Tag Archives: PTSD

Is it trauma or is it intensity/identity loss?


The current definition of PTSD requires an exposure to an intensely distressing event or events (either witnessed or told about in great detail) resulting in a pattern of intrusive re-experiencing, attempts to avoid such experiences and an ongoing negative cognitive/mood pattern. Such a diagnosis might be made after domestic and sexual violence, accidents, natural disasters, war, betrayal traumas, and even after hearing repeated stories of traumatic experiences to others (called secondary trauma).

Someone experiencing PTSD after life-threatening events might feel disconnected from family/friends, find it difficult to sleep, experience repeated nightmares, have difficulty not thinking about events during and after the traumatic experience, choose unhealthy coping patterns like alcohol abuse, or place themselves in situations where they re-enact parts of their trauma story.

But not everyone who has intrusive thoughts about a challenging situation, feels disconnected from their community (and previous self), drinks too much, or impulsively jumps back into danger have PTSD. Some of these same behaviors and experiences also show up in those who have left dangerous and all-consuming experiences and now do not know how to re-engage in regular life.

Consider these words of Dr. Steven Hatch, who spent time in Ebola clinics in Liberia at the height of the 2014 pandemic crisis in West Africa. He describes his experience after returning to his job at the University of Massachusetts.

To match the outside weather, my mood willingly turned dark. I withdrew from people, wandered about in a daze, and avoided public gatherings. When I did venture out, I carried myself in a completely different manner than I had before in my life.


The simple explanation was that I had post-traumatic stress disorder, and a few people, including some whose job it is to make such diagnoses, thought this to be true. (p. 239, Inferno)

He goes on to dispute his experience fighting Ebola as trauma. While difficult, he did not think it rose to the level of trauma experienced in war or even other more overwhelming Ebola clinics.

I could, however, recall the event [death of a toddler] in my mind without being emotionally overwhelmed, but also just as importantly I was able to still experience emotions about it, feeling appropriately somber. I just didn’t feel traumatized. (p 240)

So, what was his problem?

What I did share with many other volunteers was a sense that I didn’t belong in the States, for the work in West Africa was far from over. I desperately wanted to return, and almost within days of coming home I was trying to figure out how I could get back to an ETU [crisis Ebola center]. What I missed was the profound sense of purpose that such work had provided, and I slowly realized why people talked of “missing the war,” a phrase that always seemed discordant to my ears. You miss being in the midst of senseless butchery? Great. But I belatedly realized it was that purposefulness, the sense that you were doing something that was deeply and truly meaningful, that drove people back to such unstable situations. (p. 240-41)

There you have it. The seeming loss of crystal clarity or purpose in life can be very painful. When you are in an intense helping situation as Dr. Hatch was, every movement leads towards life or death. At the end of a day, you can count who lived and who died. No ambiguity. In addition, you are doing it with a team of people all committed to the same thing. You share the same vision, goal, and daily experience. You do not have to explain anything. And in these intense situations, you can have the kinds of intimacy not often experienced even in your immediate family. Also subtract mundane activities (grocery shopping, cleaning, taking care of children, etc.) that may not need to be done.

This is a recipe for distress upon return.

Return to regular life where you are expected to do these seemingly inconsequential activities AND where you have no one around to save AND no one who was present with your toughest experience…and you have a recipe for trouble. You may find it difficult to find joy in light of intrusive thoughts of recent emotionally intense experiences. You may long for a return to that sense of purpose and value. Because others do not understand and aren’t part of your “tribe” you may withdraw or find other ways to numb the pain.

Loss of identity and intensity may mimic trauma symptoms. They may be significant to need treatment. Military ending tours of duty, missionaries returning from field, humanitarians returning from doing crisis work, church planters leaving high stakes urban church plants, and trauma healing trainers returning from intense experiences may be at risk.

What can be done to prevent this distress?

