Loss of a Sense of Self
One of the initial effects of trauma is a loss of sensory self-awareness. The areas of the brain that work together to create a sense of self, which typically activate when the brain is in “rest” mode, cannot activate because the brain remains constantly activated toward survival of the threat. Knowing what we feel leads to knowing why we feel it which leads to mobilization of resources to manage and respond to those feelings. None of these normal responses occur in the presence of extreme disconnection from the self. Because disconnection from self continues well after the traumatic event is over, these responses also continue to occur. As a result, the individual loses their sense of purpose and direction, the feeling of being alive, and the sense of who they are.
However, trauma does not define who we are. God, as our Creator, is the author of our identity, and that identity is a secure and stable truth no matter what our circumstances. Through our relationship with Christ, we can "rediscover" who we are. He can restore what our traumatic experiences have attempted to cover up. We can enter His rest and receive His peace, allowing our brains to reactivate toward re-experiencing our sense of self.
Loss of Agency
One of the most damaging consequences of trauma is a belief in a loss of agency, meaning the individual no longer believes they have authority over their own life. During the traumatic experience, something or someone external to their ability to choose overpowers them, leaving them feeling vulnerable, out of control, and powerless. Because they have no choice about experiencing the traumatic event, their feelings tell them they have no choice at all. Their sense of basic safety and security is lost, as is their belief they have the freedom to choose.
Our God-given authority and our freedom to choose are so precious and valuable, the belief in a loss of agency resulting from trauma has far-reaching consequences. The healing truth is that even though during the trauma something infringed on or limited one aspect of personal choice, nothing and no one can ever take away all our choices, because the freedom to choose is God-ordained. We always have the ability to choose how we will feel in any given circumstance, and we can choose if we will allow the trauma to define us or if we will choose to be defined by who God says He created us to be. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1).
Trauma can have a profound, even devastating impact on an individual. Often, the responses traumatized individuals exhibit are pathologized. They are viewed as needing “treatment” and are identified as "sick" or “disturbed.” The truth is, the responses to trauma are normal responses given the extreme nature of their situation. Pathologizing the person or seeing the person as a problem hinders the successful integration of the trauma memories into their overall life story. We must recognize these responses are normal for their experience and are based on real physiological and emotional reactions in the body and mind of the individual to a traumatic event.
If trauma survivors normalize their responses to trauma, it increases the likelihood the individual will be open to explore their experiences, which in turn increases the opportunity for the individual to give language to their trauma. If they can give language to their trauma, they can begin the process of including the traumatic experience into their overall life story. The brain systems that handle self-awareness can begin to alter the bodily responses that feel so out of control and out of context. Finally, the individual can begin to rediscover their identity through giving language to their inner reality.
Helping individuals who have gone through trauma understand their responses are normal, and they are not alone in experiencing these responses, can help open the doors to the process of healing.
When the traumatic memories are triggered, which can happen through random, transient events, such as smelling a particular smell associated with the trauma, sounds or tastes associated with the trauma, visual cues, physical stimuli, or a sudden movement that startles them, the individual is flooded with the whole sensory experience of the trauma, and they react as if the trauma is occurring in real time, because for their brain, it is. Just like happens during the original trauma, the frontal lobe shuts down and the ability to process the trauma logically and place it in some perspective is lost.
In addition, the brain becomes accustomed to the continuous flow of adrenaline. The body repeatedly reignites the stress hormones’ release, resulting in the body itself replaying the trauma, even when the specific trauma memory is not triggered. The wear and tear on the body is significant.
The individual is haunted by shadows of bodily sensations and fragments of experience they cannot put into language. Their experience of their lives becomes divided between body and mind, and this dissociation in and of itself is disconcerting. The individual begins to feel they must either shut down completely to deal with the overwhelming sensations, or they live in a state of hyperarousal, responding out of proportion to everything going on around them.
Dr. Donna E. Lane is a Christian Counselor who specializes in trauma, grief, and loss, along with the depression and anxiety often resulting from these experiences. She has been a counselor since 1979, and has owned her practice since 1993. She is co-author of the internationally-acclaimed trauma treatment resource, Trauma Narrative Treatment, and the accompanying story, Gold Stone. She is also the co-author of Strength in Adversity, a Biblical study on walking through difficulty with Christ.