This weekend I attended an event titled Spiritual Trauma, led by therapist, researcher, speaker and writer, Hillary McBride. Hillary is at the forefront of studying trauma, amongst other things, and I’ve heard her speak on the Liturgists podcast regarding Spiritual Trauma before. This blog post addresses mostly how Trauma impacts the work I do, but if you’d like more extensive information on Spiritual Trauma specifically, I’d recommend the podcast episode, if you can’t make it to one of her talks.
Talking about trauma can bring up difficult emotions for those who have experienced it, so if this post is making your body freak out, then I’d say not to bother reading it. I really don’t want to invoke a panic attack. Try these calming techniques if you're needing a moment of peace.
Due to working with women and families on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), I encounter a lot of people with some pretty intense responses to their past and current traumatic experiences. As a general outreach worker here, my job is to offer support during various crises that women and families go through. This means I step directly into moments where they might be coping with real-time trauma, being reminded of a traumatic time in their lives, or trying to manage a new crises when they’ve already got Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder going on.
Because of this, despite having a basis of education in Social Work, I continue to find ways to expand on my understanding of it--hence attending this weekend seminar.
What is "trauma"? Well, that’s a huge topic on its own. I’m not an expert in the research and study of that topic. So instead, I will throw down a few points from my recent experience hearing Hillary teach on it.
Trauma, she pointed out, means “wound” in Greek. In our understanding of trauma, that “wound” can refer to something harming the body (eg. concussion), it can refer to something harming the mind (eg. emotional, verbal, financial abuse etc), or to the mingling of those two (eg. emotionally and physically abusive relationship leading to a concussion).
The brain is a leading factor in our response to trauma, and it’s a confusing but amazing thing.
One of its many attributes is that it has an intense survival instinct, with a variety of tools to support that instinct.
When something within the body is harmed (from a broken bone, to abusive language tearing at your concept of self), one of those tools jumps into gear without our conscious effort.
This, as Hillary taught us, is a form of intense “Sensory Memory”. When a traumatic event happens, the brain’s sensory system will memorize what exactly is happening in that moment. In the future, if anything similar begins to happen, the brain has remembered that it’s time to activate fight/flight/freeze modes without consulting your conscious decision-making skills.
For instance, if you’re in a cycling accident with a car that ran a red light, next time you’re cycling and a car is coming up to another red light, regardless of whether it is properly stopping, your brain may send out signals to tense up and prepare to react quickly just in case it doesn’t. It wants to keep you alive and well, and regardless of your opinion on the matter, it will probably start an adrenaline rush in case it’s needed to keep you safe.
This is a great survival instinct, and it’s probably why we survive longer than age 6.
This is an unconscious action, and not something you can easily stop from happening. It is fantastic in this circumstance, as cycling can be dangerous if you’re not alert to dangers that are always quite real.
However, what if you were verbally abused by someone over time, and your brain imprints a survival instinct to tense up any time you’re around a person who resembles the one who verbally abused you? You can end up tense, anxious, and frightened whenever someone reminds you of that person, and it can be frustrating because those people may not actually be dangerous.
Just as the brain creates this imprint without consulting your conscious brain, likewise it won’t easily be changed by your conscious choices. Only with some intentional therapies, certain ongoing practices, and lots of time can we change our unconscious survival reactions.
It’s my experience that these are part of what we sometimes call “Triggers”. Being ‘triggered’ by an enclosed space, by the presence of a white male in power at a church, by hearing loud noises close by, by human touch, it’s all part of those learned survival tactics of the brain that may be frustrating, but they’re trying to keep you alive, and it’s hard to change them.
Pausing a moment for what may seem like an irrelevant story but I swear, it’s not:
Recently my supervisor asked our team to read the books of the bible Ezra and Nehemiah. She is also a Reverend so she likes to refocus on the Bible when we're doing our work, which is nice.
