Magazine Article


Understanding the reality of trauma

Leslie Rodriguez & Ingrid Weiss Slikkers
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

What is trauma? Why is everyone talking about it,and why should Christians, in particular, be concerned with it? Psychological trauma can derive from various sources, but the result can leave an individual feeling helpless, unsafe, or unable to cope with the aftermath of a distressing and overpowering experience, even as a believer. Trauma occurs when a person experiences something that is perceived as physically or emotional threatening. These experiences can produce feelings of exceeding stress, terror, or helplessness, and can produce lasting effects upon the individual’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Such trauma is prevalent, without regard for socioeconomic status, race, gender, or religion around the world.

How Trauma Impacts Us

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek word for “wound” or “to pierce.” Parallel to physical trauma, such as a broken bone or a skin wound that visibly and permanently alters the body, psychological trauma can leave lasting imprints even while internally concealed. If these emotional injuries aren’t being addressed, the brain and the body’s overall health can be drastically impacted as trauma affects the central nervous system.

When confronted with something perceived as physically or emotionally threatening, our body instinctively triggers a stress response. This means that our executive functioning, which allows us to make calculated decisions, shuts off for survival. Stress hormones flood our system to activate the self-preservation instinct resulting in a flight, fight, freeze, or fawn response: we may either flee the threat, confront it head-on, become motionless to let it pass, or submit to what is happening. This God-gifted stress response is lifesaving. However, extended activation and hypervigilance because of chronic and repeated high stress, especially without protective and supportive relationships, can severely wear down the body and brain and become toxic stress.

Scientists are concerned that prolonged exposure to toxic stress not only affects the immediate mental and physical well-being of the individual, but also sets the stage for long-term health challenges, significantly impacting overall quality and even duration of life. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study showed that negative experiences during childhood created a higher likelihood of negative behavioral and health outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease, or even premature death. This landmark research stimulated deeper and more widespread investigations of the impact of trauma and even exploration into intergenerational effects. Toxic levels of stress impact the prefrontal cortex, which can affect the ability to attach and the capability to manage relationships; may inhibit regulation; and limit cause-and-effect thinking and decision-making. This can lead to significant depression and anxiety.

What Can Christians Do About Trauma?

Prior to humanity’s being able to express the idea of trauma, God had already provided the means of healing. Our brain is indeed an organ, so fundamental health principles of nutrition, exercise, sunshine (vitamin D), water, and sleep are vitally important for restoration. Of course, every moment should involve prayer, acknowledging our faith and dependency on God for ourselves and others. In our efforts to respond to the impact of trauma and its far-reaching effects, it’s essential to prioritize making professional mental health referrals whenever accessible.

Trauma theory urges that many of the behavioral manifestations that we see in ourselves or in others are a direct result of coping with adverse experiences that have or are occurring. A trauma-aware perspective moves us from asking “What’s wrong with that person?” to “What’s happened to that person?” This doesn’t require us to have comprehensive knowledge about someone’s entire past or expertise in mental health. As followers of Christ, we are invited to pause in our reactions, as we do not know others’ stories. We do not know how their nervous system may be responding to potential toxic levels of stress in their lives. In the character of Jesus, our ideal response is one of compassion.

As the Israelites faced the daunting Red Sea, filled with desperation, fear, and panic, how did God reassure them? “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex. 14:14, NIV). You need only to be still. Amid tumultuous times, God encourages us not to fear. One of the greatest gifts we have is breath, God’s first gift to us when He created Adam. A divine endowment bestowed upon all of us, it stands as one of the most powerful means to counteract the impact of trauma. When someone feels overwhelming emotions rise and their stress response begins to activate because the heavy imprint of trauma on the body, simply taking a few slow, deep breaths can help relax both the mind and body. Breath is life and can help to regulate our bodies to be able to make decisions. For the best outcomes, researchers recommend inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, with the exhalation being longer than the inhalation. This intentional stillness that God calls us to is something we can practice and easily teach and share with our loved ones. It is a tool available to everyone, and science proves its immediate benefits when strong emotions arise from our activated nervous systems.

As mental health concerns increase in the world, resiliency has become an area of focus. At a quick glance, resiliency is generally defined as the ability to recover rapidly from difficulties or the capacity to emotionally or physically cope or recuperate from a crisis by returning to a pre-crisis state. Resiliency has been compared to elastic and the skill to “bounce back” after being stretched. Recent discussions point out the reality that when we go through a crisis it is impossible to subsequently return to a pre-crisis state; resiliency should instead be defined as the development of new ways of coping or going through life. This developed definition describes resilience as being actually stronger, wiser, and with profound personal growth from trials and tribulations—in other words, post-traumatic growth.  

If you were to ask any expert in the area of trauma and mental health to summarize in one word what is most important for post-traumatic growth, they would say, “Relationships.” Though we fall short of God’s perfect love, we are called to love with a similar consistency. For individuals, especially those impacted by trauma, consistent relationships play the utmost of important roles. They need assurance of safety and support within the relationship. This doesn’t mean condoning any possible poor decisions, but ensuring that love and care for them transcend, offering a sanctuary of support and understanding within our families and church community.

God beautifully created us in and for relationships, and the science supports this. This divine blueprint reveals our intrinsic need for connections and sense of belonging. It is vitally important that we create intentional spaces in our churches where deep unconditional relationships can be formed and strengthened. Creating and nurturing these spaces will not only enhance the well-being of individuals but also fortify the unity and strength of our churches to bring healing to God’s people.

Throughout Scripture we encounter individuals who grapple with trauma resulting from the sin and brokenness of this world, each interacting with God in unique ways. Elijah, when isolated and faced with the fear of death, succumbed to depression, doubting God’s purpose for his life (1 Kings 19:4). Yet Job, sitting upon his pile of ashes, covered in boils after enduring immense suffering and affliction, remained devoted to his faith and refused to curse God (Job 2:10). Even the freed Israelites, having witnessed one of God’s greatest miracles, grumbled and complained during their journey in the wilderness (Ex. 15:23, 24; 16:2, 3). Still, throughout every story, for each individual and for humanity in every generation, one aspect remains constant—God’s unchanging love and care for His people (Heb. 13:8). He reassures us with the proclamation: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jer. 31:3, NIV).

As believers, we know that in this world trauma will increase as time continues. Romans 15:13 reminds us that we have a God of hope who can fill us completely with joy and peace as we trust in Him. Against trials, tribulation, and trauma let us lean into this divine hope so that we can become beacons of light as we journey in healing with others who may be grappling with their own struggles. In doing so, we emulate the transformative power of God’s hope, radiating it outward and touching the lives of those we encounter. May we daily walk in remembrance of this promise, overflowing with everlasting hope and taking each other’s hands so that no one walks this earth alone.

Leslie Rodriguez & Ingrid Weiss Slikkers

Leslie Rodriguez is a clinical intern at the International Center for Trauma Education and Care at Andrews University. Ingrid Weiss Slikkers is executive director at the International Center for Trauma Education and Care and associate professor of social work at Andrews University.