The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

by Shonna Ingram

In 2008 my husband and I took our four children to East Africa to serve in a Bible translation project. We didn’t go overseas until our early 30s. We thought that having some life experience would give us a little bit of an advantage over those joining missions right out of college. But my second year, I still cried and highlighted the entire book Expectations and Burnout by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

Our time overseas had its normal ups and downs plus a few unexpected challenges. When it was time to leave the field, we felt like we left well. However, our re-entry season put me into another season of unmet and unclear expectations which included loss of financial support, physical illness, and a long list of other losses. It was during this season that I realized I was experiencing trauma responses, but I had no idea how that had happened. 

According to my understanding of trauma at the time, I hadn’t experienced trauma. So why was I experiencing trauma responses?

In college, I’d been trained in mental health, so I thought I knew something about trauma. However, back then (in the early 1990s) we weren’t taught about neuroplasticity, and I didn’t know the brain could change. I had been taught that trauma was one bad or terrifying experience that I might never recover from. I couldn’t recall anything like that ever happening to me. 

All I knew was that during my re-entry season, I felt stuck, depressed, and confused. I was in physical pain, and I had lost hope. I couldn’t put a finger on one event that had caused these trauma responses, and what’s more, I didn’t know how to get out of this situation.

My coping mechanism was to learn everything I could about the word trauma in the hope that I could understand what was going on and eventually help others avoid the pain I was going through. 

Through trauma healing training, I discovered that while it was true that trauma can be a big, terrifying, life-altering event, it also can be smaller ongoing events that topple over each other. And if we don’t have an opportunity to process these smaller events like we do the big, one-time event, it can lead to the same results in our brain, body, and heart.

Since that experience, I have coached and trained hundreds of people in mission organizations and faith-based communities about trauma. 

There is so much to share with you about trauma, especially as it pertains to the mission field, that I broke up the topic into three articles. In this article, we will talk about what trauma is and what it does. In the next article, we will look at how trauma might show up in the life of a missionary, and in the third article, we will look at some steps you can take toward healing.


What Trauma Is

A few years ago I led a trauma healing training and asked the participants, “When you hear the word trauma, what comes to mind?”

There were so many different answers to this one question. The answers were anywhere from what happened during a traumatic experience to how trauma affects people after the event. It was an “ah ha” moment for me because for many people there seems to be some unclarity about what trauma is. 

So I shared this definition with them:    

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

In that discussion I focused on the idea of lasting negative effects and whether the event(s) caused them to lose their sense of either Order (the world makes sense), Justice (justice is available), or Self Value (knowing that they are a person of value), or all three.   

This means that two people can go through the same experience, and one might become traumatized while the other one doesn’t.

I also noticed that the participants were assuming that there was only one type of trauma, when there are actually different types of traumas. Some general types of trauma include:

Acute Trauma (the one people think of the most) is a one-off traumatic event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, etc. 

Complex Trauma occurs during the developmental years when there is a disruption in the child’s development. This can be seen in cases of neglect, child endangerment, or institutional care and can result in insecure attachment.

Chronic Trauma is a traumatic event over a long period of time, such as with domestic abuse or bullying.  

Secondary Trauma occurs when an individual hears about the firsthand experience of others.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening, or distressing events. A person may engage in avoidant behavior, live in a state of high alert, or even relive the event. (If these symptoms last more than 30 days, a person should be evaluated by a mental health professional.) To learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in cross-cultural workers, check out this Missio Nexus article


What Trauma Does

During this training I noticed that the participants were only looking at the behaviors of people in trauma and not what was going on inside their brain, body, and heart. But the internal response is very important because trauma disconnects and causes disintegration in our brain, body, and heart.

Trauma affects your BRAIN by changing brain chemistry levels of substances like: 

  • Serotonin (which affects appetite, sex drive, mood, and the ability to sleep)
  • Dopamine (which affects memories and your ability to concentrate) 
  • Endorphins (which reduce pain and stress) 
  • Cortisol (which affects adrenaline)
  • Neurotransmitters and receptors (Glutamate and GABA/gamma-aminobutyric acid)

Sometimes these chemicals can only be fixed with medication; however, there is mounting evidence that exercise and rest can do some of this as well. 

Trauma affects your BODY by getting stuck in your nervous system, usually in both your voluntary and involuntary responses:

  • Somatic Nervous System, which controls voluntary responses to external stimuli
  • Autonomic Nervous System, which controls involuntary responses and includes the Sympathetic (fight or flight response) and Parasympathetic (the way your body relaxes)

Trauma affects your HEART by distorting your relationship with God, others, and ourselves:

  • Trauma can become the lens through which you see everything that happens. You might start questioning the truth and what is real. 
  • It can lead people to question their faith.
  • Trauma can isolate you from others.
  • Trauma can trigger emotional self-harm (such as believing lies) or physical self-harm (such as cutting).

Is it any wonder people are unclear about this word trauma

Because of all this disintegration, you might think that trauma would be hard to heal. What I have seen and experienced is that it depends. It is true that healing from trauma is a process and that no single method or therapy works all the time and in all seasons. Sometimes people go through a six-week trauma healing class, and that’s all they need to start their healing process. On the other hand, I have also walked with people for years using different methods and approaches to help them heal from trauma. 

The important thing to remember is that there is help for healing your trauma. In the next article, we will discuss how trauma might show up on the mission field.


Recommended Resources:

Hand Brain model from Dr. Daniel Siegel

Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

More details on complex trauma   

PTSD article from Missio Nexus


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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