Not since 9/11 has the mere mention of numbers signified such a collective experience of trauma in our culture. The last year has been hard for every person I know, and we’re all still trying to recover. And while people are hurting, our culture still pushes us to produce and prosper without considering how that pressure impacts our wellness.
It’s no secret that the events of 2020 did a number on our collective mental health, but I think we’re forgetting to treat each other that way.
Everyone is on edge, and it’s not a temporary mood that will magically disappear when COVID is in the rearview mirror. It’s trauma.
How can we effectively love our neighbors if we don’t first try to understand what they’re going through? How can we be effective leaders if we don’t have empathy for our team members? Before creating a plan for your church to move forward, let’s understand where you’ve been, and what’s happening for people right now.
At BE Consulting, we believe that understanding trauma is a crucial step in caring for folks who have experienced it. We define trauma as any experience that overwhelms our ability to cope. To say the last year has been overwhelming for folks in your church is an understatement.
People have lost their jobs, their marriages, loved ones, and their sense of normalcy. They’ve lost their community, or even their identity.
Political upheaval, racial trauma, and isolation have taken a major toll on people, not to mention the stress of parents suddenly becoming homeschool teachers and daycare workers on top of their usual jobs.
Employers may expect more from their employees if they’ve had to downsize, but are finding folks less productive than before.
Churches are crying out for volunteers to pick up the slack in tasks that have been pushed to the back burner for a year, and finding fewer and fewer people willing or able to take them on.
Even people for whom these losses don’t apply have been impacted by the stress of lockdowns, social distancing, quarantining, and—in many cases—anxiety about their own health or the health of loved ones.
The truth about trauma is that it’s not an event, it’s an experience.
It’s not about what we’ve experienced, but how we’ve experienced it.
Trauma has 4 big symptom categories, which may shed some light on why folks are in a more fragile state these days:
1. “It’s too much.”
Hyperarousal and Hyperreactivity
Have you ever seen someone notice a tiny spider and react like they’re being chased by a rabid dog? Congratulations, you’ve witnessed hyperreactivity--or a reaction that’s way out of proportion to its stimulus.
How about when you’re in a haunted house and you’re walking slowly, breathing shallowly, looking around every corner, your body tense to prepare for the next scare? That’s totally normal in a haunted house, but what if you lived that way everywhere? That’s what psychologists call hyperarousal, or being on the lookout for some type of danger all the time.
The “It’s too much” symptoms are all about being too vigilant or too reactive. When people experience chronic stress or trauma, it overwhelms their brains and nervous systems. This response is helpful when we need to make a split-second decision, like when we really do need to run from a rabid dog, but when we experience trauma, it rewires the brain to set off the alarm even when there’s nothing wrong.
2. “I’m not enough.”
Negative thoughts and Negative Moods
Do you know anyone who’s been in a bad mood for the last 12 months? It’s not just because they’re grouchy. Bad moods are the result of negative thoughts, which really take hold in the brains of folks who’ve experienced trauma. Depressive symptoms can take the form of irritability, sadness, or thoughts of death that just won’t go away. People may be marinating in thoughts like:
“I’m a failure.”
“The world is dangerous.”
“People are evil.”
“This is hopeless.”
When people walk through trauma alone, it’s very hard to interrupt these thoughts. It’s even harder when they’re accompanied by clinical depression. The “I’m not enough” symptoms may look like:
Disengagement from activities the person used to love
Irritability and defiance (especially in boys)
Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
Even thoughts of suicide
It can make people believe that they’re a burden to the people around them even when you really want to help. It can make people feel like they don’t have the capacity for tasks that may seem basic to you and me.
3. “I can’t do this.”
We all have a natural inclination to avoid pain, which is generally a good thing that helps keep us alive. But when people experience trauma, avoidance can become debilitating. For example:
Maybe they got in an accident on I-75, so now they only commute using backroads.
Maybe they had a miscarriage, so they cut all ties with friends who become pregnant because the reminders are too painful.
Emotionally, maybe they try to avoid thinking about their trauma or avoid having any feelings about it at all.
Sometimes—particularly within the church—we tend to gloss over the negative because acknowledging real pain and loss stirs up too many questions about God and the world that threaten to shake the very foundations of our lives. Folks may be avoiding church not just to protect their physical health, but because they’re afraid to face those big questions again.
4. “Not this again.”
Intrusion or Reexperiencing
A couple years ago, I was sitting in church when the band started playing a song that had played at my friend’s funeral. Instantly, I was transported back to that moment of grief. I experienced the flood of emotion I had at her funeral all over again. When confronted with an unexpected reminder of a painful experience, it sent me into stress mode. It put my brain and body right back into that situation, even though it had happened years before.
This is what some might call a “flashback.” Movies and TV paint a particular picture of what this can look like, but intrusion doesn’t have to be a sudden onset of panic accompanied by some out-of-body experience. Intrusion happens any time you think of a traumatic memory when you don’t want to. Lots of people are carrying the stress of COVID-19 into their dreams and their bodies, even if they’re never directly exposed to the virus. They’re experiencing unexpected, unwanted reminders of the trauma of the last year, and they’re not sure what to do with them. This can leave folks feeling out of control, suddenly confronted with a sense of their own mortality and uncertainty. It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable. It robs them of experiencing joy in the present because their bodies so acutely remember the pain of the past.
What have you experienced as a leader this year? What have your staff, volunteers, or church members experienced in the last year? How might trauma play a part in the dynamics of your team?
Asking yourself these questions and getting a better understanding of the challenges you’re facing are critical to moving forward. You can read all the books, listen to all the podcasts, and get the best coaching available, but you may never reach your potential as a leader if you do not pause to reflect. Are you willing to go there?
If so, think about these questions deeply. Journal about them. Reach out to us by email. Talk to a trusted partner. Then, armed with the knowledge of the issues at hand, stay tuned for Part III of our Life Together Again series, where we’ll take a look at incorporating trauma-informed care into your leadership.