What is trauma?
Before offering my own definition for trauma, I’d like to provide some working definitions from other resources that may be helpful. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says, “trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”1 An even broader definition comes from Dr. Denice Colson’s work in the Strategic Trauma and Abuse Recovery System (STARS); she defines trauma as, “any event from outside of your power/control/conscious choice which contradicts your identity to the point that it raises your stress to toxic levels and creates unacceptable losses.”2 According to Dr. Colson’s definition, trauma is a tear in your inmost being, and it wounds you at the core of your identity.
There are many different types of traumas. Some are life-threatening and some are not. On one hand, certain events will always cause post-traumatic stress when they occur, such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse. In most cases, anything that threatens your life or safety will cause trauma. On the other hand, not all trauma is life-threatening, but trauma that isn’t life-threatening can cause just as much of a loss. The difference is often delineated with the labels big “T” trauma (for life-threatening events) versus little “t” trauma (for events that are not life-threatening). We must not underestimate the pain and loss that a little “t” trauma may cause. The magnitude of an individual’s post-traumatic stress is not determined by the size of the trauma, but by the way the individual experiences it.
Individuals also experience trauma differently. For example, if you and I both experienced the same event, something like being laid off from our jobs, it might cause traumatic stress to one of us, while only being experienced as a setback for the other. The point is, traumatic stress is not about the specifics of the event, but how we each uniquely experience the event.
If I were to hold a kidney stone in my hand, throw it, and hit you in your torso with it, it probably would not hurt you. But if you ran that same sized stone through a person’s kidney, it would easily put the toughest person you know in the fetal position on the floor. In the same way, trauma is all about when, where and how it lands in the person’s life, not the size of the event. What is traumatizing for me might not be hard for you.
To holistically define trauma, we would have to discuss several subtypes, such as complex trauma, chronic trauma, developmental trauma, collective trauma and secondary trauma among others. Learning about trauma is an ongoing journey and exploration. The good news is that we don’t have to all become clinical experts to develop into trauma-informed individuals and communities.
As a Christian counselor, I’d like to offer my own working definition of trauma. Trauma is anything that causes significant inner wounding to an individual or community as a result of sin. In essence, trauma means brokenness.
What does this mean for us as the church?
C.S. Lewis says of inner pain, “mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say, ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say, ‘My heart is broken.’”3
God invites us not to conceal our pain, but to bring it to Him so that He can bring healing and restoration. In Scripture God acknowledges and has compassion for pain and traumatic wounding. Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” In Luke 4:18 Jesus announced His anointing to bring healing and restoration by reading what was prophesied about Him in Isaiah 61:1 where it says, “[God] has sent me to bind up [or heal] the brokenhearted.” The word brokenhearted in ancient Hebrew here communicates the idea of being smashed, shattered, crushed or destroyed.
Since God never changes, He desires to use His people, the Body of Christ, to bring healing to those with a shattered mind. Jesus calls the church to be His hands and feet, to care for those who are broken and traumatized today. Many minds have been shattered and traumatized in the context of relationship, but as Christ displayed, relationship with God and the community of faith gets us freed from the bondage of this brokenness.
Relationship is at the heart of the gospel and the church. We could do nothing of our own accord to save ourselves. But while we were His enemies, Christ died for us. God sent His Son to bring healing to a broken people by bringing them back into relationship with their Father. This relationship and healthy attachment to the Father bring healing where unhealthy attachment with others once occurred. Now the church and family of God is free to extend to others what has been given to them — relationship and healthy attachment — to help others heal.
As we extend what we have been given to others, we are never empty-handed. We have all we need in Christ. Colossians 2:9-10 states, “For in Him the whole fullness of Deity (the Godhead) continues to dwell in bodily form [giving complete expression of the divine nature]. And you are in Him, made full and having come to fullness of life [in Christ you too are filled with the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and reach full spiritual stature]. And He is the Head of all rule and authority [of every angelic principality and power]” (AMPC). In summary, the Spirit is saying through Paul — all that God is, is in Christ; and all that Christ is, is in you!
Whether we consider the looming mental health crisis or the massive lack of resources and people involved in the child welfare system, we have all we need in Christ to be a marvelous solution to the world’s problems. The world should be knocking at the doors of the church asking: How are you doing it? How are you so successful with mental health? How are you erasing the foster care dilemma? It’s my belief that God is inviting His church to move beyond everyday programming that looks like another institution. I believe God is inviting us to step into a place of power that looks like a family.
