What is trauma informed leadership? Why does it matter? If you are engaging in the practice of ministry, I hope you will read on.
This fall I am teaching a course in “Trauma Informed Pastoral and Spiritual Care” for Union Theological Seminary. Maybe when you think about care, you think of chaplains or pastors who look after people who come to them seeking help. Yes that is one place that care for people needs a clear understanding of trauma. However, trauma-sensitive care is also part of the work of all good leadership. And not just in ministry, but also most professions.
The reason to learn what you can about the impact of trauma? Because so many people have survived terror at some point in their lives. Sexualized violence alone stands at epidemic rates. Veterans, accident survivors, and victims of violent crime, among others, also live with the aftermath of unspeakable events.
To offer trauma informed care and leadership, you first need to know what to look for, right? That can be complex and challenging. And the symptoms of trauma are easy to mistake for other kinds of illness, disease, and psychological disturbances.
This diagram or infographic about the effects of trauma on individuals comes from the classic text, Trauma and Recovery (2015) by Judith Herman, M.D. Herman is professor emerita of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She learned from and treated trauma survivors for decades. The first edition of Trauma and Recovery appeared in 1992.
My summary of Herman’s chapter on “Terror” presents concepts for the overwhelming features that trauma survivors experience. As you can see, I located trauma at the center. Once a person goes through a traumatic event — war, rape, intimate partner violence, witnessing a tragic or violent death, etc. — life changes. She, he, or they is likely to feel that disorienting moment at the center of their being for a long time. Things are never quite the same. This can be due to the dramatic changes, outwardly invisible, that mark a person.
Many people, including ministers, prefer not to think about or engage with trauma. Yet it is so important to educate yourself and be willing to witness the impact of trauma. Even when one is willing, looking at the truth of trauma can be overwhelming. Herman says about this: “When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom” (Herman, 1).
We must look at the truth of trauma, in order to care for people who suffer with its daily effects. Some symptoms that Herman and her colleagues identify are visible in the graphic above. Each person who suffers from trauma will have unique responses to it. Yet some commonalities are nearly universal. To understand the infographic above, start at the center with the trauma itself. Then move outward to each next layer of immediate then long term responses.
Significant Outcomes of Trauma
Many terms in Herman’s chapter and the infographic are self-evident. However, four concepts deserve a bit more unpacking.
Hyperarousal is the “persistent expectation of danger” (Herman, 35). This class of symptoms results from the survivor’s effort at that the time of the traumatic event to survive. Staying vigilant and alert, however, becomes the entire brain and body response to the world. This remains true even when no immediate danger is present. This state further exhausts a person and stresses every physical and mental system.
Intrusions are the “indelible imprint of the traumatic moment” (Ibid.). This experiences include flashbacks and nightmares, disruptive thoughts, sensations, and images. Survivors might experience them at any point in the course of an otherwise normal day or night. It is as if they are living within the trauma again.
Constriction “reflects the numbing response of surrender” (Ibid.). When a human being is flooded and overwhelmed in mind, body and brain, the only protection may be escape. After the traumatic event is long over, survivors may continue trying to escape the horror. Common forms of constriction include numbing oneself through drugs or alcohol, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and other means of avoidance.
Dialectic describes how “two contradictory responses of intrusion and constriction establish an oscillating rhythm” (Herman, 47). Herman goes on: “Since neither the intrusive nor the numbing symptoms allow for integration of the traumatic event, the alternation between these two extreme states might be understood as an attempt to find a satisfactory balance between the two (Ibid). However, balance is not achieved but rather suffering multiplies.
What to Do?
Even this brief overview points out how difficult it is to understand or give care to traumatized people. To begin here with awareness though is crucial. In a future post I will explore some of the pathways toward recovery and healing.
Look around your congregation, training session, classroom, youth group, choir, or movement and simply start with awareness. You do not need to become a diagnostician to see the effects of trauma. Do not assume too much. Simply think about the stories you already know. And notice the symptoms typical of trauma survivors in your midst. Imagine how knowing this reality of suffering is ever present might change your empathy, compassion, and sensitivity as you lead and minister.
If you have the time and interest in going deeper, here is a rare interview with Judith Herman from January 2019.
In my next post on trauma, I will present insights and concepts related to recovery and healing from trauma. You are invited to sign up today to receive future posts, blogs, and weekly videos from Three Minute Ministry Mentor.
Cover Photo: At the American Academy of Religion (2017), we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Judith Herman’s publication of Trauma and Recovery. Pictured (l to r): Gabriella Lettini, Liz Bounds, Judith Herman, Lisa Cataldo, Eileen Campbell-Reed, Bandi X. Lee.
Book: Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 2015).