When Trauma Protects

I hate playing into the cliché trope of another gay Christian talking about trauma, and as much as I desperately want the discourse about queer people’s experience in the church to move beyond trauma towards conversations around flourishing and inclusion, I also want to write what I know and where I’m at, and tonight I have a lot of thoughts spinning around about the protective aspects of trauma responses and how they should, in fact, lead to flourishing, so that’s what I’m going to write about tonight.

As I write, I’m sitting in the library of the evangelical Bible college where I studied full-time the past few years. Since I started full-time work this year, I haven’t been back on campus much to complete my part-time study, but tonight stepping back on campus while there was an evening class happening suddenly took my body back to many of the same sensations I felt last year. Even though it’s been months since I felt some of these things and the optimistic part of me wanted to believe I’ve healed and ‘grown out of it,’ I’m sitting here with my heart rate elevated as it has been non-stop for the past two hours, my breathing shaky and inconsistent to the point where I keep catching myself holding my breath for a minute at a time in a subconscious attempt to slow my heart rate down, and my stomach twisted into an anxious knot. I find when I feel unsafe, I unconsciously cover my tummy and apply firm pressure to it to self-regulate, either pressing my torso into the desk so hard it hurts or crossing my arms tightly over my stomach. My brain is on high alert as my eyes keep darting up and down and back and forth around the room, constantly scanning my environment with a hyper-vigilance so charged it feels like I just downed a couple of Red Bulls.

Sidebar: There are probably two types of people reading this; those for whom it is such a familiar experience that your eyes skim over the unnecessary description, and those for whom this description sounds so extreme and implausible as to be over-dramatised. One of the things about trauma is that it not only physically affects your brain (and we know childhood trauma makes for neurodivergent brains, with even intergenerational trauma affecting the neural development of unborn children in utero), but it also changes our bodies. In a very real sense, those of us who have encountered trauma experience our bodies differently from those of you who haven’t. I’ll probably do more writing about these experiences this year to a) offer insights into trauma for those who don’t have a lived experience of it and who rely on personal stories to gain a window into this world, and b) to give survivors of trauma more language and resources for telling their stories without expending all the emotional labour themselves. I’m not writing about this because I have a victim complex or because I see myself, or the experience of queerness/singleness/etc. as defined by trauma—far from it. By the time I write about a topic, the act of writing usually provides an outlet for letting something go.

One thing I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately is our perceptions of trauma responses, and the way we problematise such responses. My experience of being back in the Bible college space and seeing particular persons triggered a strong bodily response, and one that I didn’t have much control over at the time. It was distressing, out of my control, and it inhibited me from accomplishing the work I’d intended to do (and we know that the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that does rational processing and is needed for tasks like writing—shuts down in these situations while the survival systems take over the brain). My trauma responses were very disruptive– but were they a problem? I’m leaning towards no. Hear me out.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal from October last year that seems strikingly relevant:

On Sunday night I found myself running in the dark along my usual running route, the same route I’ve been running for four years.. only this time I noticed that when I had to run over a particular part of the track, I instinctively slowed right down and my whole body tensed up and braced itself. I could feel my muscles suddenly tense, my heart rate increase, and my nervous system become heightened and scan for danger. In the days since then, I’ve noticed that every time I run this route, my body automatically experiences the same response at this exact location.

I never used to have this response to running this same track , so why now? The answer isn’t that hard to guess. A few months ago, I’d been running on this same route after some rainy days, and I’d slipped and fallen at this exact spot where some water from a nearby drainage pipe trickled over the path and had propagated some slimy algae across the wet concrete. My foot hit the slimy footpath and flew out from under me.

It wasn’t even a serious injury – just a few scratches and I was back up and running in a week – but the shock of spinning out and hitting the concrete hard was enough to instill in my body an intuitive caution whenever I cross that same part of the path now, especially if there’s been wet weather. What’s interesting is that whenever I get to this spot, it feels like something subconscious in my body takes over and kicks into a particular heightened response, even if my brain hasn’t consciously registered any fear or anxiety at all. I might be totally unaware mentally and just be immersed in the music I’m listening to, but then suddenly I notice my body feel different and I realise I’m in this particular location again.

