In The Village of Care series we have the opportunity to hear from helping professions, who are not spiritual directors themselves but who can collaborate with spiritual directors to combine and expand resources for survivors. These voices come from medical, mental health, research, ministry, and public service. The goal in hearing these varying perspectives is to give us as spiritual directors some insight into the experiences that our directees may be having with other helpers in their lives, and language to talk about it with them. The expectation is that we are learning from our colleagues in other fields, and translating their advice where appropriate to the context of spiritual direction. We encourage you to make an effort to get to know care providers in your community now, so that you have relationships to lean on when greater context is needed.
As a therapist at my local sexual assault center, I can’t count the number of times I had an individual in my office grappling with how to reconcile their sexual abuse or assault with their faith, and yet being afraid to approach the subject within their spiritual community. Terrified that their worst fears will be affirmed; that they are dirty, that they did something wrong, or that their feelings are somehow wrong or too much. These incorrect narratives are exactly why trauma informed spiritual directors are in such a unique position to provide vital support to survivors of sexual violence. My hope is that this post will give you a few things to keep in mind as you work with survivors of sexual violence to help you feel more confident and prepared.
Examine yourself first.
So often survivors will not mention their abuse in an effort to protect others, thinking it will upset the listener too much or that the person sitting across from them won’t know how to react. Check in with yourself on what feelings come up when sexual abuse and assault are mentioned. Is there personal work you need to do to be a calm and empathetic presence?
Create safe spaces.
Do your best to create a culture of respect and safety. With news stories of churches covering up abuses and ministers abusing their power, it is important to acknowledge these things and stand against them. Despite the staggering statistics of how frequent abuse is, it often remains something spoken about so little. We need to start conversations about sexual abuse and assault, urge our organizations to create and follow policies to help keep each other safe. Most importantly, make it known you are a safe person to talk to. We can’t ignore the world we live in and part of that is committing to be different.
Listen & Believe.
The reaction a person receives the first time they disclose is critical. It often sticks with them and sets the trajectory of their recovery. It could mean the difference between getting support and deciding to hold the secret for years if not for a lifetime. It can be incredibly scary for a survivor to speak up, so it is important to fully listen, let them know they are believed, and that they are not alone. Encourage them for their bravery in speaking up.
One of the most important things you can say is, “This is not your fault.” Often survivors replay the events in their heads, sure that they did something to cause the assault or abuse. Thoughts like, I shouldn’t have trusted them, maybe I sent the wrong message, if I would have behaved better/differently maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Reassure that no matter what it was not their fault, and nothing they did caused this.
Give back control.
Someone who has survived abuse has been through something where their control over their own body and life was taken from them. It is important to give it back--give choices, make sure their voice is heard and valued, let them be in control.
Assist in staying grounded.
If someone is disclosing to you for the first time, or still in early phases of healing, it is possible they will begin to disassociate while sharing their story. You can use grounding techniques to help them avoid being re-traumatized by their memories. Ask them to rub their hands together or try doing some rhythmic tapping together. You can remind them they are safe with you, take some deep breaths, or ask if they would like to take a break to get a glass of water or a candy before continuing.
Understand how trauma impacts the brain.
It can be useful as a helper to understand what clients might be experiencing, and to be able to share that information when appropriate. Trauma affects memory. It’s not unusual for there to be gaps in memory or trouble putting together a narrative or timeline. Imagine throwing a puzzle in the air- pieces land everywhere, some face up, some face down, some get lost under furniture. This is what it feels like for an assault victim to try to recall the events of an assault, only bits and pieces are apparent, some are lost, and all is scrambled. It is incredibly frustrating, confusing, and can invoke such a feeling of hopelessness in survivors. When our body feels unsafe, it takes over. We’ve all heard of Fight or Flight, but what is less known is the Freeze response which is common in a sexual assault. It is an automatic response of the body to try to protect itself. It can be confusing to survivors as they look back and wonder why they didn’t react differently. Understanding trauma and its effects can be empowering for survivors, understanding that their body was doing its part to survive. There is nothing they could have done differently.
Honor how the individual has survived.