  1. Probably nothing will take care of the problem. One could not go do intense work. Or one could become a crisis junkie. Neither are good options.
  2. But developing re-acclimation plans can help. Yes, training done before entering the intense experience will set the stage for healthy returns but post-tour of duty re-entry work is more important. The Army has develop protocols for re-entry by beginning the process even before leaving the “theatre.” Creating space for coming off the “high” giving time to process and following-up in the early days back can help. Involving family in the re-entry planning and building activities that can elevate family intimacy upon return will help immensely.
  3. Encouraging time and space to lament and process in group settings. This is where a therapist can help. Group process helps to put words to experiences and acknowledges impact on identity. This can also help re-connect with meaningful activities and experiences at home. One has to re-learn that meaning is not solely connected to intensity.

I have some very small personal experience with this. I’ve had intense experiences in international settings. When I have returned, I have sometimes found it hard to be at home when my head was still overseas. Being able to share with Kim and others helped. Practicing lament helped. Learning to be mindful of the present also helped me remember what has meaning and value in everyday life.

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Filed under Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology, trauma, Uncategorized

Reading the bible through the lens of trauma?


What if you read the bible through the lens of trauma? Some are quite obvious–catastrophes are all throughout the bible. But are these stories of trauma in the bible merely keeping a record of it 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.

 

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What does resilience look like in the face of traumatic experiences?


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.

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PTSD: A New Theory? An Old Treatment


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.

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4 Reasons I Promote Scripture-Based Trauma Healing


[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.HWT_USA_2014

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.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling, Missional Church, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd, teaching counseling, trauma, Uncategorized

Evil Hours (David Morris): A Must-Read for Mental Health Professionals


A bit ago, I blogged on David Morris’ new book, “The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and his NPR interview. [You can read my previous post here.] Having just finished reading the text, I want to highlight a few more insights about the book.

Morris does an excellent job describing his experience of trauma and then expanding to the history of PTSD and its impact, both on those going to war and those who have experienced civilian traumas. For those who wonder why Vietnam vets struggle more than WWII vets, Morris helps reveal the falseness of that belief in the beginning of chapter 5.

But the most important chapters of the book are chapters 6 through 9 where he examines therapies designed for PTSD, how research protocols designed to help us know which treatments work best may harm, how drugs and alternative interventions (e.g., yoga) may help and how to think about posttraumatic growth.

Though these chapters are his experience, I would highly recommend every MHP to read these chapters. Skip the first chapters if you must (you should not!) but these are paramount if you are going to work with traumatized individuals. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Following protocol for therapy can harm a patient. Don’t get me wrong, research IS necessary. But when a protocol is harming a patient, it is important to make sure that research goals do not become primary over the needs of the one who is in need.
  • Prolonged Exposure, the gold standard treatment, has a HUGE drop-out rate. Somewhere around 54%. That should give us great pause. Surgery hurts. PE is like surgery but repeated opening of a wound. The dropout rate should tell us that imaginal work can re-traumatize. There are other methods that may work just a well but do less damage in the process. I think about the changes in the last 10 years for breast cancer. We are discovering that not everyone needs bilateral breast removal to survive. Not everyone needs 30 days of radiation as radiation at the time of lumpectomy may work just as well for some patients. So, we must be less fixed in our minds on treatment protocols and be considering if the patient can improve with less radical treatment options.
  • Cognitive therapies are good but over-emphasize think right = feel right. Such work could ignore the moral complexity of life, especially for those who have moral injuries.
  • The person of the therapist is more important than the treatment modality. This is not to say that the modality is of no consequence. Rather, that good interventions live or die on the capacity of the therapist to be truly human with clients.
  • Recovery must be done in community. Gutting it out alone does not work.
  • Alternatives, like yoga, works for some far better than talking, but shouldn’t be sold as a cure-all.

