This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 6: LEARN MY GOSPEL STORY by which God gives meaning to my experience.”
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Confidence in your ability to accurately interpret your surroundings is important. After trauma it can begin to feel like your assessment of your setting is either over optimistic or pessimistic; either you’re trying to convince yourself everything is fine or looking for the pending source of danger. The result is either fluctuating sense of mistrust or blind-trust that makes rest seem very difficult.
In a Dangerous World
Trauma does not make our world more dangerous than it was before; it opens our eyes to dangers of which we were blissfully ignorant. The beauty of ignorance is that it allows us not to ask certain vexing questions. The question now becomes, how do we not see what we know is possible?
We don’t “unsee” it through willful denial. Willful denial is a means of silencing your own voice. We know when we’ve just taken the batteries out of our emotional smoke detectors, and silence no longer brings peace. Instead, acknowledge and gauge the danger that is around you. After a trauma the presence of any danger or uncertainty registers as “code red.”
Part of the journey to peace of mind after trauma is re-establishing more degrees on your emotional safety thermometer. This can be done by asking yourself two questions, “What is the actual level of concern my situation warrants? What is an appropriate response to this level of concern?” It may take a while to be satisfied again with situationally-appropriate responses. But learning to accept and respond to day-to-day levels of danger is better than fluctuating between the all-or-nothing responses of denial-and-panic.
Read Matthew 10:16-24. Notice that Jesus goes out of his way not to minimize the dangers his disciples would experience. Reading his descriptions may even be unsettling. In response to these, Jesus calls his disciples to be “wise as serpents” (v. 16). Knowing and assessing the danger, Jesus wanted his disciples to take appropriate pre-cautions. Yet this vigilance, not hypervigilance, should still leave them “innocent as doves” (v. 16). There is an awareness of danger than does not rob us of peace. Likewise, there is a sense of trust that does not make us passive. Whether you feel like you consistently live in that spot now or not, know that God does not expect you to live alternating between bracing and pretending.
Question: What evidences have you seen of your ability to live in the emotional space between bracing and pretending? What relief do you feel knowing God approves of this?
You Are Not Alone
This merits repeating. We can feel alone because (a) we don’t think anyone understands or (b) because we don’t feel like we have anyone to talk to. This study is designed to counter both of those isolating narratives.
Hopefully in this study you have found vocabulary and concepts that make sense of your experience. Whereas, before, you might have felt unable to articulate your challenges and that was part of what made you feel like you were “crazy;” now you can invite someone into your journey. Allowing Christian friends to support you is what it means to experience the Body of Christ.
“The cross doesn’t answer all of our questions about human suffering, but it assures us of God’s compassion for human misery (p. 176)… Those who suffer often feel isolated and disconnected from others. They often feel no one really understands what they are experiencing… The beauty of the cross is that it connects Jesus with our suffering, particularly the suffering produced by abuse (p. 176).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul
Also, this study provides you with a resource you can use to educate those close to you on how to support you. Sometimes we avoid people, not because we think they don’t care, but because we don’t think they will understand. The thought of being the educator about our experience before we can be supported on our journey is exhausting. By merely asking someone to study this material along with you, you can avoid being stuck in this dual role.
Read Romans 12:15 and I Corinthians 12:14-26. God does not call your reliance upon others for support at this time “being a burden;” instead God views it as “being part of his body, the church.” God made us to live in community so that our pain could not exist without affecting others. God did this as a means of protecting his people and ensuring their care in hard times. In our individualistic culture, this can be hard to accept. Some of the narratives we must throw off are not just the personal meanings we’ve placed on our experience, but also the cultural values that are at odds with our recovery and God’s design for how we live.
Question: What are the experiences of being less alone that you’ve already begun to experience? What are the steps you could take to make this theme more dominant in your recovery?
On a Journey
When the scenery is changing it can be hard to get your bearings. As you process your trauma, you are changing in the ways you would have had the trauma not occurred (i.e., normal maturity) and your experience of the trauma is changing (both based upon the journey of recovery in this study and the way you think about the trauma due to new milestones in your life). All of these factors help to make sense of the frequent disorientation you may feel.
Think of the person who was sexually abused as a child. Processing this trauma will change with time; when they hit puberty and begin having sexual desires themselves, when they marry and sex becomes something that is intended as a good experience to express love, and when they have children and now feel the pressure to protect their child in ways they were unprotected. All of these changes represent a journey.
Also consider how the experience of trauma changes with time. Initially, the intrusive, constrictive, and hyper-arousal symptoms feel foreign and strange. Then they become the unwanted new-normal that is perpetually fought against. With healthy interventions they become less prevalent and intense, but still may be intensely triggered by close associations or life markers (see paragraph above). These changes also represent a journey.
Read Psalm 23. Notice that this well-known Psalm depicts a journey of a sheep with the Good Shepherd through perilous times to a place of safety. The sheep, with whom you are invited to identify, travels through barren country where skill is needed to find green pastures and water (v. 1-3) and traverses dangerous places where the terrain is unsafe and a staff is needed to protect against predators (v. 4) before coming to the place God had prepared for them to ultimately dwell (v. 5-6). Imagine the doubt and fears the sheep must have experienced along the way. Realize that the hope of the sheep was not in its surroundings, but in its companion.
Question: How does understanding your experience as a journey help you not feel as lost or dismayed in moments that are disorienting or feel like a regression?
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.