How to Recover from Trauma with the Help of a Christian Counselor
What is trauma? One definition of trauma is, “an experience that produces psychological injury or pain” (dictionary.com). In today’s society, it is often used as a psychological buzzword.
We are told trauma causes problems when a person experiences it and does not get psychological help. Based on the above definition, everyone should seek psychological counseling because we all have experiences that cause psychological injury and pain.While I do believe everyone needs support of some kind to cope with a painful experience, I do not believe everyone needs to seek psychological counseling to resolve trauma. However, most studies that I am aware of that point to the idea of getting help at the time that you need it, predict long-term outcomes for trauma-related psychological problems.
Factors such as severity, vulnerability, and support availability are frequently factors that determine the need for counseling. The purpose of this article is to inform the reader of issues surrounding unresolved trauma and how counseling from a Christian perspective can help them heal.
At a fundamental level, trauma presents competing needs to the human psyche that can often overwhelm the person’s whole system of thinking and feeling. An attack on a person’s physical or psychological well-being not only causes pain at the moment but the need to grieve a loss. Further, human beings have a fundamental need to make meaning from their pain as a way of coping with it.
The Biblical character, Job, highlights issues humans suffer from trauma. Job 3:25-26 reads, “What I feared has come upon me, what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”
Job’s story encapsulates the elements of what all trauma sufferers experience: overwhelming pain followed by a vacuum of loss and confusion. As Job’s story unfolds, he goes back and forth between his experiences with God and his confusion (and frustration) as to why these negative events are happening.
His friends are initially supportive, but when Job’s complaints undermine their theology they start to criticize him in the midst of his suffering. Contained in this story are all the elements of dealing with trauma and the pitfalls that complicate it. A simple outline of his trauma story is a negative event(s), overwhelming pain, loss, the need to grieve, the need for support and finding meaning in his trauma.
How to Recover from Trauma
In my 28 years in the mental health field, I have found that when people don’t get to move through a process that includes the above elements, they end up with secondary problems associated with the original trauma.
Some of the reasons trauma causes long-term problems are rooted in how human being develop and function emotionally. For example, if you ever watch a toddler fall down and hurt themselves, they typically seek out a trusted adult after the trauma.
The reason is that human beings do not form a relationship with their internal feeling states in a vacuum. Humans need a reciprocal feedback loop to make sense and trust what their feelings mean.
When the toddler falls and hurts their knee they feel fear about their injury. If they look at their mother’s face and see distress, then they know they are feeling the correct thing about their injury.
If mom looks unconcerned or detached, a child may protest for a while, but eventually, abandon their feeling. Over time, when a child grows up in an environment that cannot validate their experience, a child does not learn to make sense or trust their feelings.
As a therapist, I find that people that tend to need professional counseling to deal with trauma often grow up in environments that where their feelings (particularly around trauma) were not reflected back to them enough for them to make sense of what they mean.
The result when dealing with trauma is that the person can then not express grief and loss and make meaning out of their experience. They are faced with finding a way to just repress the pain.
Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings a song to a heavy heart. – Proverbs 25:20
This Proverb highlights the importance of emotional validation around trauma. Singing happy songs to one who is grieving aggravates their injury. Ultimately, in the story of Job, God finds fault with the way his friends dealt with Job’s suffering. They relied on their own knowledge and experience of things and failed to validate Job’s suffering.
Twenty years ago I took a year-long post-graduate training certificate in the psychological treatment of violent crime. My professor was a police psychologist who taught both research and from his extensive experience working with victims of violent crime.
One of the things I remember him teaching about victims was that single incident rape victims take about a year to recover from the trauma provided they have a least one supportive relationship to work it through. People with an absence of that support were much different. They tended to have long-term symptoms that could last indefinitely.
I have observed this in my clinical practice as well. People tend to not recover from trauma when they have to endure it without at least one relationship to help them process it. Counseling by design can be very helpful for providing an atmosphere where people can reconnect with their feelings about traumatic events and learn to let go of the grief and loss that was affecting them.
Christian believers have the added benefit of having a God that can personally relate to their pain. Hebrews 5:2 reads, “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray since he himself was subject to weakness.”
In my mind, it is way more comforting to think that not only does God understand what I feel, but he has felt it himself. Getting that kind of validation can provide a lot of hope and motivation to get a new perspective on the worst of things that life can hand down to people. One of the goals of Christian Counseling is to help people resolve trauma using their faith as a source of validation for processing their unresolved grief.
It is probably safe to say that all human beings want to feel safe and cared for when they need it. Traumatic events create opposite experiences and leave a vacuum of meaning as to “why” did they have to go through this experience.