Enduring a trauma like sexual assault can leave individuals feeling unsafe in the world, unable to trust others or themselves as they did before. Often, survivors are left dealing with intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares. Dealing with these symptoms can lead to coping behaviors all across the board. It is so important to understand that these are survival mechanisms that have helped the individual get through. While they may be unhealthy or causing things in their world to fall apart, they are also what has helped the person survive and get to where they are today…the point where they are able to speak up and start to heal.
If you have an individual disclosing abuse or an assault, you will often need to address safety. If you are dealing with child sexual abuse it is your responsibility to report to the police or your local child protection agency right away. If you are working with an adult survivor, there are many factors that the survivor will be taking into consideration when determining what is safest and best for them. It is very important to trust the survivor in this situation. It is always their decision whether or not they would like to report to authorities. If they are in an ongoing abusive situation or do not feel safe you can help them know their options and put together a safety plan identifying their support people, their local police, and domestic or sexual assault center. It is always a good idea to consider a medical exam to make sure the survivor is physically alright. Most hospitals have specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners to help and who can also collect forensic evidence if desired by the survivor.
There is such healing power in connecting. You can encourage individuals to connect with their local sexual assault center. Often there is advocacy, counseling, support groups and other resources available. If you are unsure of your local agency, you can call our national hotline as a first step and they should be able to direct you to your local agency. There are also many online resources and support groups available. Start compiling your list of local agencies, resources, and support groups now so that it is robust and ready should you need to make referrals. Begin with these:
National Sexual Violence Resource Center https://www.nsvrc.org/
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) https://www.nsvrc.org/
Language is a powerful tool. Our words have the ability to tear down spirits and bind up broken hearts. As people we have the capacity to curse as well as bless another with what we say. In spiritual direction, and especially when walking with survivors of trauma, honesty is crucial to healing. We need to say what we mean, and mean what we say. This can be difficult however, when addressing experiences and needs that occur on a spectrum and that are tuned to the experience of the individual. Sensitivity and attunement to the unique perspectives and affects carried by our directees is important, clarifying conversations may need to happen often in the early meetings as a shared vocabulary is built to talk about this particular person’s story.
What does “trauma” mean in the context of spiritual direction? What is the role of a spiritual director when companioning someone who is a survivor? When spiritual directors come into contact with directees who have survived a traumatic experience, our main focus will be to help them with the spiritual effects of that trauma. It is helpful however to have an understanding of how trauma affects the whole person - mind, body, and soul - so that we can be sensitive to what our directees are able to do and so that we as directors can “stay in our lane.” Having a broad understanding of the effects of trauma helps us to also have appropriate expectations of what healing may look like in each individual.
There are many terms, some technical some not, that get used when talking about trauma. Phrases like “Post-Traumatic Growth,” “PTSD,” “Compassion Fatigue,” and many others become part of any discussion. Being clear with our language helps us communicate effectively with both our directees and other professionals with whom we may be partnering to care for survivors. Having expansive and inclusive definitions for these terms will help us to be open to learning from others, and especially from our directees, who are the real experts on their own experiences.
Everyone who has survived a traumatic event experiences what we know as “Post Traumatic Stress.” For some this becomes full-fledged PTSD, but not always. Generally speaking, PTS is what it sounds like, stress. This may show itself in physical, psychological, and/or spiritual forms. It may be anything from muscle soreness to night terrors. PTSD refers to a medical diagnosis where the stress of the event was so overwhelming that the body’s systems have become stuck or unregulated in some way that is disruptive to the person’s life. Treating PTSD effectively requires the care of a team of health professionals.
Similarly, many people experience Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). PTG is often defined or thought about as positive changes or outcomes as a result of experiencing a crisis. While this feels good to think about and hope for, the definition is both limited, and limiting to survivors. Talking about PTG as if everything will one day be easy, or as if all effects and symptoms will fade away is not only demoralizing to those who continue to struggle, but also fails to celebrate the resources that have allowed individuals to survive and move forward but may seem “negative.” Anger, active mourning, self-medicating behaviors, even PTSD itself, may not be sustainable options for managing trauma. But the truth is that those things (or whatever your directee is dealing with), have kept that person alive. Fight, flight, and freeze all take incredible strength to activate. Having the perspective that the very fact that there is a person sitting in front of us is something to be in awe of, helps us to bless whatever systems have helped them cope up to this point.