I believe this is the relevant summary of what I got from those books (feel free to correct any historical inaccuracies):
In Ezra, God’s temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, but there are immense barriers to them completing it. People in power nearby created systemic pressures because they didn’t like how the Judeans’ God inspired people to be less subordinate to the kings. They stalled it and made everything harder in this pursuit given by God. Eventually, however, through persistence, the Judean people build the temple back up.
In Nehemiah, the Judeans begin to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and this time they have the power of a wealthy king on their side giving them construction materials. However, they are still being discouraged from this task by others. The enemies of Judah plan violent surprise attacks. The people rebuilding the walls had to hold a sword in their hands to fight, as well as continue their efforts to build.
Our supervisor asked us to think about what we are 'building up' in our lives, and what our 'swords' are, which we use to fight off those things trying to prevent us from building.
I’ve decided that what I’m trying to “Build” is Peace.
Peace in someone’s painful, chaotic moments
Peace between myself and others
Peace in everything and anything I have any influence over
I think of Peace as the opposite of trauma. If we have experienced trauma, aren't we always trying to find our way back to Peace?
As for what I have to “Battle” back at, I think that involves anything that threatens Peace.
In order to pursue Peace, and at the same time battle back against what discourages Peace, I use these three “swords”:
Persistence, Grace, Integrity
It takes time, energy, supports, and commitment in order to heal from trauma. Studies in “Neuroplasticity” (the brain's ability to heal itself) show that it is possible to heal from trauma, but it can take a long time, and it involves dedicated supportive systems and significant helpful contributions to that healing. Hillary pointed out how, if we say the phrase ”Just get over it!” that we don’t understand how the brain works. It’s a long process and it has less to do with conscious decisions of ‘being over it’ and more to do with ongoing support, practice, and time to rewire the brain.
In my work--this means that I can show love, support, and care for someone over and over for the next 5 years, and might only see gradual changes, but I shouldn’t get discouraged, because it’s normal to take a long time to build back peace. The building of the temple in Jerusalem was interrupted for 15 years, and they must have been so tempted to be discouraged and give up--but they didn’t. So I shouldn’t.
Intergenerational Trauma is also a real thing which extends the time it takes to heal on a larger scale.
Intergenerational Trauma can be a result of environmental re-traumatizing--if the environment doesn’t change much, obviously the traumas just keep going. For example: Residential Schools happened in Canada beginning in the 1870’s, and then governments altered their policies, but continued the trend of separating kids from their families and cultures via the 60’s Scoop. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, massive amounts of Indigenous children were moved from their families into foster care or adoption. As of 2016, 52% of kids in the foster care system in Canada were Indigenous, but across Canada, Indigenous children only represented 7.7% of the population. There’s not much chance to get out of the trauma of family separation, if it keeps continuing.
Scientifically they’re also discovering that, even if the environment changes, the brain and body can pass along genetic markers helping their offspring avoid certain traumatic experiences.
There is an experiment ongoing, which Hillary described, (if you’re an animal rights activist I’m sorry, you’ll hate this experiment), where mice are being given the scent of cherry blossoms right before receiving an electric shock in the foot. These mice developed a fear of the scent of cherry blossoms. When they inseminated female mice with the sperm of these fearful mice and baby mice were born--despite the mother and baby never being exposed to electric shocks or to the 'father' mouse, the baby hated the scent of cherry blossom scents! They’re still continuing the study--they’ve already confirmed that the genetic marker that creates a fear of cherry blossoms has been passed at least 2 generations.
This study is new, so we’ll learn much more about the reasons for this as science progresses, but it is beginning to create a scientific defence for what so many people have already known--that the learned responses to traumatic events can be passed along generations.
So for example, integrating this information into my own life; I work with a lot of Residential School survivors, 60’s Scoop Survivors, and the children and grandchildren of these survivors. Indigenous people and Settler people in Canada will have to keep working for many generations before things will be fully peaceful. It will take a long time for people to “get over” the fear of white people separating their families, and the distrust of government and churches.
