Greetings and Merry Christmas to all of you and your families! As we wrap up 2021, I hope it was a year filled with moments that connected you more closely to our heavenly Father. In 2022, I pray that our faith in Christ would shine brighter than ever and our hearts would be filled with hope anchored in His glorious return.
Though the Christmas season is a time of joy and wonder, it can also be a season of strain for us and the children that we serve, triggering holiday hurts and past trauma. The effects of trauma are not always obvious. Experts disagree whether or not there is a genetic component to trauma; in fact, studies of the descendants of trauma survivors remain inconclusive. I imagine you’d agree that hurt people, hurt people — whether genetics factor into trauma or not.
When people experience a traumatizing event, cortisol floods their brains. They react in one of three ways in order to cope — fight, flight or freeze. Now imagine if the trauma was not caused by one event but experienced consistently in the ongoing lifestyle of an innocent child. The child would be forced to live every day with elevated cortisol levels in the brain. Cortisol shuts down the immune and digestive systems, among others, as a physical protective measure to allow humans to only use fight, flight or freeze instincts for immediate survival and protection.
Ongoing, chronic trauma causes our bodies to overproduce cortisol and overloads our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system helps our bodies respond with anxiety and appropriate fear. For example, if you are swimming in the ocean at 5-7 feet deep and spot a tiger shark, it is appropriate for your sympathetic nervous system to activate anxiety so you can swim faster to get out of danger. Once out of the ocean, your parasympathetic nervous system would typically kick in to help you calm down and even help you connect to people. But what if your living environment caused that level of heightened fear all the time? Ongoing, chronic trauma blocks and confuses both nervous systems, even after the person experiencing the trauma is out of the toxic, stressful environment. It is like a thermostat set to high that is stuck in the “on” position and never has a chance to cool down or reset.
For those experiencing chronic and on-going trauma, it’s as if their systems are always “on” and running; this blocks the parasympathetic nervous system from helping them form healthy connection and attachments to others. When kids from hard places come to us, we often see negative behaviors. To the naked eye, it might seem like consequences adequately address the concerns. However, if we look a bit deeper, we come to understand that these children are not trying to make life difficult. Instead, their negative behaviors are literally survival attempts. They do not know how to regulate their emotions, nor how to appropriately emote. We can help them learn all the best tools to cope, but without a proper foundation, those tools will not be used.
As we consider ways to help them begin to form a healthy foundation, one of the best foundations we can offer is an environment of care. When we show care in an ‘agape’ love kind of way in an environment that focuses on grace and discipline, not performance and punishment, we’re headed in the right direction. Performance and punishment seek out consequences solely after behavior change. Grace seeks to kindly and consistently ask, “What happened to you?” Discipline, combined with a gracious approach, seeks a change of heart, not just behavior change.
Since we know that trauma causes harm to the physical body, including the brain, shouldn’t we do all the good we can to help lay a healthy foundation for recovery and healing? This principle is affirmed in the Book of James where it says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
If we have faith, then our works will demonstrate it. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved forgood works.