It is particularly important for us as caregivers to have a plethora of clear language to describe experiences and emotions because language centers and frontal lobe processing are often affected by trauma. A survivor often has a very difficult time expressing to both themselves and others what has happened in their own words. Being able to offer language that is accurate to a survivor’s experience helps them to heal as they are able to more and more tell their story in a coherent manner. Important to note, research has shown that pushing someone to talk about their traumatic experience hurts more than it helps. It can even go so far as to re-traumatize the survivor. Reflection on the experience can be very helpful in diminishing feelings of helplessness, but words are not required for deep reflection to take place.
Take the time to educate yourself on the descriptors of trauma and its effects. Have your own words and language so that you do not unintentionally place the burden of your education on your directee. Know the connections between body and mind and what helps them heal. When we are able to help with words and actions, caring for the whole person sitting in front of us, that is when we are truly being “God with skin on” for that directee. Reminding them of, and pointing them to, the Divine Presence that is caring for them every moment on their journey.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Trauma and Spirituality, by Han van den Blink
Looking Into The Well: Supervision of Spiritual Directors, by Maureen Conroy, R.S.M.
Humans have great capacity for joy and health. Despite the great damages sometimes inflicted on us by each other and our planet, deep within each of us is the ability to heal. We are able to find goodness in the mundane and the extreme. This innate gift of healing, of moving toward wholeness, is what we mean when we use the word resiliency. This capacity for resiliency is something that we can develop and strengthen in our daily lives so that when we find ourselves in crisis, we have already laid down a path that will bring us back.
Spiritual direction is one activity that people can engage in that increases their capacity for resilience. There are several ways in which this occurs. In spiritual direction, we facilitate truth telling and we practice holding hope. We create safe spaces in the absence of crisis, so that when things are hard, directees have somewhere to turn to discern Divine Companionship through what has happened and their healing processes with other care professionals. We wrestle with concepts like forgiveness and help to establish healing rituals and sacred spaces.
Spiritual direction also contributes uniquely to brain health in what has been termed, Neurotheology. We know that being validated by feeling heard, leads to feeling safe. Neuroimaging studies have shown that when someone hears a statement that mirrors their inner state (what we would call a compassion statement) the right side of the amygdala lights up to underline the accuracy of the reflection. Research also has shown that when people pray (whether that person be a Buddhist monk, Jesuit priest, or a Pentecostal praying glossolalia) that the brain is exercised in a unique way that causes it to thicken like a muscle. Connections between the different areas of the brain are strengthened which helps prepare the brain to handle traumatic experiences.
Spiritual direction also provides a unique form of training to individuals. Like athletes who are preparing for a race, participants in spiritual direction are strengthening important internal connections. Directees are developing “spiritual fitness.” When used positively, spirituality and religion provide a sense of belongingness and purpose in life. Spiritual direction provides practice at finding Presence in the day-to-day. Allowing these habits to become part of one’s daily life provides a grounding and normalizing experience that is readily accessed in times of struggle. Spiritual direction also helps build internal structures that can affect how we perceive and internalize the realities of our circumstances. Much of the experience of participating in spiritual direction is about meaning-making. The meaning that we make out of our lives changes both what and how we remember.
Finally, good spiritual direction is a safe, compassionate relationship. A relationship in which all emotions are welcome and truth-telling is encouraged. Traumatologist, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk said, “Traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships…The role of those relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety, including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged, and to bolster the courage to tolerate, face, and process the reality of what has happened.” He gives an excellent description of the gift of spiritual direction.
The unique and important support that spiritual companions provide through our physical and emotional presence, as well as the help of pointing directees toward the Presence of God, is invaluable to health and wholeness. In all cases, but particularly with survivors of trauma, we are caring for the mind, body, and soul in our work. Let us be intentional in helping to provide holistic care to those we journey alongside.
Recommendations for further reading:
Roadmap to Resilience: A Guide for Military, Trauma Victims and Their Families, by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION BLOG
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.