How the Church Helps Trauma Survivors

This blog post is the second installment of a multi-post series reviewing the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. (see first installment here). In these articles, I summarize each chapter, offer a Christian take on the information presented, and then apply ways Christians can redeem that knowledge for the glory of Christ.

Talking Trauma…

Van der Kolk opens The Body Keeps the Score with recollections of his experiences with traumatized Vietnam veterans in a Veteran’s Administration Hospital. He provides this historical context by describing what became posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For Van der Kolk, trauma affects the entire person. He explains, “We learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”

This experience creates lingering affects that compromise individuals’ personal agency. A heightened state of hypervigilance governs all their thinking. They lose the ability to imagine. What’s more, many struggle with a debilitaing sense of shame.

And most significant for Van der Kolk, was how trauma affects survivors’ bodies, for his Vietnam veterans exhibited similar symptoms of earlier research that claimed PTSD was a “physioneuroses.” Or to put it in Van der Kolk’s words, “posttraumatic stress isn’t ‘all in one’s head,’ as some people supposed, but has a physiological basis.” PTSD is “the entire body’s response to the original trauma.”

Source: Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons
As such, trauma changes brain functioning because, in part, it affects neurological wiring. Fixing the problem then, takes more than dispelling distorted thinking. Counselors must address both mind and body issues. Internal experiences must be changed and brains must be rewired. Van der Kolk intimates this notion when he writes, “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.” These ideas form the basis of his book.

Thinking Christianly…

Trauma survivors present a challenge to biblical counselors. We must be mindful that trauma is a whole-bodied experience and not just unbiblical thinking. We must do more than help counselees “put off” and “put on” more biblical ways of thinking. We must realize that fear overrides all their perceptions and their need for self-protection distorts and guides all their functioning.

Source: Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons
As already alluded to, trauma is more than a cognitive problem. It also impairs the imagination. Trauma survivors often are incapable of envisioning a better future, or sometimes, any future at all. This lack of imagining pushes many traumatized people into deep feelings of despair, depression, and anxiety.

Also, traumatized individuals often struggle to control their affections. In particular, many survivors deal with an overwhelming sense of shame. Some are ashamed of surviving the traumatic event, others feel shame over “placating their abusers.” Either way, trauma damages the soul’s affections compromising the person’s initial ability to “put on” more biblical ways of feeling.

As mentioned before, besides thinking and feeling, trauma affects the body too. Trauma survivors are on high alert for any dangerous stimuli in their environments. This explains why a Gulf War veteran may dive under a pew when the worship-center door unexpectedly slams. This is not a sin response, it is a survival response.

All this is not to say that assisting traumatized individuals renew their minds is unneccessary. On the contrary, Christian growth demands it. However, in understanding the person, wise counselors will know that trauma affects more than the mind, it affects the body too.

Taking Action…

The church offers much to those suffering from trauma. First, the church offers a context of loving relationships in which trauma survivors can experience safety and security as they work through the damage inflicted upon their souls.

Second, the church provides biblical counselors willing to walk with survivors and help them re-imagine the meaning of their suffering and how God covers their shame, forgives their sin, and offers them hope for the future.

Third, the church gives survivors Jesus as an abiding secure base. Through life in the faith community, the traumatized can reengage with Christ and explore ways to serve him. This service provides positive episodic memories that lessen the effect of their traumatic recollections.

Join the Conversation…

What are some other ways the church can minister to trauma survivors? More specifically, how can you minister to trauma survivors?

1 Comment

  1. Empathy & acceptance are gifts to a trauma survivor! Mayo Angelou said something that I also find to be so true…”I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Trauma can bring a sense of “emotional deviance” and an overwhelming sense of shame…so anytime someone can truly empathize with the trauma survivor and make the feel sincerely accepted/loved…some measure of healing occurs and they are that much closer to being able to accept the amazing love our Saviour has for us!

    Many survivors are not even aware of the physiological issues that coincide with the emotional issues of the trauma, adding to the confusion and fear that overwhelms them in their daily lives…so THANK YOU for blogging about this book and for providing a much needed Christian perspective on its contents! ❤️

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