Getting an answer for the “why” probably is an effort to restore a sense of control over safety and security. Jesus himself, during his agony, cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mathew 27:46).
It is a normal human way of coping to seek meaning as to the cause of the suffering. The answers that we come up with have a huge impact on whether a person moves and grows through trauma or gets stuck in it.
In the Christian based sexual abuse recovery book, “The Wounded Heart” by Dan Allender (2008), he discusses how overwhelming pain create interweaving internal beliefs that affect the way a victim thinks about themselves in relationship to the world.
Since sex is tied to connection, an abuse survivor feels shame about natural longings for connection. A person can’t keep them self from longing for connection, so they use a form of anger called “contempt” to overpower feelings of shame. Allender describes victims that end up using contempt in two ways: self-contempt and contempt toward God/others.
For example, “I am mad at myself for needing attention that led to my abuse”. The contempt based internal message could end up being, “I’m too needy, I don’t deserve positive attention”. This internal self-directed anger could leave the person lonely for a lifetime if not addressed.
Similarly, an other-based contempt message derived from sexual trauma might be, “God left me when I needed him most, I can’t fully trust Him”. A person with a sincere faith could spend their whole life in exhausting self-reliance with this kind of message.
I view sexual abuse as an extreme form of trauma. Studying treatment approaches to it and how people react to it has taught me a lot about how people react to trauma in general. I find that the shame/contempt reaction described by Allender exists in many clients’ reactions to other life traumas.
In an effort to manage pain and make life predictable the human psyche craves meaning with regard to the causes of trauma. In a vacuum of explanation, resorting to shame and contempt is a natural default on which people can land. The point is that people need a relationship of support and empathy at the time of trauma to avoid its lasting effects.
If they don’t get it, seeing a professional therapist is very important so the trauma doesn’t fester into contempt. Christian’s believe that Jesus has overcome the ills of the world, so getting help uncovering beliefs that block the believer from connecting with God and others is where a Christian Counselor helps.
A Christian Counselor’s goal in addressing unresolved trauma involves a couple of phases in a counseling setting. The first is identifying trauma(s) that have negatively impacted how the client views self and other. Next, the counselor seeks to provide an atmosphere where the client can connect with and express the grief that previous periods in their life did not allow.
Finally, the counselor helps the client to examine underlying beliefs and coping styles that are no longer needed to repress the grief. Creating new meaning by anchoring belief in Scriptural teachings and promises with Jesus as the example is the model the client learns to adapt.
Jesus’ forty-day fast, which I am told was to symbolize the Israelites forty years of struggles in the desert, provides a great model of how to suffer trauma ending in a deeper trust in God (Matthew 4:1-11). In this passage, Jesus endures three types of attacks while suffering: identity, safety, and security.
Satan’s first attack was subtle, “If you are the Son of God….”. When a person suffers trauma without support a common reaction is doubt the value or worth of one’s identity since no one stopped it. The Jesus model is to get identity from connection with God, not defined by ability.
The next attack was regarding personal safety (“throw yourself down”). It is natural to conclude from a human perspective that traumatic events are a lack of God protecting me. In a sense, that is true from a temporal perspective, but from Jesus’s viewpoint, it is not. Jesus always emphasized the priority of the spiritual over the material.
He was the example of a person who endured the worst trauma the world could deliver without it affecting His soul. None of the main characters in the Bible had trauma-free lives but were still promised eternal protection for their faithful endurance of life’s trials. That’s where Jesus got his sense of safety.
Finally, Jesus surrendered getting his sense of security from anything that the material world could give him. Surrounding ourselves with material comforts and the praise of people offers the false hope of lasting security (“All this I will give you”). Jesus saw through this as an empty promise that would not anchor His eternal soul.
Over the years counseling clients, I have heard unbelievably sad stories about life traumas my clients have endured. Many of the stories convinced me that I would never be able to recover or cope the way my clients had. People endure such unfathomable pain in this life that is hard to imagine that God allows it.
One thing I am convinced of through the endurance of many of my clients is that the spirit inside of people is much stronger than the worst of life’s traumas when it is connected to a source of love. Helping trauma survivors anchor their identity, safety and security in God is the ultimate goal of a Christian Counseling’s approach to trauma.
Jesus’ words to his disciples to prepare them for trauma was, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
“16 Years”, Courtesy of Aidan Bartos, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Stories: Ch.2”, Courtesy of Sydney Sims, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Bird in Flight Over Sea”, Courtesy of Alex Wigan, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Hopeful Person”, Courtesy of Angello Lopez, Unsplash.com; CC0 License