This leads to my next important weapon:
Just as God had Grace and sent Jesus to redeem us, save us, and make us whole, despite our inability to be ‘deserving’ of these gifts--I see Grace as an important part of loving, supporting, understanding, and being kind to people who may be acting out their responses to trauma in unhelpful ways in relationship with me.
If “Sensory Memories” can be created by trauma, and those memories can become “triggers” for people, this can mean that someone may have a horrible reaction to me without realizing that's why they are upset. It could be because of how I look, the way I speak, where I work, the religion I hold to, the way I pray, the power I am unaware I have--simply because one or some of these things resemble someone who has traumatized them or their family. The past trauma may not be my fault, but their reaction to who I am is overwhelming for them, and it is their brain’s learned response to protect themselves from someone like me.
Their biology is protecting them without them even realizing it.
Due to the nature of the community that I work within, I have been yelled at, screamed at, sworn at, I have been called a F***ing C***, I have been threatened, I have been called racist, I have been told I’m a bad Christian, I have had women throw very clever guilt-trips my way.
I don’t like being treated this way, but when I understand trauma, I am less concerned with feeling offended and indignant, and more concerned with what led them to need this survival tactic.
I still put in boundaries, such as saying “I believe your situation, and I want to hear more, but I’m feeling unsafe, so go take a break and cool off”. Or it can look like a physical barrier, when a man is unable to handle his emotions and starts smashing his fist against our door so we keep it closed.
It’s less about me, and more about their past, so I don’t take it as personally anymore. I have grace for their situation. I want to see them heal, rather than scold and judge them for their behaviours which are uncomfortable for me.
Integrity can be meant in many ways, but I understand that integrity means that one's words match one's actions.
If I know how trauma is a huge part of everyone’s lived experiences, and I say I care about fostering Peace for others, then it only makes sense that I take action to create that Peace.
One example of how I’m trying to match my beliefs to my actions, is through my use of words.
I try not to use words that others identify as ‘triggers’ when I know what they are. Not only for individual traumas, but for collective traumas.
After understanding our body’s response to trauma, I don’t see avoiding “taboo” words as being “Politically Correct”, I see it as understanding the instinctive reaction that someone’s brain is going through, and doing my best to help avoid triggering it. Hillary didn’t relate her teaching on trauma to this concept, but I think it can be applied.
Ijeoma Oluo says in her book "So You Want To Talk About Race?":
“The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt”.
I would say that this history of trauma associated with a word will probably be felt until the environment changes and the generational trauma is given a chance to heal.
Indigenous people still feel racism, so the word “Indian” matters. It was used in ideologies such as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” to justify cultural genocide (Richard Pratt, as cited in Cheryl Bear-Barnetson’s book). It was used in racial slurs and still is. So I won’t use it outside of explaining why it’s inappropriate. I don’t want to trigger the trauma that is associated with that word.
Maybe Indigenous people themselves will use that word, but I’m part of the group of people that wielded it in terrible ways, so my use of it can be very triggering.
If I say I care about not triggering the historical and ongoing trauma in people, this is one example of how my behaviour matters in order to create that.
I know it sounds like a lot of work, and sometimes it can be.
But honestly, it’s quite helpful.
Not only can I personally cope a lot better with the trauma I see in the world if I find something to do about it, but it also really impacts people around me for the better.
I have heard and seen miraculous things when women and families are given the safety of a place that makes efforts not to re-traumatize them. They may not be able to express it all the time, but I see it in their trust of me, in how they know that we will always be there for them.
Change flourishes in those places. I’ve seen women grow so much stronger than they thought they could, because they were given opportunities to be safe, and to rewire their brains slowly towards more Peace. They did hard work of healing, but the context is a huge help.
People sometimes talk about my job like I’m willingly doing the most painful work in the world.
But actually, this job gives me more hope than I thought I could have in a world full of trauma and pain. Women have a much better chance to heal in a place full of safety, peace, love, and non-judgemental care, so if we can help create more of that, there is hope.