…yoga stands out as a uniquely effective treatment, precisely because it insists that people shut up and start listening to their bodies. Yoga works to correct the central lie of Western philosophy, which goes all the way back to Descartes, who said that the body and the mind are distinct entities that exist independent of each other. (237)

However, Morris acknowledges that yoga is, “ridiculous”, even “moronic.” Though he is also quick to say, “In the Marine Corps, we had a saying: ‘If it’s stupid but it works, then it isn’t stupid.” (238). “Placebo, wishful thinking, whatever. I’ll take the help where I can get it.” (246, discussing the mixed evidence for EMDR). Yet, be wary of proponents of any one treatment as a cure. They prey on desperate people.

The bottom line is that there is no ‘magic bullet’ for PTSD, and claims to the contrary should be taken with more than a grain of sand. (240)

  • Growth happens but not apart from ongoing trauma symptoms and changes. Too often we expect recovery to mean the removal of symptoms. But, there is no going back. Identity changes, just as it would if you lost your spouse and then got remarried. Growth needs to be observed and underlined, but not assumed to eliminate strong, continuing reminders of trauma.

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What does recovery look like after traumatic experiences


After trauma, what does recovery look like? Is it possible to “move on?” How can you when you can never unsee or unremember what happened to you? 

Is it possible to experience joy rather than emotional pain when remembering past or ongoing hurts? If so, just what does that look and feel like for the victim? What can be expected if I am “healed”? Can I be free from the typical experience of trauma (e.g., Hopelessness, despair, anxiety, confusion, shame, anger, loss of identity, feeling stuck but the demand to act as if the trauma did not take place, and spiritual angst over the goodness and love of God)?

As Diane Langberg has so aptly reminded us, “Trauma is the mission field of this century.” Around the world there is much openness to talk about the impact of trauma and to use spiritual practices as part of the recovery process. In Christian language, we talk about healing the wounds of the heart and one of the best programs out there is the Trauma Healing Institute’s, Healing the Wounds of Trauma. This program is based on the strong Christian belief that God, through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures,  is in the business of healing wounded hearts. At the heart of this belief sits two important passages:

Isa 61:1-4 The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and liberation to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor, and our God’s day of vengeance, to comfort all those in mourning, to give for those in mourning in Zion, to give them a head wrap instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit. 

2 Cor 4: 16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart, but even if our outer person is being destroyed, yet our inner person is being renewed day after day. For our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion, because we are not looking at what is seen, but what is not seen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is not seen is eternal.  

These two beautiful passages present a picture of recovery. Good news, release, favor, comfort, joy and beauty in place of mourning and oppression. Renewal in the face of affliction. But what does this mean in real life? Does a “double portion” instead of shame feel like to a victim of sexual trauma? What does renewal and release feel like after a natural disaster? 

Prognosis for Complete Recovery?

If you suffer a serious knee injury requiring surgery, you will need time for rehabilitation. But rehab does not necessarily mean you will recover the full range of motion you once had, or that  your knee will be entirely pain free when you are finished with physical therapy. Your prognosis for recovery depends on many factors such as age, extent of injury, physical health prior to the accident, and availability of quality care. Even with the best care provided to top athletes, recovery may not lead to return to top form. For example, an Olympic skier may be able to ski again but not at a quality that allows for competitive skiing. 

What about the prognosis for spiritual and emotional recovery? Of course, just as in the knee injury example, the answer must be “it depends.” Still, considering the two passages above, words like liberation, joy, release, and renewal shape our imagination for recovery. Do we imagine complete recovery to top spiritual and emotional form, without pain and limitation? It appears to me that we sometimes imagine emotional and spiritual healing without taking consideration the reality of broken bodies and a fallen world. We are not guaranteed a pain free life or faith without distressing questions. In fact, Paul’s beautiful words in 2 Corinthians bear this out. afflicted in every way, persecuted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always carrying around death, burdened, groaning and more. Yes, he also says not crushed, not despairing, not destroyed, but alive. But both must be considered together at the same time if we are indeed to imagine our prognosis. Recovery means comfort and lament, joy in mourning, perplexed while trusting, dying yet alive. 

