I will be the first one to agree that the word “trauma” has been trivialized in the ways it is popularly used. “I’m traumatized! My favorite character got killed off in this week’s episode.” “The gym is going to be closed for another month. How am I going to deal with this trauma?”
However, as a counselor and researcher who specializes in the area of psychological trauma, I am confident in saying that every single one of us has lived through a period of collective trauma in 2020. Part of the clinical definition of a traumatic event is that it involves exposure to actual or threatened death. This perceived threat can be to your own life, to someone you know, or through repeated exposure to the details of the traumatic experiences of others.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember feeling like an invisible monster was lurking in the streets. Although we knew so little about the virus in those early days, what was communicated over and over again was that this virus most certainly had the ability to cause death. As the days stretched into weeks and then into months, I was inundated with stories about this deadly threat, even though I attempted to limit my exposure to the news.
First the stories came from Italy, then from New York, and eventually from my home state of Florida. Each story uniquely detailed the impact of COVID-19: the stories of healthcare workers fighting to save lives, the stories of choir practices, family gatherings, and work conferences turning into super-spreader events. Scientists continue to publish research articles studying the long-term health effects of the virus.
What has been the impact of this collective, long-term exposure to trauma? The list of clinical symptoms related to acute stress or traumatic stress is long; among them are irritability, disturbances in sleep, avoidance of relationships or tasks, intrusive thoughts, decreased interest in things that used to be lifegiving, difficulty concentrating, and depressed mood. Although few people go on to develop diagnosable post-traumatic stress, most of us will experience an increase in some or many of these symptoms, especially after prolonged exposure to the chronic stress of a long-lasting event like this pandemic.Another way to think about the impact of trauma is to think about the losses, both specific and general, that are a result of trauma.
Another way to think about the impact of trauma is to think about the losses, both specific and general, that are a result of trauma. At various points in this pandemic, many of us have lost routines, vacations, jobs, and the ability to gather with others. Events have been canceled, our work has changed, and screens have become a nearly universal mediator of relationships.
One of my mentors, Dr. Dan Allender, also talks about the broader losses that come as the result of experiencing trauma. These are losses that change the way we interact with the world and with one another.
Loss of a Sense of Safety
Trauma rips away the assumption that the world is basically a predictable, safe, and understandable place. Without a basic sense of safety, it is difficult to find rest for our bodies or our souls. As the months pass, we will increasingly feel the impact of a long-term state of vigilance, of constantly looking ahead for the next threat.
Loss of Connection
Trauma severs connections. On a neurobiological level, experiences of intense fear result in a disconnection in the ways our nervous system processes and interprets experience, which causes an internal disintegration or fragmentation. This disintegration then plays out in the world around us, as we struggle to be fully present with one another when our internal worlds have been fractured.
In the case of this pandemic, there has also been an enforced disconnection from relationships, especially for those who find themselves most at-risk for infection. While technology has kept us connected on one level, our bodies and souls know the difference between a Skype conversation and a face-to-face interaction. We were not made for this kind of isolation.Our bodies and souls know the difference between a Skype conversation and a face-to-face interaction. We were not made for this kind of isolation.
Loss of a Sense of Agency
Another characteristic of trauma is that it involves a sense of powerlessness to prevent the worst from happening. We experience trauma as something that happens to us without our consent. As image-bearers of God, we live with purpose and have agency to impact the world around us. The majority of us do not have the ability to stop the advance of the novel coronavirus and mitigate its impact on our society. Trauma disorients us when we find we have no ability to effectively act in the face of the threat.
Loss of Hope
When a traumatic experience becomes chronic, it often produces a sense of despair within us. As we wrestle with the impact of losing safety, connection, and agency, we no longer feel able to look ahead with hope. This loss of hope can be expressed in many ways: as passivity, anxiety, depression, or avoidance. As the months have gone by, I have increasingly seen my friends, students, and counseling clients move from fear into various levels of despair or disengagement.
So, in light of our current reality, how do we – the church – respond? What are small ways to fight back against the impact of trauma on our bodies, souls, and communities? In short, it will look different for each of us, but we can use the categories of loss mentioned above to start conversations that will move us toward a different response, a hopeful response, even in the midst of uncertainty.
How can we re-establish safety? For many of us, the first answer to this question will involve how we attend to the impact of long-term stress on our bodies. If we neglect to start here, we will not have the capacity to move into our communities with purpose and hope. So, we must assess the ways we nourish, move, and rest our bodies. You may need more sleep or find that getting outdoors or moving your body is more important than ever.
However, for many, this pandemic has had profound effects on physical and mental health, employment, and housing security. Re-establishing a baseline of safety in these areas may take time, and the church needs to be involved with addressing the needs of our communities.
May our souls be reminded that safety is ultimately found in the amazing truth of how God moved toward us, his people, through Jesus.Without diminishing the complexity of these issues, let us remember that our souls can take shelter in the shadow of the Most High. In Matthew 14, as Peter attempted to walk across the stormy sea toward Jesus, he became overwhelmed by the circumstances he found himself in and cried out for help. Jesus’ response was to immediately reach out for Peter, to be present with him in the midst of the storm. May our souls be reminded that safety is ultimately found in the amazing truth of how God moved toward us, his people, through Jesus.
How can we create connections? Finding ways to connect with our communities again will take wisdom, patience, and
humility. In the midst of the culture wars surrounding how and when we “return to normal,” may the church be guided by the principle of considering the “least of these” — the most vulnerable among us.
While many may feel ready to return to schools, workplaces, and churches this fall, keep an eye out for those who cannot do so: the immunocompromised, the elderly, caregivers, or those who otherwise cannot or choose not to participate in group gatherings. Get creative in finding ways to form and maintain community. We need one another, each and every part of the body of Christ. In this time of disconnection, may our churches lead the way in demonstrating that the “weaker” parts of the body are also the most indispensable (1 Cor 12).
How can we help? While we may not personally be able to stop the coronavirus, each of us does have a choice about how we will move toward those around us in these days of uncertainty. While trauma can paralyze us and fill us with a sense of powerlessness, as healing occurs we will be freed to move and act again.
Whatever resources we possess — time, health, family, finances, etc. — it is important to prayerfully ask God how we are being called to move toward our neighbors during this season. Consider, individually and as a church, how you can practically serve those around you. Keep in mind those impacted by job loss, anxiety, health concerns, or isolation. Scripture tells us that joy comes in the act of giving (Acts 20:35), and psychological research reinforces this truth: helping others increases our mental health and wellbeing.
The language of lament does not dismiss or diminish the degree of loss that has been experienced. It tells the truth about the state of the world around us, the dislocation of our hearts in the midst of loss, and the steadfast presence of God.How can we move toward hope in the midst of loss? There is no doubt that we currently live in a world that is not the way it is supposed to be. It is essential to reacquaint ourselves with the language of lament, which we see throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms. Suffering can be used by God to grow us, but that isn’t reducible to taking a “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” approach. It’s by bearing those wounds in grief that God can grow us.
The language of lament does not dismiss or diminish the degree of loss that has been experienced. It tells the truth about the state of the world around us, the dislocation of our hearts in the midst of loss, and the steadfast presence of God. The path of grief is a God-given means by which we adjust to the new realities of our lives.
The language of lament is meant to be spoken corporately by the church and intimately in our own conversations with God. Scripture is clear that those who grieve will be comforted and strengthened. Grief shatters our illusions and idols and invites us to turn back to the One who is the source of life.