I know this isn’t a unique or noteworthy response; after injuries or accidents, even minor ones, it’s normal for people to be on high alert when they find themselves in the same environment where their injury occurred—or even in a different environment that resembles it in significant ways. Like with car accidents and how a driver might tense up every time they pass the same intersection where they totalled their last car.

My body intuitively being on high alert is not the problem. That fear of danger, and the bodily tension, the arousal of my nervous system that tenses my body and heightens my senses as I scan the environment for signs of danger: those are good and healthy instincts that ensure our safety.

Often we treat trauma responses as though they are the problem, and we overlook the actual problem behind them which is the threat to safety that warranted that bodily alertness to danger. When I’m at college and my heart is racing, the goal isn’t necessarily for me to no longer feel these responses, but to pursue a healthier relationship with my body and mind so that I can listen to the signals my body is sending me about recognising correlations with previous situations where the environment did pose a threat to my well-being. A healthy response is to let this in-built safety system guide me towards safe environments, assess risk in ambiguous environments, and step away from unsafe spaces.

God built the trauma response into our bodies. Part of a Christian anthropology is having a rich view of the physicality of being human and being a material body as well as a spiritual being. As my counsellor reminded me (who, for the record, isn’t even a Christian but is a damn good counsellor who helps me process things within the framework of my own worldview and theology), if Christians believe God created us and created our bodies, and that humans experience emotions as physical and chemical processes in our bodies, we logically should believe that the messages our body sends us through those emotions are a God-given system of communication that we should honour and dignify by listening well to it.

Does this mean that the messages our bodies send us are infallible? Of course not! The very definition of trauma is our body’s alarm system continually getting set off when there is no need for alarm–like a faulty fire evacuation signal going off when there is no fire. Bessel van der Kolk writes brilliantly about this in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. As a result of traumatic events or environments, sometimes our body’s God-given alarm system becomes a maladaptive coping strategy. That’s not the same as a healthy response of feeling unsafe in a particular environment or around a particular person because your nervous system intuitively perceives that you are at a higher risk of harm in that environment.

How do we figure out the difference then? I don’t have a complete answer yet–it’s something to keep mulling over–but I suspect that part of the answer will include relying not only on our own body’s communication, but also drawing from the shared intuition of a safe community around us including professional therapists.

Often we treat trauma responses as though they are the problem, and we overlook the actual problem behind them which is the threat to safety that warranted that bodily alertness to danger.

What I do know is that healthy healing from trauma will never require us to become more disconnected from our bodies’ natural communication. Even if my body gets ‘triggered’ into fight-or-flight when I see no visible threat to explain it, a healthy response looks like listening well to my body’s communication, whether the thing it’s communicating is threats in my environment, or whether it’s simply communicating that where I’m at in this moment, I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with this and I might need to step out for a break and reset.

In either case, I would be wise to pause and listen.

[Edit 22nd May 2023: Since publishing this post I’ve been doing some further reading thanks to the recommendations to some of my readers, and I’ve found this idea crops up repeatedly in trauma literature. I found this quote from Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches very validating of my intuition!]

“Trauma responses are resilient adaptations to impossible situations. Trauma responses are the mind and body’s attempt to mitigate the fallout from horrors. … Traumas are, by definition, overwhelming: you can’t prepare sufficiently to withstand them. In this sense, developing a trauma response is not in any sense a sign of weakness or failure, but of profound resilience and adaptation in the face of impossible circumstances.”

Joshua Cockayne, Scott Harrower, and Preston Hill, Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches, New Studies in Theology and Trauma, Chapter 2: Horrors, Trauma and Recovery.

Photo by Paran Koo on Unsplash

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