Sprouts of Justice and Recovery?

Isaiah describes sprouts of justice and righteousness beginning in the recovery of the oppressed (Isa 61:11). As a gardener, I see sprouts as the beginning of hope. After planting seeds, the tiny sprouts give me hope for a later harvest but that hope is still tempered with the knowledge of the challenge of getting sprouts to develop into fruited plants. I have to be vigilant about bugs, weeds, and drought. I need to cultivate and fertilize or my sprouts will not turn into much. And even if I do everything right, the seed may be weak or the weather may mean I only have spindly or stunted plants that cannot bear much fruit. Yet, the sight of sprouts brings the hope that empowers us to keep at the gardening work. 

So, what are these sprouts of justice and recovery that victims of trauma may first see that encourage hope and further empowerment? Consider some of these: 

  • Capacity to Name Truth and Justice

Recovery begins when oppressed people find words to name injustices done to self and other. For example, a victim of domestic violence may become well aware of the subtle signs of verbal and emotional coercion, long before any physical violence. They become the canary in the mine, aware of poison that others may not yet sense. 

As this capacity grows beyond a mere sprout, the person may be able to speak the truth aloud, even with courage to say it to leaders. 

As naming capacity grows, it moves from awareness of personal risk to capacity to notice and care for the injustices others experience

  • Accepting weaknesses without hopelessness

Part of recovery requires honest reflection of the damage done. Signs of recovery include the ability to recognize limitations and working within capacity without self-hatred (though there may be lament for losses of previously held abilities). When we truly accept the “new normal” we then can stop evaluating daily life from the perspective of who we used to be

As we accept our limits, we can then begin to see the opportunities we do have even within our limitations

  • Identify resilience and new capacities in the midst of struggle

There may be new capacities we never observed before (e.g., the capacity to speak up to power, the ability to withstand rejection, increased empathy for the pain of others). We now notice these resiliences and growth as they stand on their own

Though we will not call the suffering good, we will be able to identify blessings that we have received in spite of and as a result of the trauma experienced 

Be Careful Not to Damage the Sprouts

For those who are not attempting the impossible, to “move on” from trauma and abuse, it is good to remember that sprouts are tender and can be easily damaged with too much interference. You may need to leave a few weeds you see near the fledgling plants so as not to disturb their roots or bruise the green shoots. How do we do this to the sprouts of recovery? We may unintentional limit growth by questioning why the person learning to speak the truth isn’t doing it in a even-tempered manner. Sadly, too often those in domestically violent marriages are told to stop being so dramatic and to calm down when they begin to speak about the truth of the violence they have experienced. Or, we can point out the sins of the victim as if somehow their responsive sins eliminate their right to speak up about the trauma they experienced. Or, we can hear someone accepting brokenness and accuse them of not trusting God for complete healing. 

Nurture recovery as you would a tender plant. It is a scandalous act of grace! By paying attention to safety needs, by bearing witness to trauma, by being willing to lament and to stay connected, we provide a greenhouse for such plants to grow into levels of recovery never before dreamed of. 

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Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling skills, pastors and pastoring, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd

Making the Church a Safe Place For Victims of Trauma


Free resource available here (filmed October 2013). (Overlook that maniacal looking pose from the image below)

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PTSD “A Disease of Time”


David Davies, part of the staff of “Fresh Air” on NPR, has conducted an 35 minute interview with David Morris, a journalist who was embedded in a unit in Iraq and who suffers from PTSD resulting from an explosion he survived. David has written a book, The Evil Hours: A Biography Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you want to better understand the experience of PTSD and its impact on a person, you should listen to this show (or read the transcript). For therapists, Morris discusses his experiences with Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). He also describes the use of propranolol when repeating trauma stories.

Here’s a couple of my take-aways:

  • PTSD is a disease of time.

