoring with the American Bible Society’s Mission: Trauma Healing. I have been partnering with the Bible Society since 2010 as the Co-Chair of the Advisory Council for ABS trauma healing programs. In this new venture I hope to have a closer role in supporting best practices in their train-the-trainer model of addressing trauma around the world.
If you are wondering why a psychologist would want to work as a trainer of lay and pastoral leaders in a Scripture-engagement trauma healing program, read this: 4 Reasons Why I Promote Scripture-Based Trauma Healing. Short answer? We can’t solve the world’s trauma if we don’t change the culture of conversation about trauma and faith. This program can do that.
Want to join me in equipping others?
May 1-4 ABS will run a local training for both initial and advanced equipping sessions designed to teach you how to lead healing groups and/or run equipping sessions to train others to lead healing groups. I will not be doing most of the training but I do hope to put in an appearance. This document will give you a bit of an overview. This one tells you about the role of the facilitator. And if you are already sold on the material and the mental-health informed training program, here’s where you sign up. Can’t attend now? Check thi.americanbible.org for dates of upcoming trainings here and in other parts of the world.
What is not changing about my role at BTS?
As the Thomas V. Taylor Visiting Professor of Counseling & Psychology, I will continue to teach the Global Trauma Recovery Institute’s curriculum with Dr. Diane Langberg. If you are looking for continuing education and specialization in trauma recovery, this mostly online curriculum may be right for you. In addition, I will provide additional support and teaching for BTS as they need it. However, under the leadership of Bonnie Steich, LPC, NCC, ACS, the existing faculty and staff will continue to deliver an exceptional curriculum.
This weekend, Foundations Christian Counseling is hosting a 2 day conference, Counsel From the Cross at Spruce Lake Retreat. I will be speaking Friday night (8 pm) on “The Cross, the Church, and Trauma: Making the Church a Safe Place for Victims of Trauma.” Use the 2nd link above to register for the day or the weekend.
Researchers Liberzon and Abelson at the University of Michigan have published an essay articulating a new way of conceptualizing what is happening in the brains of those with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. While you can’t read their essay for free, you can read this good summary here.
What is their new theory? the neurobiological problem of PTSD is “disrupted context processing.” In simple terms, I fail to respond to the “stimulus” in its proper context when I am triggered by old experiences in a new setting. Even more simply, when I wake up on full alert in the middle of the night after smelling wood-smoke in my sleep I initially fail to recognize the context (my neighbor burns wood) and immediately think my house is on fire (as it once was). Thankfully, the alertness is less than it used to be and I don’t always get up to check on my house.
The authors suggest that 3 separate and current brain models are inadequate in their scope of understanding the brain’s activities in PTSD. From their perspective the “fear model” (Fight/flight learning), the “overactive threat detection model” and the “executive functioning model” work best when integrated into one unified theory with their new label. And, in true humble researcher fashion, they request help in testing this model to see if indeed it can carry the freight.
An Old But Essential Treatment?
It is good to have a better handle on what is happening in the brain when someone experiences PTSD. Neurobiological research is growing by leaps and bounds. It is hard, frankly, to keep up. And yet, let us not forget an old but essential part of PTSD treatment, the person of the therapist. Humans are designed to be in relationship. PTSD has a way of shattering connections with others and thus the treatment must reverse the disconnect. Being present and bearing witness to trauma will always be the first and primary intervention every therapist must learn. Our temptation is that we want to move beyond the bearing witness phase into change phases. While this is understandable (we want others to get better as fast as possible), we sometimes want this for our own reasons–to avoid the pain we experience in sitting with traumatic experiences of others.
Let us remember that we therapists (and pastors, friends, etc.) are the primary intervention when we are present with those who suffer, when we become a student of their suffering. All other treatment activities stem from this foundation. To use a different analogy, consider Dr. Diane Langberg’s meditation, “Translators for God” (Day 26 of In our Lives First). In this meditation she describes the experience of being translated in a seminar. The translator must fully understand both languages in order to accurately communicate the speaker’s words into the heart language of the hearers. Counselors are translators for God and for healing. And yet, if they do not deeply learn the heart language (pain and trauma experience) of the client, they will not be able to connect the client to healing and to the God who heals.
