In his recent book, The Body Keeps the Score (2014), traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk makes clear that even if we want to imagine we are not traumatized our bodies cannot tell a lie. Even at the cost of our own lives, in fact, our bodies relentlessly strive to communicate how wounding has occurred. Our bodies are constant truth-tellers.
"Traumatic events," van der Kolk explains, "such as family and social violence, rapes and assaults, disasters, wars, accidents and predatory violence confront people with such horror and threat" that they temporarily or permanently alter capacities to cope, biological functioning, and self-image. If ministers want to foster organizations marked by senses of belonging, hopefulness, and joy, they must recognize the ways trauma impedes this progress. Van der Kolk notes trauma does not only affect psychological functioning; it significantly decreases our inhibitions. It damages our abilities to manage addiction, practice safe sex, feed ourselves well, sleep well, and exercise. "A study of almost 10,000 patients in a medical setting reported that persons with histories of being severely maltreated as a child showed a 4 12 times greater risk of developing alcoholism, depression, and drug abuse, attempting suicide, a 2 to 4 times greater risk of smoking, having at least 50 sex partners, acquiring sexually transmitted disease, a 1.4 to 1.6 times greater risk of physical inactivity and obesity, and a 1.6 to 2.9 times greater risk for ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, hepatitis, stroke, diabetes, and liver disease."
Often, in religious settings, these practices are seen as taboos or sinful practices. Some groups believe they come about from demonic pressures, even.
But, viewing trauma response in these ways severely misunderstands normative human reaction to trauma, including inherent impulses to fight, flee, or freeze, and is unable to see how these responses are critical forms of self-preservation. What if, instead, faith leaders viewed these many behaviors as ways the body of a person was trying to communicate a story or an account of what's happened? What if more congregations became known for being sanctuaries amid life's storms – places where people belong, can be honest about what's happened, experience care, and find practical steps for moving through the chaos of grief and loss?
Interestingly, simply acknowledging the wounding can set healing processes motion. Whether we journal, participate in talk therapies, dance, sing, create art, exercise, cry on a loved one's shoulder, or role play, these many forms of acknowledging instigate our healing hormones and counteract any trauma-related hormones that may have gotten stuck in the courses of denial. Another unique way that congregations can acknowledge what's happened, provide care, and offer practical steps for moving through chaos is by blessing trauma responses.
Singing in worship, preaching, liturgical practices of sacrament and ritual, and through individual, collective and responsive prayers, are four ways through word and action faith leaders model understandings of how trauma responses serve as protective practices in times of threat. In your own congregation, following crises, you may:
- Sing hymns of lament
- Invite congregants to pray quietly out loud for a minute or two, describing ways they responding to trauma, allowing the murmurs of grief to rise before speaking a word of those prayers being received
- Preach on a topic of loss or grief particularly known to the congregation, and articulate common responses
- Sing a responsive psalm, with a leader singing verses and the congregation singing refrains
- Invite congregants to place a symbol of loss on a worship table during the service
- Invite congregants to write a word or phrase about how they reacted to trauma and read the anonymous words or phrases aloud before saying a prayer
- Lay hands on survivors of trauma and pray for healing
- Invite congregants to hold hands with one another, as a form of laying hands on the whole body, and pray, acknowledging what's happened. During the prayer, invite congregants to voice aloud their reactions, and then close with a prayer for healing.
These are just a few of many examples. What are practices of blessing trauma responses that have been meaningful in your congregation? Share them in the comments below.
* Learn more about how you can lead your congregation before and after trauma by visiting ICTG's online training menu.