“…in some ways, PTSD is a disease of time. And a lot of people – PTSD is many things, but one of the things it is a failure to live fully in the present. And I think what happens a lot of times with traumatic – survivors of trauma is they have these compulsive returns to awful events, and they are unable to live in the now.”

  • The best treatment never removes all symptoms of PTSD

“The best we can do is work to contain the pain. Draw a line around it. Name it. Domesticate it, and try to transform what lays on the other side of that line into a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the mechanics of loss that might be put to use for future generations.”

  • Honest reflections of the impact of PE and CPT (and why so many dropout from PE treatment)
  • Honest admission about the most common “treatment” of PTSD–alcohol (and evidence why so many end up abusing it!)
  • War traumatizes far too many but rape is 5x more traumatizing

[in discussing how helplessness/lack of control is a significant factor in the development of PTSD] “Yeah, the helplessness is one of the main predictors of who’s going to end up with PTSD and who doesn’t. And the idea that you have absolutely no control over your environment is very hard for people to deal with because, you know, you are basically completely helpless and unable to control your destiny and your survival….and that’s one thing I discovered in the book is I thought – you know, we sort of assume that PTSD is sort of the realm of soldiers and veterans, when in fact, the most common and most toxic form of trauma is rape.

…a soldier may have some control over his or her environment. They have a weapon with them; they can move; they can take cover. But oftentimes in the cases of rape, the victim is completely overwhelmed and trapped and cornered. And from the moment the attack begins, they are rendered almost completely helpless, which is interesting. And you see that in the diagnosable rates of who gets PTSD and who doesn’t. Rape survivors tend to have it almost 50 percent of the time, whereas your average war veteran – particularly for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – the rate of PTSD diagnosis is more around 10 to 12 percent. So a rape victim – rape is, in a manner of speaking, five times more traumatic than combat.”

 

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Why are Some Trauma Victims More Vulnerable to Re-Victimization


For those who have not suffered a chronic trauma reaction it can sometimes be hard to understand how a victimized person gets situations where re-victimization can happen. Wouldn’t one trauma at the hands of another cause you to be vigilant against any subsequent danger?

You might think so, but here’s how it happens in simplistic terms:

  1. Interpersonal Trauma leads to confusion, self-doubt (and hatred), loss of voice.
  2. Vigilance against one kind of victimization leads to making decisions to give up other values/interests to avoid the trauma
  3. That decision (or impulse) leads to opportunity for exploitation

Still doesn’t make sense? Consider how a societal trauma preps a community or country for re-victimization. Dave Zirin writes about the use of “Shock Doctrine” in his 2014 book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. Shock doctrine is opportunist moves by governments interested in taking advantage of a traumatized population

Left to their own devices, people tend to vote for things that make their lives better, like sharing wealth and resources and ensuring quality health care and education for all. Nobody wins elections by promising to turn the country into a sweatshop zone. So in order to put neoliberal policies in place, the world’s elite need a strategy—some clever sleight of hand to get what they want before anyone can object. Enter the shock doctrine

The idea is simple: people who are traumatized are more likely to agree to authoritarian measures, to suspending democracy, to doing whatever it takes. The trauma can be unexpected, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, or planned, like a massive budget cuts or a military coup—anything that

‘puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners. Like the terrorized prisoner who gives up the names of comrades and renounces his faith, shocked societies often give up the things they would otherwise fiercely protect…’

While people are reeling, trying to figure out how to survive, corporations and the corporationist state walk through the open door and take what they please.” (p 73-4)

Zirin illustrates this by pointing to countries who take privacy rights or freedom of speech from citizens in the name of protecting the people (state) from outside attack. Or corporations who find ways to take land from poor citizens after a natural disaster—to use for their own benefit.

My point is not to attack political ideologies, corporations, or governments. Rather it is to show that trauma sets us up to give up rights and boundaries more easily in order to avoid a terror. That same willingness is more easily exploited by one who sees the vulnerability. The authority will protect us we think. But if the authority is only interested in its own protection, the victim is prone to re-victimization.

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