[Note: broken link fixed. If anyone is interested in taking this course with me this summer, see here.]
As a psychologist I have had a front row seat to observe the destruction that traumatic experiences have on individuals and families. And as a professor training future counselors I see the necessity of passing on best practices for treating those with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). New understandings of trauma’s impact on bodies, minds, souls, and relationships appear on the pages of our academic and clinical journals. As a result, I read daily about innovative attempts to hasten trauma recovery for individuals and even whole communities.
With a world filled with trauma, it is clear to me we need an army of psychologists and mental health practitioners. How else could we address problems faced by 60 million displaced peoples in the world at present? How else could we address the scourge of sexual abuse, where worldwide 1:4 women and 1:6 men have experienced sexual violation before they reach the age of 18?
So, given the needs I have just mentioned, why would I spend considerable time and effort to promote a bible-based trauma healing training program? Let me tell you four key reasons I think this program is essential to address the world-wide problem of trauma. [Note, this is NOT a paid advertisement.]
Trauma disrupts faith and identity. The church must be at the center of the response
While many practitioners recognize the physical and psychological symptoms of PTSD, fewer have noticed that trauma disrupts and disables faith and connection to faith practices. Just now the scientific community is beginning to track this problem and acknowledge the role faith plays in the recovery process. Some are brave enough to suggest that failing to utilize faith practices and communities in the recovery process is tantamount to unethical practice! But most mental health practitioners have had zero training and experience engaging faith questions as part of treatment. The field of psychology is waking up from more than 100 years of training practitioners to ignore, even reject, faith as essential to healthy personhood. If faith is essential to most people on the planet then any intervention must engage faith and spiritual practices if it is going to consider the whole person.
Dr. Diane Langberg recently reminded a world gathering of national Bible Society leaders that trauma needs in the world are far too large for any government to handle. The only “organization” in the world situated to respond to at both a micro and a macro level is the Church. But is the church prepared? We need the church willing to understand the nature of trauma and participate in supporting faith and Bible-based healing responses. These responses include practices the church has not always been known for: validating, supporting and comforting victims, speaking up about injustice, inviting individual and corporate lament, re-connecting oppressed people to God. We need the church to be a safe community for victims.
The Healing the Wounds of Trauma (HWT) program fills this void. It offers basic trauma education, illustrates how God responds to traumatized peoples and provides simple yet effective care responses average believers can enact without being professional caregivers.
While I believe we psychologists with specialized skill sets are essential to trauma recovery, much of what we do can be done by every day individuals. I tell my students that most of counseling is not rocket-science. Being present, listening well, building trust, validating, asking good questions, and walking with someone in pain is largely what helps counselees get better. With a little training, the church can be at the forefront of the trauma healing.
But we need an army…of capable trainers who reproduce
There are approximately 2.2 Billion Christians in the world today. If we decided (and I am not suggesting this AT ALL!) to only serve traumatized Christians, we do not have enough capable practitioners to serve those in need. The ONLY way we would be able to serve this population is to train up capable trainers (wise, able to work well with others, understand group dynamics, know when to be quiet, etc.) who are then able to reproduce themselves and make even more trainers who subsequently serve ever increasing populations. This creates a cascade effect—1 trains another who each, in turn, trains others. Conservatively speaking, one training of 35 future trainers could reach up to 15,000 traumatized people in 3 training generations.
To maintain quality, the program must be able to be delivered and passed on in a consistent manner. The HWT program is designed not merely to educate participants regarding trauma symptoms and good care/healing practices but how to pass on such knowledge and skill to others. The facilitator (trainer) handbook provides a wealth of information to ensure that the quality does not erode as the information is passed on.
Experiential learning trumps lectures every time
In the West, we cherish academic lectures as the primary training mode. Lectures enable a speaker to give a large amount of information in a short period of time, with minimal interruption. A good lecture casts vision, identifies problems, and points to effective responses. But a lecture cannot produce skilled practitioners. Any academic mental health program worth attending will require practicums where head knowledge is put into repeated practice.
