Matthew de Haan
Many of us experience difficulties and occasionally very trying times in our lives. But with so many recent stories of school shootings, including a very recent incident in Seattle, it is important to accurately understand what trauma is and the symptoms that can develop as a result of exposure to traumatic events. This article provides a brief explanation of trauma and a Christian psychologist’s perspective on assessing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you suspect that you or a loved one has been exposed to traumatic events, I encourage you to read through this article in order to help you make an informed decision about when to seek help.
What is Trauma?
Trauma happens when a person experiences, witnesses, or has otherwise been confronted with an event that involved actual or threatened death, serious injury, or a threat to one’s physical integrity. Simply being exposed to a traumatic event does not mean that a person necessarily has PTSD, for the individual’s response to the event must include intense fear, helplessness, or horror. This means that the way the individual perceives the event is very important. It is also helpful to point out that the event must involve threatened death, serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of the individual themselves or to someone they are close to (such as a family member or a very close friend). If the events happen to someone else, this does not make them any less traumatic. But it does change their impact on the individual who witnesses these events. PTSD is different from most other psychiatric disorders in that it requires a specific type of event to occur from which the person affected does not recover.
How Do I Know if I Have PTSD?
When I see a client who has been exposed to a traumatic event, my first goal is to build a safe and caring relationship with the person who may have difficulty engaging as a result of the trauma. Next I look for symptoms that fall into three broad categories: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance and numbing symptoms, and physiological hyper arousal. These categories can be broad and difficult to understand, so I will explain them in more detail below.
Re-experiencing symptoms are just like they sound and involve memories of the trauma that intrude into consciousness repetitively and without warning. They may involve vivid reenactment experiences or flashbacks. The re-experiencing symptoms are often experienced as distressing and intrusive due to their uncontrollable nature and their tendency to produce strong negative emotion.
Avoidance and numbing symptoms are another area of concern and involve avoiding thoughts and feelings about the trauma. Such avoidance leads to a temporary decrease in the painful emotions that then increases the avoidance behavior. This may work for a little while, but eventually the thoughts can no longer be avoided. In order to cope with this inevitability, a person often becomes numb. Numbing is an attempt to cut off the negative feelings associated with the trauma, but this often extends to other aspects of life so that individuals start to feel fewer and fewer strong emotions of any kind.
A final category of physiological hyper-arousal symptoms involves a constant state of “fight or flight,” which is most likely similar to how the body reacted when the person first experienced the traumatic event. This was probably helpful at the time of the actual event and may have facilitated survival. However, if it persists and becomes a steady state it interferes with one’s daily functioning and becomes exhausting. It is not hard to imagine how difficult it must be to be constantly scanning the environment for danger as you do when you are scared or frightened.
Christian Counseling Provides Hope for People with PTSD
If you or a loved one have been exposed to a traumatic event and if some of the symptoms described above sound familiar, it is important to know that there is hope and that God provides healing. In 1 Peter 5: 6-7 (ESV), Peter explains: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” When it feels as if no one can understand what you have been through, remember that Jesus himself endured traumatic events and even died on the cross. He knows about suffering and trauma and he promises to be there for his people. A Christian counselor can help to make those promises a reality. If you seek help and understanding and want to find some hope in the midst of trauma, please don’t hesitate to contact me to find out more about Christian counseling. I would be honored to come alongside you and join you on your journey toward healing.
“Anxiety And Fear Signpost Means Worried Nervous Or Scared” stock image, FreeDigitalPhotos.net, ID #100246951; ”Businessman Swap Paper Showing Contrast Idea” stock photo, FreeDigitalPhotos.net, ID#100248273,