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.
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