Teaching a Traumatized Dog New Tricks

This blog post is the third installment of a multi-post series reviewing the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. (see second 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…

In chapter two of The Body Keeps the Score Van Der Kolk gives his personal narrative of the historical development of the medical establishment’s understanding of PTSD, the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, and psychotropic medications. He concludes that there is a physical component to trauma, diagnostic categories are helpful for research but not designed for daily clinical practice, and medications relieve symptoms but do not address the root cause of psychiatric problems.

Van Der Kolk cites research showing trauma victims’ brains go wrong in their secretion and regulation of stress hormones. This malfunction worsens for individuals subjected to repeated trauma and confinement. He mentions that for PTSD patients, “Fight/fight/freeze signals continue after the danger is over… and do not return to normal. Instead, the continued secretion of stress hormones is expressed as agitation and panic and, in the long term, wreaks havoc on their health.”

He also discusses a study by Maier and Seligman in which the researchers traumatized dogs by placing them in electrified cages. (Horrible I know)! Here is what this experiment discovered:

After administering several courses of electric shock, the researchers opened the doors of the cages and then shocked the dogs again. A group of control dogs who had never been shocked before immediately ran away, but the dogs who had earlier been subjected to inescapable shock made no attempt to flee, even when the door was wide open — they just lay there, whimpering and defecating.”

As barbaric as this research was, it gave Van Der Kolk new insight into his traumatized patients. He recalled this epiphany when he wrote:

… [Maier] and Seligman had found that the only way to teach the traumatized dogs to get off the electric grids when the doors were open was to repeatedly drag them out of their cages so they could physically experience how they could get away. I wondered if we could also help my patients with their fundamental orientation that there was nothing they could do to defend themselves? Did my patients also need to have physical experiences to restore a visceral sense of control?

For Van Der Kolk, trauma was a whole-person experience that affected cognitions, emotions, and the body.  Those helping traumatized individuals must not just correct feeling and thinking; instead, they must also provide interventions that will help the traumatized experience physical safety too.

Thinking Christianly…

Perhaps the most important theme in this chapter centers on the value of helping traumatized clients experience safety and security. It is not enough to understand something, for maximum healing to occur, one’s body must also feel what it means to be well.

In thinking about those pitiful dogs, it occurred to me that their experiences cohere with those of Christians. Both are trapped. Both have a way of escape. But, those desiring to help must repeatedly pull both from their cages.

As Christians, many of us find ourselves trapped in our personal prisons of sin and misery. We hate it, but it’s home, and we dare not venture outside our protective pens. We cannot bear the thought of leaving Egypt. Meanwhile, the Gate (a. k. a. “Christ”, see John 10:9) has swung open wide and invites us to enter into his rest (see Heb 4:10). As desirable as this may seem, we often remain hesitant to go. Like the traumatized dogs, we need to be pulled repeatedly from our cages.

None of this escapes the notice of the biblical writers, for we see a metaphorical pulling from our cages in many of the New Testament epistles. The general flow is: “this is who you were (in bondage), here is what Christ did (redemption, ransom, rescue), and now this is the way you should live (in freedom).” Thus, there is a constant flow between the indicative (who you are) and the imperative (how you are to behave).

Credit: https://pixabay.com
Credit: https://pixabay.com

Taking Action…

If we desire to help trauma survivors, we must remember that they need more than mind renewal, they also need actual experiences allowing them to feel God’s presence and healing. We must follow up cognitive and affective exercises with behavioral interventions. In doing so, God will use you as a holistic healing instrument in the lives of these hurting people.

Join the Conversation…

What are some specific spiritual disciplines that will help traumatized Christians experience God’s grace and mercy? What exercises have you used to help others? What activities have helped you?

1 Comment

  1. Traumatized individuals tend to have issues with Trust and Control. Although the “cage” is uncomfortable, it is predictable…it is “known”…outside of the “cage” is unpredictable…it is unknown. Unpredictability is terrifying to a trauma survivor. So…if they can be introduced to God…who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow…they can eventually find solace in Him. But…much like the dogs…it will take a lot of patience and time…and maybe even some dragging to help get them there. Quiet time…reading God’s Word and watching him work through it cannot be understated…it is one of the most powerful tools…those times that God speaks directly to the traumatized individual through His word. And Serving…showing God’s grace and mercy to others…not only allows the traumatized individual to take his/her mind off of themselves and focus on others…it also allows them to see that they are not the only ones who are struggling…they are not alone. Our cages can become very isolating and very lonely places. To know others have shared the same experience is thearapuetic in and of itself…but getting to talk with them in a safe environment without judgement, is a Gift to a Trauma survivor. In terms of Exercises…deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation exercises can do a lot to calm the sympathetic nervous system and help the traumatized person not be controlled by the physiological systems that have still not been fully dragged out of the cage. Once triggered, the traumatized individual can be hi-jacked both physically and emotionally. Building safe “resources”…very select people, specific exercises, and positive self-care and self-talk, etc. allow them to more quickly overcome these moments…and eventually they learn to turn solely to God for the safety, solace, and freedom that that they so long for!

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