“We have learned that trauma is not just an event
that took place sometime in the past;
it is also the imprint left by that experience
on mind, brain, and body.
This imprint has ongoing consequences
for how the human organism
manages to survive in the present.”
— Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
While I’m not a trauma therapist, I work in a field in which I regularly support people who have experienced trauma. Sometimes I’m accompanying a recent survivor of assault at the emergency room for a rape kit, speaking warmly, offering compassion, providing distraction. Other times, I’m holding space over the phone while a fifty-something year old survivor tearfully discloses, for the first time in her life, the things done to her during childhood. Recent or old, those experiences shape us and our responses to them, even those that might not serve our health, are efforts to protect ourselves, to avoid pain, and to seek an elusive sense of safety.
“Trauma isn’t what happened to us.
Trauma is what happened inside us as a result of what happened to us.”
— Gabor Mate, in his presentation “Addressing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma”
during the Healing Trauma Summit
Our attempts to resolve trauma, to escape it, may be labeled dysfunctional and may not, ultimately, serve our highest good. They are, however, the actions of someone who wants to feel secure, who wants to feel loved.
My desire to understand trauma and trauma recovery serves my professional development as well as my personal journey, and learning more about the how trauma relates to the body has proven helpful in both of these areas of my life. I’m not a mental health clinician — I’m a crisis advocate and consent educator. But the process, as I understand it, is something like this:
- Traumatic experiences happen to us, and especially when our body’s natural fight or flee instincts are impeded or are ineffective at protecting us from the experience, we freeze. Our bodies may lose the ability to effectively regulate natural responses to fearful or overwhelming stimuli, thus disordering our ability to trust our perceptions of threat or manage our responses. Our minds, brains, and bodies struggle with the after-effects of the traumatic experiences.
- Over time, these responses that we initially developed as crisis reactions to trauma become so normalized that we think they are part of our personality, part of who we are. We may even be unconscious of how they became imprinted onto our minds, brains, and bodies. From our place of being unconsciously driven by our trauma responses, we sometimes enact those traumas onto others without even realizing that we are becoming the abuser or that we are acting from our own unhealed trauma. We are at risk for both disconnecting from our own bodies as a way of avoiding our own feelings and for perpetuating cycles of trauma in the lives of our own loved ones.
- While cognitive therapy can help us understand what has happened to us and spiritual approaches can help us find meaning in our recovery processes, our body has its own memory of the experience, and until we have addressed the processes our body developed to cope with trauma — processes like dissociation, shutting down, or psychosomatic discomforts and illnesses — those processes will still occur unabated in our responses to everyday stimuli, and those responses will continue to trigger less appropriate reactions and behaviors that do not serve our healing.
Resmaa Menakem explores one broader application of this somatic understanding of trauma in My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. In this book, he details white supremacy as a cultural trauma response, with trauma emerging from kidnapping, enslavement, and torment of Black bodies creating intergenerational trauma in African Americans. He addresses the generations of trauma white Europeans inflicted on each other throughout the Middle Ages, and he acknowledges the harm inflicted on the nervous systems of white bodies when the compassionate and intuitive impulse that this is wrong is continually repressed and intellectualized. He also addresses a type of intergenerational trauma experienced by law enforcement officers, even Black officers, as their complex roles within cultural systems and continual witnessing of trauma impact their own regulatory systems.
His book is an excellent resource on race and trauma.
While reading it, I also started to wonder what a similar study of religion and trauma might reveal. What is the impact of trauma on adherents of marginalized religions who deal with regular oppression and fear of public practice or identification in their communities? What is the impact on religious mystics and caregivers, who frequently may find their inherent compassion and desire to serve and protect at odds with dogmatic belief and practice within their religious orders? What detriment is created in the bodies of authoritarian or judgmental religious leaders, whose own ability to regulate compassionate impulses and judicious restraint in the nervous system may be impeded by spiritual or intellectual belief in the superiority and dominance of their specific ideology? And what is the impact, in terms of grief, trauma, and restriction of emotional fluidity, in the bodies of those who have been discarded by their religious communities or families of origin due to hierarchies of the sacred that reject or denigrate based on gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, disability, class, immigration status, or any of the other innumerable factors through which we group and oppress each other?
What is the impact on the brain, mind/spirit, and body created by generations upon generations of religiously-driven violence, exclusion, and trauma?
How do we begin to heal it, to mitigate its harm?
Last week, I attended a presentation by a local nonprofit providing batterer intervention programs, anger management, and other classes to help domestic abusers recognize and repair the impacts of their unhealthy patterns. “Before they can even begin to seek compassion for and address their own past traumas that led them to cause harm,” began their Executive Director, “they need to be accountable for the harm they have done. They have to stop doing harm, stop making excuses.”
We have to look honestly at the harm our traditions have done, at those we have excluded, and at the ways in which we (collectively, as religious people) have deluded ourselves into false narratives that obscure the ways in which facets of our traditions may have emerged as dysfunctional responses and may no longer serve our highest good.
We have to heal.
And bake the damn cake.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, healer, and consent and sexuality educator whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.