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The Practice of Blessing Trauma Response

by Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe

For decades, the mindset that has pervaded popular culture is that we are somehow unaffected by trauma. In fact, expressing the impacts of trauma in one’s life has often been viewed negatively, as a sign of weakness. But when this occurs, important opportunities to honor and value the meaningful losses in our lives are missed. In many cases, we don’t even realize the extent to which ignoring losses is damaging our bodies and our spirits.

In 2003, traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk made a startling claim. He said trauma incidents themselves were not our most significant problems. Rather, “The human response to psychological trauma is one of the most important public health problems in the world.” In other words, how we were approaching the impact of trauma was all wrong.

“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. He continues by pointing out that 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 to 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 for 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.”

So, what is the factor that most influences whether a traumatized person goes on to develop significant health concerns? Care. Care for self and care received from trustworthy companions makes all the difference. From the time that van der Kolk and fellow traumatologists first sounded this alarm, there has been a movement encouraging medical, law enforcement, and legal professionals to become more informed about the impact of trauma in order to enhance their interactions with clients and community members. It’s a movement that ordained and lay faith leaders would do well to engage much more intentionally and expansively, especially as faith leaders offer important contributions to healing. Besides providing pastoral care and counseling, caring relationships and safe fellowship, faith leaders also can bless the way we respond to trauma. These blessings help to shore up personal and collective human spirits.

To begin becoming more familiar with how the impacts of trauma permeate our communities today, watch this recent TED talk. In it, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in San Francisco, deftly describes how the ACE study transformed her practice and increased her team’s positive influence among one of the poorest communities in the Bay Area. It’s important information for any organization that seeks to generate personal and community health.

In the past, it was common in society to degrade trauma responses as signs of weakness and imply that trauma survivors who did “act out” ought to have practiced more self-control or better anger management. As information from the ACEstudy and other trauma studies make clear, this perspective severely misunderstands normal human responses to trauma, including impulses to fight, flee, or freeze, and is unable to see these responses as critical forms of self-preservation. Faith leaders can become more prominent figures in teaching and modeling the value of human response to trauma. They can show through word and action understandings of how these responses serve as protective practices in times of true threat. In cases where these responses linger beyond actual present threats – which also occurs – we can be leaders in continuing to value these responses as we connect survivors with effective resourcing, including trauma therapists and practicing trauma-informed liturgies. After becoming more informed about the impacts of trauma, one of the ways faith leaders can encourage healing is by making it a practice to bless normative responses to trauma.

Blessing trauma responses has been an important form of faithful practice for centuries, especially among the countless good Samaritans around the world who have dared to draw near to the wounded, bind their sores, and reconnect them with caring community. These blessings take many shapes and forms. For example, last month, I mentioned a recent blog post in the ICTG (Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth) website by guest blogger Phil Browning Helsel, assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at Boston College. In his post he provides a template for creating a ritual blessing for women who have survived domestic violence. We need to share with one another more liturgical practices like this one, and continue learning together how to bless our God-given trauma responses, rather than blame or shame them. We also need to keep learning about how congregations can become trauma-informed congregations.

Do you have examples of trauma-informed worship practices among your congregation? Contact us to share them with the ICTG community.

Later this month, the 2015 Resource Guide will be available for mailing. Intended for ministers and ministers-in-training, order forms can be found here. The ICTG 2015 Resource Guide is a 50+ page booklet that discusses three keys to healing trauma, provides assessment tools for discerning stress levels, self-care practices, and for building personal and professional networks of care. It also provides guides for communicating with staff and congregations during and after traumas, and practicing trauma-informed worship. Proceeds from the sales of these guides go to support ICTG programming. You can order them for yourself, your staff, or as a gift for a minister or student.

As we continue to expand these conversations and share best practices for care, we display the restorative sanctuaries that our faith communities can be among life’s storms. As we bless trauma responses, rather than override them with shame, we create trustworthy environments to value the meaningful losses of our lives. And in so doing, congregations become platforms for missional living truly engaged with the realities of the world today.

Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe is the Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG, www.ictg.org). With over 15 years' experience in pastoral care and trauma treatment, she seeks solutions for ministers and congregations to thrive after trauma. For the last five years, she has volunteered as a National Responder for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PCUSA), including responding to events in Tucson, Tuscaloosa, Aurora, Newtown, Murrysville, and UC Santa Barbara. She also teaches disaster preparedness and response to ministerial groups around the country. In her free time, she enjoys celebrating holidays, traveling to new places with her family, and savoring slow-cooked meals with good friends.

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