What does it mean to be a trauma-informed church?
Becoming trauma-informed allows us to provide trauma-informed care, which brings together both knowledge and sensitivity to trauma but uses a relationship to approach the traumatized individual. Essentially, trauma-informed care applies the knowledge and awareness of trauma while leveraging relationship with people to help them heal. Trauma-informed care brings wisdom on how to deal with mental health issues, issues which are so often rooted in some form of trauma. It is the wisdom of knowing both what to do and what not to do.
Becoming trauma-informed is a journey and a way of being; it’s not some destination to reach. Trauma-informed care is not some program you implement. It is a culture you build and nourish. If your church thrives on programs, this change in approach might be a difficult shift, but it’s nevertheless a necessary adjustment. Everyone’s needs are unique, which means this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. As we grow in our ability to recognize and address trauma, we must also remember that as the church, we have the gift of discernment through God’s Spirit. Churches who provide trauma-informed care follow in the footsteps of Christ by meeting people right where they are and asking the question, “What happened to them?” rather than, “What is wrong with them?”
The journey of becoming trauma-informed is both individual and corporate. Although we can always continue to grow in becoming trauma-informed, this simple, 3-step process lays an essential foundation for trauma-informed care:
Step 1: Trauma Awareness
First work to increase your awareness of trauma and the need for trauma-informed care. Much of the terminology we’ve already discussed in this article has primed your awareness, but it doesn’t stop there. Being trauma-aware also means recognizing that every child in the child welfare system has trauma, even if you cannot see it. If we are honest, it also means that every person you encounter has trauma in some capacity, because we live in a broken world. Those we encounter in the church will also have trauma, as we are all broken and in the process of sanctification. This growing awareness may occur on an individual level, but as we work to become trauma-informed churches, we will move toward communal awareness.
Step 2: Trauma Sensitivity
Begin creating an atmosphere that is safe and respectful toward trauma survivors, so they can build healthy and caring relationships. Creating a safe and respectful environment for the survivor is crucial, even if it is not reciprocated by the survivor. In fact, you can almost count on it not being mutual. After all, people are not able to give what they do not have, at least at first. Once you create safety and respect that builds a healthy relationship, the trauma survivor may cultivate self-respect. And eventually they will be able to give respect back to those who modeled it for them. Remember, you have the greatest advantage in your connection to Holy Spirit. The more sensitive you are to the Spirit, the easier it will be to live as a trauma-informed person.
Step 3: Trauma Responsiveness
Respond to others’ trauma with the knowledge, skill and compassion that you have learned through trauma awareness and sensitivity. In this step, we recognize that Christ calls us to move beyond the comfort of sympathy. Christ calls us to compassion, which looks like responding to the broken and hurting world with His love. As the church, being trauma-responsive means positioning your heart before the Father, so that God can utilize your compassion and set you into motion.
Once you are confident of your awareness, sensitivity and responsiveness, you have the basic mechanics in place to be trauma-informed. If you are new to this conversation, remember, being trauma-informed is simply new language to help us apply biblical truths that have always been present in the gospel. Science has only begun to confirm what Christ taught and displayed on earth through His life, death and resurrection. As the church, we invite others to saving faith in Jesus, but we also have the privilege of extending healing and restoration to those who are broken. Through the love of Christ, let us all continue to advance the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
About the Author:
Phil Bradfield has had the privilege of serving as a Clinical Director and professional counselor for over a decade. He currently serves as the Clinical Director for WinShape Homes. Over the course of his career, time and time again, his clinical training has affirmed biblical truths regarding mental health in countless ways. More specifically, he has discovered through Scripture and personal experience that God has an agenda to bring healing and restoration to those who have experienced trauma. Phil believes Christ came to bring this reconciliation and His body, the church, is called to continue the work today.
- SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative “SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach,” July 2014, 7, https://ncsacw.acf.hhs.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf.
- Dr. Denice Colson, The Strategic Trauma & Abuse Recovery System: A Christian-integrated, Comprehensive, 3-Phase Model for Individual and Group Counseling (McDonough, GA: TraumaEducation.com, 2014), 36.
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940), 161.