Trauma, Defined 

Sometimes we assume trauma must take the form of a horrific turn of events, something akin to the worst kinds of tragedy or despair. Yet trauma can very simply be defined as an injury or emotional upset. This year, we shared in many collective struggles but also weathered difficult moments individually. From a global pandemic to the fight for social justice, we have paid witness to and been a part of moments which can be hard to put words to or truly process. 

For some, there is guilt and the desire to listen as others, who may have undergone more severe forms of trauma, speak. It may feel unreasonable to give a voice to the hardships one is experiencing when they know others may be facing far worse. 

For others, there is an inability to speak to the things which have unfolded in their own lives. Fear, embarrassment, or a lack of language around how to communicate the hurt can create barriers to having conversations. 

So why should we make the effort to process, listen, and speak to the traumatic moments that have unfolded in our lives or those of the people around us? 

Trauma Has Layers 

Perhaps you’ve seen it depicted in a movie: the main character, having recently returned from a deployment, is unable to assimilate and becomes agitated at times. Something like the sound of cars backfiring can cause them to panic as they momentarily forget where they are. The trauma faced by individuals can turn into more severe conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) where memories of a specific event can lead to intense emotional or physical reactions like nightmares, heightened reactions to one’s environment, or avoiding situations that may trigger similar feelings of distress.  

While it may be easier to understand trauma through the lens of someone reliving a terrifying event, this is not the only way that one can experience the vulnerability of distress. Rev. Brad Kelle, Ph.D., professor of Old Testament and Hebrew in PLNU’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry, studies the intersection of trauma and moral injury with interpretations of the Bible. He talks about the role trauma plays in various passages, from the way it affects the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah to the impact it has on the ancient people of Israel as they cope with the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. Kelle explains, “Trauma is a way of naming a harmful experience that overwhelms us and disrupts our regular ways of responding to events in our lives.” 

Trauma is a way of naming a harmful experience that overwhelms us and disrupts our regular ways of responding to events in our lives.

Kelle has also extensively covered the concept of moral injury, which mimics some of what we understand about trauma but is more specifically linked to non-physical “soul wound[s].” They are the result of violations, from others or the individual in question, which transgress moral beliefs. The individual may then have trouble consigning whether they, or the people around them, can “be trusted to act in moral and ethical ways.” 

The Aftermath 

The stress of these upsets can weigh heavily on an individual but this impact is not always conscious. When faith, a sense of security, or notions about right versus wrong are disrupted, it can seem like the world at large is a dangerous place. Trauma often involves a foreboding threat,  whether that is to one’s physical, emotional, or spiritual safety. The aftermath can be a combination of difficult emotions like anxiety or denial and can also be manifested in physical conditions like agitation or muscle pain. These symptoms can fluctuate in their prevalence or strength as we, often subconsciously, try to navigate the complexities of what has happened in our world. 

Kelle highlights the importance of naming and speaking to such violations in his book, The Bible and Moral Injury: Reading Scripture Alongside War’s Unseen Wounds (Abingdon Press, 2020), where he explores various Old Testament passages and the responses evoked in those experiencing moral distress. One such case is in his exploration of “the story of Israel’s first king, Saul, in 1 Samuel 9-30 … [it] shows moral injury experiences such as the loss of social relationships, isolation, rage, despair, and ultimately, suicide.” 

Processing Complex Emotions 

Ben Coleman, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the director of clinical training in the Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling (MACC) program at PLNU. He shares the ways trauma can be viewed as a private, secretive issue so people keep their experiences hidden and try to avoid thinking about it. However, Coleman explains that a paradox develops where “avoiding talking about these things just serves to intensify the problem; the more you don’t want to feel something the more you feel it.” 

It can seem overwhelming to think about trying to navigate these emotions when there isn’t always time to process internal experiences. Day-to-day activities, stressors, or our relationships can all make the presence of upsetting feelings even more troublesome to understand as they go unresolved. Kelle also shares the way trauma or moral injury can be difficult to express because it signals “that everything is not alright in our lives, society, and the world.” 

Being intentional about this appraisal of how we are doing can be difficult as feelings can cause discomfort at a physical level but sitting with this range of emotions and giving ourselves the space to acknowledge them, can be a step in the right direction. 

