How Trauma Shows Up on the Field: The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field Part 2

by Shonna Ingram

This is the second article in a three-part series about the Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field. Today we will explore the way trauma shows up on the mission field.

As I mentioned in Part 1, the first place we notice trauma is in behaviors and reactions. If you do a google search on trauma reaction, you will probably find the three most common responses to trauma: fight, flight, and freeze.

Fight is usually associated with someone who can’t control their anger.

Flight is usually associated with someone who is running. 

Freeze is usually associated with someone going numb. 

However, there are other ways these reactions show up. 

Fight responses can include angry outbursts, controlling behavior, bullying, narcissistic behavior, explosive behavior.

Flight responses can include workaholism, overthinking, anxiety, panic, OCD, difficulty sitting still, perfectionism.

Freeze responses can include feeling stuck, difficulty making decisions, dissociation, isolation. 

Another way trauma can show up is called Fawning. I have especially seen this in the missions community. The fawning response can be exhibited as a people-pleasing reaction. It might also look like a lack of identity, an inability to set boundaries, a feeling of overwhelm, or codependency. 

Note: Unless you are a mental health professional, this list should not be used as a diagnosis for trauma. Instead, you can use it as a guideline to help identify what could be happening inside you. 

To see how these reactions play out, I’ll share a case study. Let me introduce you to James.*  

James grew up attending his local church. His dad worked long hours as a traveling sales person, and his mother stayed at home. He was the oldest of three siblings, the top basketball player at his local high school, and attended all the church youth group events.

However, there was a family secret. James’s mother drank a lot of alcohol. At home during a binge drinking episode, she would chase after her children with a knife threatening to kill them if they didn’t do what she said. When he was only ten years old, she would leave him in charge of his two siblings for days at a time, with no food in the pantry. Since his dad was often traveling for work, the children might go days without food. No one at church knew what was going on because at church the family acted like everything was fine.  

The summer between his sophomore and junior year was the year James finally got to go on the high school missions trip. He wasn’t particularly excited about going; he just wanted to get away from his family for a few weeks that summer. During his time in Central America, God stirred something inside him, and he felt closer to God than ever before. So he told his youth pastor that he wanted to be a missionary. This decision excited people, which gave him the validation that he so desperately needed at the time. 

But when he returned home from the missions trip, nothing really changed. In fact, for the rest of his time in high school things actually got worse. His mother stayed out for weeks and his dad was around even less. His younger brother started to get into trouble at school, and James became responsible for them.  

Let’s stop the story here. What concerns are you noticing in James’ story? Two overarching themes that I see are abuse and abandonment.

James assumed that leaving home would make these things better, and it did for a while. He attended a Christian college and started his intercultural missions training. He met the love of his life there, and together they joined an internship in West Africa. During their internship there was an unexpected political coup, and although the fighting wasn’t close, James started having panic attacks and nightmares of being beaten and left for dead. He didn’t tell anyone, though, so no one knew that he needed help. He thought leaving Africa would fix it and that everything would be ok. It did for a while.

Five years later James and his wife finished their partnership development and headed to East Asia. They lived in a town, but their ministry was in a village about four hours away. He and his wife had regular first-term stresses which included his wife giving birth to their second child. They didn’t really have anyone to talk to about what was going on, and everyone back home thought they were fine because their newsletters were full of exciting ministry opportunities. But he started getting angry over little things and started working more. He and his wife started fighting for the first time in their marriage.

After two years on the field they came to the States for a required six-month furlough. They had a two-hour administrative debrief with their agency, and they told them they were fine, just tired – although they did mention they could use a weekend away because baby number three was due in two months. 

They returned for their second term with three kids ages three and younger. Things in town were worse this time around. The police were starting to ask for bribes at the checkpoints. If James didn’t pay, he would be interrogated and possibly beaten, so he paid the bribes even though he didn’t feel right about doing so. It was the first time he feared for his family’s safety.

Then one day on the way to the local market he saw a small child being beaten. He was in total shock because he had never seen that kind of thing in his passport country. Giving bribes and watching a child almost die caused him deep guilt and shame. He started shutting down and began staying late at the office. There was a young, national secretary there who listened to him when it seemed like his wife wouldn’t. Fortunately he caught himself before that relationship turned into an emotional affair, but he became mired in even more guilt. 

James was having problems sleeping and started using alcohol as a coping mechanism. He decided that if this was missionary life, he didn’t want any part of it. He couldn’t put a finger on a moment when it all went wrong. He started crying out to God, but God was silent. Why was He allowing this to happen? He started meeting with a friend to talk about what was happening and started feeling better.

Then COVID came. They were close to the epicenter and had to evacuate the country within 24 hours, leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country. He said, “How can I just leave them there? They could all die.” 

Let’s stop the story there. What potentially traumatizing events are you seeing now?

You’re probably seeing quite a few, but I want to point out two possibilities: moral injury and survivor’s guilt.

Moral injury is usually associated with military personnel and can occur in response to acting on or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual’s values and moral beliefs. This causes a deep sense of guilt and shame or what the Trauma Healing Institute calls a “soul wound.” Moral injury showed up when James had to pay bribes and watch a child almost die from being beaten.

The second trauma James experienced is survivor’s guilt. This happens when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. War veterans, cancer survivors, and yes, even missionaries can all experience this. For James, it was leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country.

Let’s finish the story. When COVID led the family back to the States, little did they know that they were not going to be able to return to East Asia. James felt stuck, overwhelmed, disillusioned, and totally out of control. Because of their evacuation, they couldn’t bring anything back to America, not even his wife’s grandmother’s china, and for him that was the last straw.

He got physically sick and isolated himself. The isolation left him bitter with God for allowing these bad things to happen and not protecting them, and he had no idea what to do. He said, “I thought we were going to live there forever. What do I do now, and who am I now?”

The evacuation experience led to two more potentially traumatic outcomes: cumulative grief and loss of identity

Cumulative grief “is what happens when you do not have time to process one loss before incurring another. The losses come in too rapid a succession for you, the bereaved, to heal from the initial loss.”

Identity loss involvesquestioning your sense of self or identity.” 

James knew in his head that he was supposed to suffer for the kingdom, but this was just too much. At this point, he had lost all hope. 

He didn’t know that he had experienced traumas, but he did know that he had lost his sense of Order, Justice, and Self Value.

Thankfully there are specific steps a global worker can take to process grief and heal from traumatic experiences, and thankfully James reached out for help at this point in his journey. 

The last article in this series will focus on the steps people can take toward healing.


*For privacy purposes, James is a composite of several clients. However, his story is representative of the types of trauma that workers on the field endure.


Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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