Consider this scenario. My father is capable of building a house. He sits me down and he spends hours gong over the steps to building an addition to my house. I listen, take notes, and even handle the tools that will be used. Am I prepared now to build the addition? No! If I am to build a proper addition, I will need to do so under his close supervision. In fact, most of the hours of lectures are not necessary at all. What will be more effective is his teaching me as we build together.
The HWT program is all about experiential learning. Participants learn as they experience trauma and trauma healing through story, dialogue, and practice. First applied to self and then in consideration of others. This is in stark contrast to most continuing education programs that amount to little more than monologues and passive audiences. While the monologue may give more information, it is highly unlikely that participants can in turn teach what they heard to others. The HWT program is not designed to deliver large amounts of new academic information. And yet, what participants get via experience and practice will be far more easily passed on when they become the teacher. There will be no army of trainers if we cannot quickly get experience and practice and pass on what we learn in simple everyday language.
Good training hinges on contextualization
If trauma is universal, then it might be thought easy to deliver trauma healing training across cultures. This is not so. If I prepare a lecture or training on trauma in my context (the megalopolis of the Northeastern seaboard of the United States) but deliver it on a different continent, my training may be of minimal value. The reason it is sure to fail is that what I had to offer didn’t fit the context; it didn’t speak to the heart of that audience. Good training must be contextualized so that participants immediately recognize trauma in their settings and that interventions make sense. Imagine if I deliver a talk on good conflict skills to a hierarchical society but emphasize the need to speak in “I” language (I need, I feel, I would like)? Such interventions will rightly be rejected as inappropriate. And if experience holds, whatever else I say will also be rejected.
The HWT program is founded on contextualization. Not only has it been translated into many different heart languages, the central stories and illustrations are also contextualized so that the participants can see themselves in the stories and interventions. At heart of each lesson, participants are asked about their own culture’s take on the particular problem. In dialogue, they compare responses to that of biblical passages highlighting trauma, grief, loss, and pastoral care. Nearly every major training point addresses context and encourages participants to develop creative interventions in keeping with key biblical and psychological foundations.
Is the HWT program all a traumatized person needs? No, it doesn’t assume this. Is the HWT program perfect? Of course not. I continue to make suggestions for improvement and the authors and developers are some of the most flexible I know, always looking for ways to improve the materials and training program. There are many other solid programs out there, but few programs I know have refined the content and delivery systems to be able to scale out across the globe. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the Mission: Trauma Healing team at the American Bible Society as co-chair of their advisory council and occasional trainer.
For a more visual exposure to this training, see this downloadable documentary.
In recent years I have witnessed significant growth in public discussions of posttraumatic stress (PTS) and trauma. This is a good thing. We want to care well for victims of natural disasters and political and ethnic conflict. We want to care well for ex-combatants. While we work to stop the worldwide disaster of child sexual abuse and domestic violence we also want to care well for those we couldn’t protect.
What do I need to know to be able to help?
When we want to help solve a problem we look for solutions. Students in my counseling and global trauma programs see the problem (individuals and communities experiencing trauma symptoms) and come looking for solutions. They want to know which intervention strategies will be most effective in reducing or eliminating the problem of PTSD. It is a good thing to be skilled; skilled in diagnostics as well as treatment application.
However, knowledge and skills are not enough. Yes, a helper will necessarily need to know how to listen to trauma stories, how to speak and how to be silent. A helper will need to know him or herself in such a way as to recognize blind spots and other factors that may hinder the capacity to walk with a survivor. But even more importantly, the helper will need to recognize, and participate in the following trajectory of memorializing trauma while moving to recovery.¹
The trajectory of memory and recovery
- The [trauma] Event took place: One must speak.
Having experienced trauma (the Event), speaking of trauma is a necessity if recovery is to take place. How one speaks and what is spoken will differ from person to person (thus, NEVER force someone to speak beyond what they want to speak). But whatever is spoken always leads back (explicitly or implicitly) to the Event. Nothing can be spoken without the Event in view. And resolution is really not possible. How does one resolve a genocide? A sexual assault. Rather, there is before…and after. The victim, as Brown says, “does not have the privilege of such a resolution…again and again” (p. 23). We listeners cannot fully understand, but we can listen and repeat what we have heard.
- The Event defies description: One cannot speak.