Coleman shares the importance of making space between one’s self and their sentiments because of the perspective it allows for. 

“Creative outlets and encountering emotions through journaling or talking to others allows us to observe them from a removed space and can also lessen the intensity,” he said. “It doesn’t have this sort of grip on us in the same way. We need to accept that trying to make ourselves feel positive about difficult challenges and pain can serve to keep us in this stuck place. [Processing these emotions is] like a wave, it ebbs and flows, crests and falls.”

[Processing these emotions is] like a wave, it ebbs and flows, crests and falls.

Faith can also play a role in processing difficult moments. Kelle’s research draws on “biblical texts that point toward ways to build resilience or even experience healing in the face of trauma and moral injury. One might notice, for example, the extensive biblical tradition of lament that invites the honest expression of grief and even anger in the community and before God in prayer.” 

Talking to Others 

Coleman explains the way that speaking to this range of emotions can help with coping or better understanding our own experience, “When you share, if you’re willing to tolerate the feeling of discomfort, it allows you to connect with others. Put a name and language to this experience to decrease the intensity and make it more manageable.” 

He acknowledges that certain instances may prompt someone to seek professional help which can be a way of working through and learning strategies to help with whatever may be going on. However, discussions of emotional hardships do not need to be contained to a therapist’s office. Confiding in family, friends, or colleagues can allow others to understand where a person is at and the additional support they might need if they are going through a particularly difficult set of circumstances. 

Making Space for Others to Share 

“Good listening involves having empathy for the person you are listening to and trying to understand what it’s like to be them,” Coleman shared. It may seem like a simple task but there are many mistakes we collectively make when speaking with others that can disrupt our rapport. 

Overidentifying with someone when they are trying to share is one way to impede upon the  conversation because it can create a dynamic where the listener overtakes the dialogue by trying to relate too much to the problem someone is trying to discuss. Coleman also says it can be helpful to not be prescriptive when hearing what an individual has to say. “It’s helpful to not give advice because the person has probably tried many things and saying that minimizes or trivializes their experience.” 

Coleman acknowledges the difficulty of listening to someone who has a completely different experience from us but says that it does not mean we should forget how to hold space for them. He explains the ways we may automatically form reactions that “do something to diminish or soothe our own discomfort, which shuts down the conversation.” Instead he proposes that we “take stock of our own discomfort and apply the principles of acceptance, observing, noticing, and not evaluating the legitimacy of someone’s experiences. We really have to trust that people know their own experience better than we do.”

We have an inherent ability to be good listeners but keeping the aforementioned practices in mind can help to create space for people to feel comfortable sharing. 

Pausing our Expectations 

People have an inclination to try and focus on the positive while attempting to minimize the negative. Coleman argues this instinct can be counterintuitive because the hurt is a part of who we are. “We were created to experience this full spectrum of emotions so we have to recalibrate hope to be about living purposefully with each other and with our values [so] there’s not so much pressure on not having these bad emotions.” 

We were created to experience this full spectrum of emotions so we have to recalibrate hope to be about living purposefully with each other and with our values [so] there’s not so much pressure on not having these bad emotions.

Developing a sense of self-compassion and acknowledging painful aspects of our internal experience allows us to be with others in that hurt, even if it is not the same type of injury. 

“What can easily happen in Christian life,” Coleman explains, “is that we get preoccupied with positive feelings and the risk of that is rejecting anything which might result in suffering. The cost of that is being cut off from a big part of our experience that we deem as unacceptable. Christianity should be welcoming and accepting of those dimensions of human experience … [because] we draw in a whole subsection of our community, which becomes much more rich.” 

Kelle shares the way passages in the Bible lend themselves to “honest expressions of hurt and grief [and] provide models for how to live on after trauma and disruption (e.g., the book of Lamentations or the Psalms). Likewise, we might look to the historic Christian tradition for spiritual practices such as prayer, communion, and even lament (as in the season of Lent) to help provide ways to express the hurts that come from trauma and moral injury.” 

Despite this ongoing struggle to process the hurt we experience both collectively and at individual levels, we benefit from recognizing where we are at any given moment. Being willing to share that with others, process emotions internally, and turn towards resources which offer insight into this are some ways to begin growing with what we have endured.