When someone experiences a life-altering event, churches and other places of worship are often where they turn for help. And rightly so, as these environments are recognized by many as safe sanctuaries offering love and support. While the intentions of those responding to hurting people are well-meaning, they are often given little if any training around the responses common to trauma victims and how to minister with trauma sensitivity. Trauma results from an experience that is physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening. It is as much about the person’s internal processing of a stressful situation as it is about the circumstance that resulted in the trauma. What might traumatize one individual might not affect another as deeply.
As we recognized the prevalence of trauma and its effect on a person’s mental and spiritual health, it is increasingly important to give helpers practical information about how they can be sensitive to the biological and emotional processes that impact healing
Safety first: The number one priority that should be considered is safety of the environment physically and emotionally. We all have an alarm system in our body and brain that helps us to recognize danger and threats. People who live with trauma often develop very sensitive alarms. Sometimes this can help to keep them safe. Other times the alarm goes off when something reminds them of bad things that happened in the past, even when they aren’t actually happening. This “false alarm” or “trigger”, can sound and feel as loud and scary as a real one. This is because our bodies and brains have a tough time telling the difference between real and false alarms.
- Physical considerations: When praying for someone allow them to determine where they would like to stand, or if they want to move to a different area. Keep in mind they may want to pray with their eyes open. If you feel prompted to touch a person or hold their hand, always ask for permission and respect their response. Keep your voice calm and steady, as loud voices tend to set off alarm triggers. Allow the person to determine the space between yourself and them and if you are taller try to make your height even with that person.
- Emotional considerations: Trauma victims need to feel you are a safe person who will listen without judgement. When talking with someone who identifies trauma as a problem in their life, invite them to tell as much or as little as they would like of their story. Don’t assume that you know what they need for healing-make sure to ask them specifically what they think God is leading them to address or discuss. Having the experience of someone listening without judgment is often the beginning of a reparative process
Be Trustworthy: Unless a person has specifically given you permission to share their story, keep it private! * One of the primary areas of a person’s faith that is impacted by trauma is trust. If a person has experienced their faith community as authentic, caring and able to keep trust that can have a positive impact on the healing process. The opposite is also true.
Accept responses: When an individual has decided to begin addressing trauma they may experience responses such as crying, shaking, sobbing or detachment that make others feel uncomfortable. Allow whatever response comes up to run its course. Do not attempt to make a person stop their natural response as this is part of the healing process. Being able to release emotions that have often been stored for years is an integral part of healing. If they become overwhelmed, talk in a quiet firm voice reminding them they are in a safe place and you are here with them. You may have a natural inclination to touch a person to bring a sense of comfort. Do not touch them unless you have permission. i.e. “Is it ok if I hold your hand while you are crying?”
Seek prayer and care: Those who are gifted with empathy and compassion are at risk for what is termed “secondary trauma”. This is a biological response to hearing trauma stories or having someone close to you experience a traumatic event. Make sure to let go of the responsibility to carry the weight of the stories you may hear from others (Matthew 11:28-30). It is also important to engage in enjoyable activities that refresh your body and spirit. If you notice that you are having a tough time separating yourself from the worries of a person that has shared their trauma story, this would be the time to speak with a pastor or spiritual leader in confidence.
Responding with thoughtful compassion is essential to trauma-informed spiritual care. The good news is that a person who has experienced trauma can find freedom! Our job is to be the hands and feet of Christ by offering a safe space, with non-judgmental prayer and acceptance.
*If a person discloses abuse or neglect of anyone under the age of 18 or a vulnerable adult, this should be immediately reported to your pastor, religious leaders, or child protective services. Also, if a person is expressing thoughts to hurt themselves or others you should ask a pastor or other church leader to join the conversation to assess if crisis services are needed.