We live in a fallen world in which we are sometimes exposed to terrifying events. Experiencing or witnessing those events can cause severe psychological trauma. However, we can be comforted in knowing that the God who experienced a traumatic crucifixion on our behalf is with us in the midst of our trauma, and that he has given medical personnel the ability to treat the brain-based distortions that result from traumatic experiences.
[Note: This past summer, I was diagnosed with PTSD related to an event earlier in life as well as a more recent event. I underwent inpatient trauma therapy during the summer and am now experiencing recovery. Thus, I have written this article based not only on research but personal experience.]
What is trauma?
Trauma is a shocking and painful experience that causes harmful physiological, psychological, and spiritual effects. And, although me might typically limit “trauma” to wartime experiences, childhood sexual abuse, or domestic battery, it applies to many other circumstances; it can extend to situations such as childhood bullying, verbal violence from a spouse, or catastrophic financial or relational loss.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental and physical health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event or series of events—either by experiencing the event or witnessing it. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms are generally grouped into four categories: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative alterations of thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms vary from person to person and also can change over time.
How does trauma alter the brain and body?
Psychological trauma affects a person mentally and physiologically. It affects three areas of the brain—the amygdala, hippocampus, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex—which, in turn, introduce disorder in our thinking, feeling, and acting.
The amygdala is a structure in our limbic system that serves as the emotional center of our self. When injured via trauma, it becomes overactive. Whereas before trauma, it properly regulates our “fight and flight” responses, after trauma it becomes much more sensitive and causes us to be on the lookout for trauma in situations where we are not likely to be traumatized. It scans the memory banks to identify situations that are similar to past traumatic events so that we can avoid them. In other words, emotionally, a person with PTSD is often or always on “high alert.”
The hippocampus is another structure in our limbic system; it serves as the memory center of the self. In a person with PTSD, it becomes less active and thus less able to help us distinguish between past traumatic memories and present perceptions of reality.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex interacts with our limbic system and, when healthy, regulates the intensity of any emotional experiences triggered by the amygdala. Yet, when unhealthy, it is suppressed and thus unable to regulate intensity. For a person with PTSD, therefore, seemingly ordinary events can startle and trigger disproportionate mental and physical symptoms. In other words, instead of reacting to a given event in an even-keeled manner, a person with PTSD is likely to react in an emotionally imbalanced and impulsive manner.
How does trauma affect a person spiritually?
It is commonly recognized that psychological trauma affects a person mentally and physiologically, but not as often recognized that trauma poses spiritual challenges as well. Given that PTSD separates the “left brain” (emotions) from the “right brain” (reasoning), it impairs the decision-making process. When decision-making is impaired, it becomes much easier for a person to make foolish or immoral choices.
Scripture makes clear that the Evil One is a liar and a murderer. Thus, it stands to reason that he will take advantage a person whose decision-making is impaired. Yet, Scripture also makes clear that we are given no temptation that God will not empower us to withstand (1 Cor 10:13), and that God our Father stands with us in the midst of the pain (Is 41:10).
When faced with symptoms of PTSD, such as the ones outlined above, we should seek medical help immediately. There are empirically-proven, brain-based therapies (such as EMDR) that can help reconnect left brain and right brain. Additionally, we should remind ourselves continually that God’s law is intended for human flourishing and that any rejection of his law will end up hurting us even further.
How can Christians best minister to a traumatized person?
The first and best way to minister to a traumatized person is to recommend they seek medical help, if they have not already. Brain-based therapies can help a person’s brain hit “reset” so that their emotional state and decision-making abilities are substantially improved.
Second, ministry to traumatized people should center on listening more than instructing. A traumatized person tends to divide the world sharply between people who understand and people who don’t. Their instinctive impulse will be to open up only to people who have also experienced trauma; this impulse is reinforced by any negative experiences of opening up to non-traumatized people. Thus, when ministering to traumatized people, we should be careful not to introduce more pain into that person’s life by sloppily handling the information he or she gives us or by giving naïve (and therefore unintentionally harmful) advice.
Third, we should be careful not to reduce a traumatized person’s pain to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to apply Bible promises simplistically to that person’s situation. When we assume that a traumatized person’s pain is the same as some other garden-variety pain, we shut down communication with that person by communicating to them that, “God only speaks to the peak of their pain at the most garden-variety levels.”
Fourth, when the time is right and we have set the context by listening and sympathizing, we can remind the person of God’s promises, such as:
- God offers strength and courage. “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous hand” (Is 41:10)
- God, through Christ, empathizes because he has experienced fear and trauma. After all, the Christian “logo” is a naked, suffering, bleeding God-man.
- God will one day put an end to pain and suffering. When Christ returns to set the world to rights, he will bring an end to trauma and its effects. “He will wipe away every tear…. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4).
These reminders will not provide a quick or comprehensive healing for the symptoms. They will not repair the brain but if the traumatized person is able to embrace them, he or she will be strengthened mentally, spiritually, and perhaps physically as well.