In part one of this series on trauma, I explained what trauma is and what it does to us. In part two, I told you about James’s story. As we think about his story, we notice that he is not in this situation because of one big, traumatic event. Instead, it was small experiences that piled on top of each other that he wasn’t able to process (although there were some big ones in there too).
James was stuck, and he knew it. When people like James come to me for help, I don’t tell them to “just pray about it.” They’ve often heard advice like that before, and it usually isn’t helpful. Instead, I take people on a recovery journey. This journey is not linear, but rather an opportunity to reflect, create, and grow in an ongoing process.
As I said earlier, there isn’t one single therapy or modality that will heal the layers of trauma we see in this story. On different parts of the trauma recovery journey, James will need different interventions and approaches.
Laying the Foundation
We start trauma healing by integrating the brain, heart, and body. To do this, we need an approach that connects mental health principles with a Biblical framework.
We need an evidence-based approach. The first rule in mental health is to “do no harm.” To help with that, we need researched and proven tools to use throughout the healing journey. But more than that, we need compassion and people to come alongside us in our season of trauma recovery.
Trauma recovery is not linear. Healing is more of a mending process than a single moment, and we need to think of it as a journey. Some days everything will be fine; other days we will find ourselves triggered for no reason. This is normal, and we need to create space for these ups and downs. With a story like James’s where there isn’t one big event, it’s not always clear what the traumas are. We have to be patient while we figure it out.
Allow the Holy Spirit to work. We acknowledge that Jesus heals people’s trauma. This isn’t meant to over-spiritualize the process; even secular trauma training holds to the idea that there is something bigger than us out in the universe.
Steps for Healing
Before beginning the six steps outlined in this section, it’s important to make sure you are surrounded by people who will support your rebuilding process.
1. See where you are.
If you think you might have experienced a traumatic event, the first step is to get out of the crisis. Think about how the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse meets people’s physical needs or about the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: water, food, and shelter. Psychological First Aid (PFA) material is a good place to start. (I also recommend the Trauma Healing Institute’s Beyond Disaster material.)
2. Pay attention not only to the things you are saying but also how you are reacting to things.
In the last article I gave examples of some trauma reactions (Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn). You can think through the different types of trauma you may have experienced (Acute, Chronic, Secondary, Childhood Abuse or Abandonment, Moral Injury, Survivor’s Guilt, Loss of Identity, Compound Grief) and ask whether Order, Justice, or Self Value has been lost because of what happened.
3. Become familiar with the stages of grief.
Understand the different stages of grief. In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the five common stages of grief. They include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
4. Find safe places.
Find someone who will hold your emotional, relational, and situational stories. Safe places should make space for:
- Normalizing what is happening. For example, I told James that if I had gone through the same thing he did, I would have felt the same way.
- Listening without judgment.
- Reflecting back what you are saying.
- Discerning with you. This might look like them praying with and for you and bringing your feelings and emotions to Jesus.
5. Reach out to a professional counselor, trauma-informed mental health coach, or trauma-informed spiritual director.
Hopefully you will have a list of vetted mental health professionals that you can reach out to if your needs go beyond what a friend or leader can provide. This is what James needed as part of his recovery from his childhood attachment issues. He went through a series of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) appointments.
Note: EMDR is one possibility of getting to some of the roots of trauma. Brainspotting (my training), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), tapping, and Somatic Therapy (grounding and breathwork) are other methods used in trauma therapy. I have also seen healing through healing prayer sessions with a prayer minister. It depends on the season and what you are most comfortable with. Ask your therapist, coach, or spiritual director what method they use.
6. Lastly, for ongoing recovery to take place, you need to get involved in a trauma-informed community.
When I was studying trauma recovery, I kept coming across the idea of small groups. A small group allows people to share their stories and see that they aren’t alone. That is why Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery programs are so successful.
I saw a great need for these types of conversations in the missions community and was asked by many of my therapist friends to start something like that. So I created the Renewed Hope Approach, a year-long trauma-informed recovery group that walks people through the three stages of trauma recovery. The groups spend time sharing their pain and talking about common topics like theology of suffering, grief processing, and forgiveness.
During the pandemic I was able to field test these groups, and I’m happy to announce that they are now open to the public. In these communities we focus on:
Stage 1: Grief, Loss, and Forgiveness (I call this stage Restore.)
Stage 2: Finding Your Renewed Purpose (I call this stage Receive.)
Stage 3: Growing in Hope (I call this stage Rebuild.)
Each stage connects the brain, heart, and body by telling our story (brain), engaging in expressive therapies like art and prayer (heart), and engaging in body work practices like grounding and breathing exercises (body). The purpose of all these exercises is to reconnect with God, others, and ourselves. These activities, especially in combination, help facilitate our healing.
Wrapping Up James’s Story
James has come a long way since I first met him a few years ago. Most days he is in Stage 3 (Rebuild). Not every day is perfect, and there are times that he has to go back to Stage 1 (Restore) to spend some time reflecting on another loss or forgiving someone (or himself) for something that happened. But he did start a Master’s in theology and psychology and is looking to help his organization with missionary care. He processed his wounds and decided he wanted to help others, and that is the final stage of trauma recovery: helping others.
You are Invited
Maybe your story is as big and complex as James’s story. Or maybe you just need a place to be seen and heard or are interested in taking preventive measures. Maybe you want to process a series of losses or are wondering if you’re dealing with secondary trauma.
Or perhaps after reading these articles, you find yourself wanting to help others in their season of trauma recovery.
You can find out when the next group or training starts on my website. I would love for you to join us.
My hope for you is that you don’t just take this information and put it on a back shelf. I hope this series will help you see more clearly what is happening within yourself and within the missions community. And I hope you learned that help is available when you need it.
If you need help discerning your next step, my team and I are only an email or small group away, and we would love to help you on your healing journey. You can check out our groups and trainings at shonnaingram.com.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Missionaries
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.