When speaking, victims soon realize, “having tried to speak, they discover that attempts to speak of this Event are doomed” (p. 23). Brown notes that this places the messenger and listener into a double bind. It cannot be adequately spoken and understood. Normal language cannot do justice to what was experienced. If not, then the trauma would cease to be evil, horrific and devastating but normal and inconsequential. The double bind is this: to not speak is a betrayal of the experience and to speak is a betrayal since words will always fail to do justice to what has been experienced.
Words must minimize the event to some extent. Consider 6 million Jews slaughtered or 1 million Rwandans. It is easy to speak those facts but in doing so we must minimize what those numbers mean. We cannot imagine unless we are there.
If we are going to recover and if we are going to support that recovery, we must sit with the fact that we cannot make sense of trauma. The human attempt to do so is normal…but impossible. Helpers need to avoid all attempts to answer the question of why even as we acknowledge that is is always on our lips.
- The Event suggests an alternative: One could choose silence.
It must be recognized that victims can choose silence. In fact, silence can heighten our understanding of the unspeakableness of trauma. This is a silence that is chosen in an effort to highlight what is also being told. Consider Beethoven’s 5th symphony that has a rest just after the first four notes (dit dit dit dah [rest]). As Brown points out, the rest accentuates what has just been “spoken.”
One could (ought?) also to choose silence when descriptions of trauma will be used to critique the character of the victim. Too often when tales of trauma are told, listeners look for ways to minimize or explain away the events. “It wasn’t that bad…he didn’t mean it…it could have been worse…you’re fine now.” So, in light of these common experiences, victims and helpers have to wrestle with how and when to be silent.
But of course, silence may be the right choice for victims, it never is for observers. As Brown so starkly puts it,
Silence is no virtue; it is vice twice-compounded: indifference toward the victims, complicity with the executioners. (p. 36)
- The Event precludes silence: One must become a messenger.
…speech betrays so we must forswear speech, but silence also betrays so we must forsake silence. (p. 36)
Per Wiesel and Brown survival by itself is insufficient. Survival must include testimony to those who live. They call it being a messenger from the dead to (and for) the living. The messenger’s job is to disturb and to awaken those who would rather not see or know of the trauma. Truth must be brought to light and wrongs ought to be acknowledged without explanations or reasons given. These things happened, period.
The messenger (and the helper) do not just speak truth to the rest of humanity but also to God. Like Job, like Jeremiah, like David, we contend with God through our questions and our laments. In the Christian world we tend to try to speak for God. But what if our time was spent raising our questions and our complaints to God? Such complaints do not have to be about our anger but rather because we cannot make sense of both the senseless–God and evil in the world.
- The Event suggests a certain kind of messenger: A teller of tales.
If trauma presses the messengers (victim and helper) to speak and yet makes in next to impossible to effectively communicate what has happened, then the telling will have to be done in analogies. Brown suggests that storytelling is one way to bring victim and listener together. Consider how Nathan uses story to confront David. Such a story, per Brown, bridges two worlds and uses one (the story) to challenge or confront the other. Confrontations may be as direct as Nathan (You are that man!) but just as frequently these “confrontations” are affective and subtle. This is what happens when you find yourself crying during a movie that has tugged on your heart in ways you never expected. The story enables you to connect with feelings and experiences that may have just moments before, been distant and protected.
Why tell stories? Not just to have a feeling (Brown calls that merely an indulgence). Tell stories to change people; to call to action; to demand acknowledgement of injustice and movement to right wrongs.
A final thought: standing on sacred ground
This trajectory (struggle to voice, necessity of silence, becoming messengers and storytellers to call the world to action) does not often happen in a linear fashion. Rather, it happens in fits and starts; in quiet and rageful voices. But if you see evidences of someone attempting to speak about a trauma you are witnessing the Spirit speaking,
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:26-7)
When you see those groanings be silent. You are standing on sacred ground.
¹This trajectory of remembering trauma and becoming a messenger can be found in Robert McAfee Brown’s Elie Wiesel: Messenger to all Humanity, Rev ed. This book is a kind of commentary on Wiesel’s work and so this trajectory intersperses Wiesel’s quotes and thoughts with the authors. These five points are made by Brown on pages 20-49 in much greater clarity and artistry than I can in this space.