When Terror Strikes, What More Can the Church Do?

April 22nd, 2013 No Comments

I typically am not susceptible to nightmares, but this week, the national news snuck into my dreams with SWAT teams patrolling my safe Iowa farm while my young boys played cards with their dad and me on our living room floor. I awoke as the young man, who had just parked his 1970s style Mercury Marquis on our driveway, removed an assault rifle from the front passenger seat then walked toward the front door of our home.  Thankfully, I awoke to find myself sleeping safely next to my husband in our Colorado bedroom with our daughters safely upstairs, while our oldest son was safe in Alabama and our other son was arriving – again, safely — in Abu Dhabi for several weeks of job training.

Unfortunately – which is not nearly a strong enough word to actually insert at that location – disastrously, many of my fellow Americans were suffering in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings or trapped by the crosshairs of the search for the young bombers throughout Watertown or terrorized by the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.  Such was this unprecedented and unpredicted week in America – a week of terror, a week of trauma.

Nonetheless, Americans are simultaneously becoming instant heroes, saviors, and champions of all things right, good, and lovely as they respond to the overwhelming grief, pain, loss, and fear that were not yet on this planet just a few short days ago.  Powerfully, Evil is being overcome by Good; Hatred is being knocked on its backside by Love.

And yet, with a concern that this idea sounds minimizing or discounting of all of the courage and generosity of so many wonderful  individuals and organizations (which would be of no intent by this author), I wonder this: When terror strikes, what more can the Church do?  From my vantage point, I see the answer to that question fall into the two categories of (1) Response and (2) Preparation.  We’ll discuss the topic of preparation at a later date.  For now, let’s brainstorm about whether there is more we, as the Church, can do as we respond to terror, whether the trauma of the past week or the trauma at any time in life.

“Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7b) is my recommendation in response to terror.  Terror, abuse, fear, trauma…create memories that are stored in the brain differently than typical memories.  These memories are logged in a manner that causes them to cycle around and around and around and around and around….  If you want to do more as you respond to terror, you want, you NEED to get understanding about this.  When you grow weary of the victim of trauma getting stuck in the terrifying memories – again, realize that he can’t help it; he can’t escape.  He is trapped by the brain and the chemical processes of the neurological system.  If you’re tired of the memories, imagine how exhausted by them he is.

We All Need Safety

We All Need Safety

The treatment of traumatic memories is a very lengthy discussion beyond the intent of this blog, however, there are a few simple ideas that can aid as you respond.

1. Provide safety.  Safety is first and foremost.  Physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual…all types of safety must be attended to in order for a traumatized person to begin to recover and unlock the cycling flashbacks.  Also understand that safety from your perspective doesn’t necessarily count; the perception of safety must be from the victim’s perspective which will likely be very, very different from yours because his brain is trapped in that around and around and around and around…problem I mentioned.

2. Listen to him tell the story – again.  Every time a traumatized person tells his story, his brain processes it a little more.  This is a good thing because “processing” really means his brain is re-filing the traumatic memory a little more like a normal memory.  The goal is for the traumatic memory to be completely reprocessed and to be filed as a bad memory that has little-to-no emotional energy packed into it.  Dreams and recurring nightmares are often considered to be part of this process.  Reprocessing may take years – or the rest of his life, literally.  Be patient and kind.  Remember, he would like to be free from this recurring nightmare more than you would.

3. Allow the emotions to be whatever they are, while simultaneously promoting emotion management.  While the memory is replaying, the body and mind behave as though the terror event is actually occurring at this very moment.  Crisis chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline are released in case the person needs their assistance to survive.  Because of this, the victim’s emotions will likely appear as though they are reliving the moment of trauma; they are.  Since you now understand this, speak wisely to him.  “Just stop it!” is not a wise remark.  Do what you can to help him relax and guide him back to what is currently happening in real-time.  Breathing slowly, counting anything, distracting, reassuring of safety, and reminding them of where they are may be helpful.

4. Respect your own limitations.  Whether you are the victim or the helper, trauma recovery is an exhausting process for many.  When this gets to be too much, communicate that with the victim and make time for your own restoration.

5. Be wise with your spirituality.  One of the adverse effects of trauma is the many ways it can assault a person’s spirituality.  An individual who previously appeared that their faith and love for God and His People could never be dampened may suddenly be so angry with God that they seem to be heading in a very wrong direction.  Don’t panic and don’t push.  The only two people who will be able to find their way in this relationship are the victim and God.  Unwisely tossing scripture and legalistic requirements while requiring he may not speak frankly to you and God about where he is spiritually will cause more damage than good.  You may find the article, The Stages of Spiritual Growth based on writing by M. Scott Peck helpful.

6. Consult a professional.  Mental health is a real thing and mental health professionals can truly help.  It is widely researched, published and known that a safe, loving friend is oftentimes as helpful, or more helpful, than a therapist.  However, there are times when the extra knowledge of the neurological system is needed to fully and/or safely care for an individual.  A history of trauma, terror, and abuse may be one of those times.  Finding quality, competent mental health professionals is a topic for a later discussion, so for now, just be sure to consider their involvement.  Many communities have a crisis hotline of some sort that would be a resource to consult to ask some questions or advice.

As I mentioned, this post is far from a comprehensive discussion regarding responding well to trauma.  However, it is a start to assist you in getting the understanding you need to be able to be more of a help to a traumatized or abused individual.  Listening is key to understanding anyone, so be quick to listen and slow to speak.  Even if it costs all you have, get understanding, which will help us as the Church do more to care well for God’s people.

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