Many of us all over the world are coping with traumatic stress at this point in our collective life history—either through recent overwhelming losses, or through past trauma that threatens to be reactivated, through vicarious trauma as we witness the suffering of others, or perhaps through the sheer magnitude of the current collective trauma. As I meditate on the experience of trauma affecting us—most recently, the stories of India ravaged by the coronavirus—I find myself in danger of being swept out to sea, a kind of panicky feeling of a powerful undertow taking over.
A second image—that of being in a very small boat surrounded by the vast ocean, afraid of being tossed into the raging sea and shouting for a lifeline—also lives in me. Sometimes, I see myself with the disciples in the storm on the Sea of Galilee, crying out for Jesus to wake up, for heaven’s sake, and save us from the mounting chaos. These images all point to something unimaginably huge that has come our way which requires us to find trustworthy lifelines that will bring us securely to a place of safety and rest.
Trauma is unbelievably complex. It is not a single thing, nor even a single set of things, that we can identify from the outside, saying: yes, this is clearly a traumatic experience; or no, that one is not. Trauma arises from a subjective feeling of threat that cannot be adequately processed. The felt sense in the body is I AM NOT SAFE or I DO NOT MATTER.
If we have an unresolved traumatic experience, we go through life expecting the worst to happen. Instead of a sense of adventure over new opportunities, we feel scared and uncertain, afraid that something terrible might happen. Unresolved trauma puts us on permanent alert, always poised for danger.
The felt sense of being overwhelmed can arise after a single terrifying event or it can grow over a period of years when chronic stress exists, such as under conditions of poverty or oppression, or in childhood developmental trauma. Children who grow up with terrified or terrifying parents experience high levels of chronic stress. When they suffer neglect or abuse at the hands of those upon whom they depend utterly, they become prone to later trauma and chronic illness.
When considering our current collective history, it’s important to acknowledge the reality of secondary trauma as well. This can happen when you witness the primary trauma of another, often someone you care about, but not always; sometimes just hearing about what has happened to a stranger while listening to a news program can trigger secondary trauma. It is surely what happened to millions of people in the United States and around the world as they watched the video clip of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine interminably long minutes. Witnesses to murder frequently experience traumatic shock or vicarious trauma.
Secondary trauma especially afflicts those caregivers whose own unresolved and unhealed trauma is triggered as they listen to the suffering of those they care for. Those whose work exposes them daily to the pain and broken-heartedness of others are especially vulnerable to secondary or vicarious trauma, such as clergy, health workers, teachers, police, and journalists, as Kaethe Weingarten describes in her book Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day.
Whether we have experienced primary trauma, secondary trauma, or a combination of both, mindfulness helps us gain emotional resilience while living under trying circumstances. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist who has studied the neuroscience of trauma, teaches people to approach painful sensations, emotions or memories with what he calls mindful presence. In his book, The Mindful Brain, he describes four elements of mindful presence with the acronym, C-O-A-L: Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love.
If memories of trauma begin to emerge, instead of clenching in fear and shutting down your emotional receptivity, get curious about what is happening in your mind and body. Ask yourself gently: When did I notice my anxiety starting to rise? Was it a thought or an image that sparked it, or perhaps a sensation in my body? Was it something that someone said? What are the actual sensations that I am experiencing in my body: a quickened breath; a tight jaw or shoulders; a knot in my stomach, shaking in my legs or hands?
Are there certain thoughts that I hear myself repeating such as “I cannot bear this;” OR “I’ll never get any relief;” OR “This will never change because it has already happened and I cannot change the past.” Thoughts such as these, repeated over and over again, only serve to reinforce the traumatic cycle of suffering. Instead of reinforcing the trauma by thinking about your helplessness, ask yourself questions about what you are actually experiencing in the here and now. Stay curious.
Second, stay open to what is happening. There are good reasons (that you may not yet fully understand) for you to feel as you do. Trauma symptoms are not a sign that you are sick or crazy; they are your body’s way of speaking about its distress so that you can pay attention to it and heal it. Be open to what is happening without judging it. Judgments about what should be only reinforce pain without creating the emotional space needed for true mourning. Even a slight shift in thinking from “My husband should be here to walk our daughter down the aisle on her wedding day;” to “I feel so sad that my husband has died and will not be with us that day. It opens an aching hole of longing in my chest and it hurts to see my daughter’s pain on top of my own.” Shifting from judging what is happening to feeling what is happening could seem like a small shift, but experientially, it is huge. The “shoulds” keep us stuck whereas expressing our pain enables us to heal.
Siegel’s third characteristic is developing an attitude of acceptance. Accepting the fact of your anxiety instead of fighting against it, for instance, paradoxically makes it easier to tolerate. Acceptance doesn’t mean it will always be this way. Nor does it mean that you are giving up or giving in. Instead, it is an attitude that says something like: “OK, this is where I am at. Right now, this is my experience.” A certain level of acceptance frees you to become aware of your actual surroundings in the present. It shifts your brain into relaxation mode and restores a sense of agency and choice. It also helps you to acknowledge the crucial fact that you actually have survived the traumatic experience.
Finally, love. This is an attitude of kind compassion toward yourself that you would extend to anyone going through something frightening, a dear friend or spouse, or a child whom you love. This is the key element, learning to offer yourself loving attention. If you cannot manage this on your own, you will need to turn to someone who can be with you, offering you their loving attention, helping you to regulate your own nervous system with their presence and love.
As we will discuss more in next week’s post, this loving presence that we offer to each other has its origins in God’s love for us. God’s love sustains us because God is our ultimate lifeline in the midst of our personal, secondary, and collective traumas.
We invite you to join us on Zoom this Saturday, May 22 at 9am, as Deborah leads us in a live workshop on Healing Collective Trauma. Here more from her about the impact collective trauma has on all of us and learn about concrete psychological and spiritual tools for increasing resilience and finding hope and joy in the midst of pain.
Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Ph.D., an ordained minister in the PCUSA, is a Spiritual Director at Princeton Theological Seminary and Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita. Originally trained as a pastoral counselor, Deborah taught courses in pastoral theology and pastoral care at Princeton Seminary for 25 years. She now offers trauma-informed spiritual care to both individuals and small groups. This post is adapted from her article: “Trauma-Informed Spiritual Care: Lifelines for a Healing Journey,” Theology Today, February, 2021.