This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 3: UNDERSTAND the impact of my suffering.”
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There is a danger in discussing the factors that contribute to the influence of a trauma. The danger is that we begin to do emotional math, “If my trauma only had 70% of the factors listed below then that means someone else’s trauma is 30% worse, so I shouldn’t complain.” The fallacy is that “could be worse” does not mean “not that bad.”
Do not use this material to silence yourself. Its purpose is to validate your experience and give you words to talk about why your trauma has impacted you the way that it has.
Another way to say this is, “Suffering is not a competitive sport.” Just because someone else got hit by a truck doesn’t mean your knee surgery hurts any less. God’s compassion is not in limited supply, so we do not have to “make our case” in order to get as much of it as we can. We do not have to “justify our need” in order to be heard.
Read Matthew 7:7-11. In light of the discussion above, ask yourself, “When I pray, am I envisioning a God who is this free with his compassion?” If the answer is “no,” do not feel ashamed. It is common to doubt God after experiencing trauma. God is patient with that response as well. That is why he inspires so many psalms of lament and despair to be included in the Bible. As you consider the factors that influence the impact of trauma, remind yourself after each point (after each sentence, if necessary), God cares and he wants me to bring each of these factors to him (I Peter5:7). God is not annoyed or impatient. God does not expect me to “just get over it.” God is patient like a good father should love his child after a tragedy (v. 11).
1. Intensity of the Trauma You Experienced:
This is the first of three measures of the “size” of the trauma (intensity, duration, and frequency). The three factors constitute the most significant determinants of the trauma’s impact.
“The most powerful determinant of psychological harm is the character of the traumatic event itself. Individual personality characteristics count for little in the face of overwhelming events. There is a simple, direct relationship between the severity of the trauma and its psychological impact, whether that impact is measured in terms of the number of people affected or the intensity and duration of harm (p. 57).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
Factors related to intensity would include:
- level of personal pain (physical, mental, or emotional),
- exposure to violence,
- reasonable expectation of possible death,
- coercion towards making a decision that violates your conscience,
- being coerced to harm someone or something you love,
- having harm threatened against someone or something you love if you don’t comply to a demand,
As the number or profundity of these factors increase in the trauma you experienced, the greater the intensity your trauma would have.
2. Duration of the Trauma You Experienced:
The longer a trauma lasts, either duration or frequency, the greater impact it will have. As the trauma endures, the experience of that trauma changes from “the exception to an otherwise safe life” to “the normal experience of my life.” The emerging sense of futility makes it easier to stop resisting the trauma. As we see in a later point, the resistance of trauma is a psychological buffer against the impact of that trauma.
3. Frequency of Traumas You’ve Experienced:
As a trauma is repeated, we can easily adopt a sense of failure due to our inability to make it stop. Powerlessness is not only experienced in the moment of trauma, but also in the intervening moments when we reasonably expect the trauma to recur but are unable to prevent it. Later, after the traumas have ceased, it becomes harder to believe we could prevent a future trauma were the opportunity for it to arise. The result is that a sense of powerlessness and bracing seeps into our “peaceful moments.”
4. Age When You Experience the Trauma:
We can only face a trauma with the emotional and cognitive resources available at the time we face that trauma. For children, that means they must process a trauma with the maturity and life experience their tender years affords. Later milestones in maturation will be affected as the “life lessons” of this trauma are part of the young person’s maturational foundation. This is not as deterministic as it sounds, but the effect should not be minimized and must be accounted for in order to be countered.
“A child is emotionally unable to refuse, modify, or detoxify a parent’s abusive projections. The power differential is too great and the projections too toxic and overwhelming. Furthermore, the child actually lives in the emotional world and fantasy life of the parent. This is the child’s reality (p. 322).” Richard T Frazier in “The Subtle Violations—Abuse and the Projection of Shame” in Pastoral Psychology
5. Passivity in Your Response to the Trauma:
Resistance, even when it is futile, helps maintain a sense of personal autonomy and voice. When we emotionally surrender to an experience of trauma it feels like the trauma has stolen another facet of our personhood; the political captive who stops believing he’ll be rescued, or the rape victim who stops resisting (this is not consent) her attacker. This is not to label anyone “weak” or “inferior” for reaching this point. But merely to identify a factor that accounts for an increase in the impact a trauma will have.
6. Your Emotional Stability Prior to the Trauma:
Trauma is an experience that is “more than we are prepared to endure at the time we are required to endure it.” If your general disposition is one that does not handle stress well or you were under intense stress prior to your experience of trauma, then the degree to which a trauma would have surpassed your ability to cope with it will be greater.
7. Reactions from Loved Ones:
If, upon disclosing your experience of trauma, those that you trusted responded with disbelief, silence (i.e., acting as if nothing happened), minimization, misunderstanding, or blaming you for the experience, then this will increase the impact of your trauma. While this is generally true of all traumas, it is even more relevant for trauma related to various forms of abuse – physical, emotional, or sexual.
8. Violation of Trust Associated with the Trauma:
This impact-factor includes two variations. First, if your trauma came at the hands of another person, then the more reasonable it was for you to trust this person (i.e., parent, teacher, pastor, etc…) the greater the impact will be. Second, drawing upon point #7 above, if your trauma is exacerbated by the negative response of a loved one, then the more trust that existed in the relationship in which you felt betrayed, the greater the impact will be.
9. Broader Social Reaction to Your Experience:
It is not just the reaction of our “inner circle” of trusted people that contributes to the impact of a trauma. The broader social reaction does as well. Protesters against a war add to the post-traumatic experience of veterans. Pastors who speak about rape or prejudice without understanding increase the impact of these experiences. Social silence on issues that are public enough to warrant a public response also intensify the impact of trauma as it feels like “the whole world is complicit” in a cover up.
10. Number of Post-Trauma Hardships Created:
There are many hardships that can result from a trauma: disability, job loss, loss of a loved one, emotional instability, and stigma just to name a few. These hardships serve as triggers for post-traumatic memories, add to the sense that the past keeps infringing upon the present, and feed a sense of powerlessness.
11. Significant Events Associated with Your Trauma:
A house burning at Christmas time, learning of adultery on your anniversary, or a car accident in which your child dies at the intersection near your house would be significant events in close associate with your trauma. Not only do these serve as triggers, they add to the sense that you will not be able to escape the memory of the trauma (powerlessness again).
12. Your Interpretation of the Trauma:
Do you believe this trauma means you’re cursed, forsaken by God, marked for life, broken beyond repair, deserving of these kind of things happening to you, or an indication of a powerful lesson God couldn’t teach you any other way? These types of beliefs are what we will wrestle with in steps four through six. People instinctually seek to make sense of our experience. Adults ask “Why?” as naturally as a baby cries. We think understanding will give us “closure” and allow us to “move past” the traumatic experience. While this is overly optimistic about the ground that can be gained through an accurate perspective on suffering, the better we make sense of our traumatic experience the better we will be equipped to counter the impact of our suffering – steps seven to nine.
As you examined these various contributors to the impact of a traumatic experience, what did you learn?
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.