Note: This blog is the third in a series seeking ways for people, who have been traumatized by toxic leaders, to find healing in Christ’s love through the church.
The fear that many experience as they come face-to-face with an abusive leader can create different reactions. Psychologists often talk of “fight or flight” reflexes. God has given us a built-in mechanism in our brain that helps us respond to dangerous situations – physical or emotional. An understanding of what is happening in the brain when faced with trauma is opening fascinating avenues of healing.
For over 100 years, scientists have been studying the effects trauma has on the brain. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was diagnosed and named during wartimes in the past century. [Being that this is not a science blog, I won’t go into detail explaining the affects trauma has on the brain. Instead, you can read a wonderful text by Bessel van der Kolk, quoted in the last blog on this topic (and multiple times below).]
The brokenness of this world, due to the sin of our first parents and our subsequent sin, has provided an open invitation to scientists with a passion for understanding the human condition to research trauma. Kolk has years and clinical study after clinical study under his belt which provide insight into how trauma victims have been damaged and survived. The brain must take extraordinary measures to keep on an even keel when facing the barrage of abuse. He explains in his book, “The Body Keeps the Score” that he marvels at the resiliency of trauma survivors “and every one of their stories inspires awe at how people cope.”
But, those measures often include difficult, relational consequences. Kolk says:
“Having been exposed to family violence as a child often makes it difficult to establish stable, trusting relationships as an adult.”
One victim of abuse, with whom I spoke, found it difficult to work in ministry with someone who, though not considered very difficult by others, was unbearable for her. She described the “flashbacks” she would have when the co-worker showed the slightest amount of controlling behavior. Kolk goes on to say,
“While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring our survival is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones.”
Often, we believe we can simply “think through” the issue and overcome the irrational emotions with which we struggle. He notes, a brain subjected to trauma, will continue to react to “triggers” no matter how much thinking about it one does.
When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it. I am reminded of the comedy in which a seven-time recidivist in an anger-management program extols the virtue of the techniques he’s learned: “They are great and work terrific — as long as you are not really angry.”
As we engage those who have faced trauma we need to keep this in mind. Suggesting their feelings do not make sense or worse, are “stupid,” does nothing to help trauma survivors. As noted in the first blog, having a safe place to talk about their experience is an important first step in healing. And demeaning their “emotional” responses is not helpful to their healing process.
It is helpful for those who have suffered significant abuse by leaders to consider how they are responding to relationships with others as well as with their own bodies. Knowing that trauma can both affect relationships with people and the victim’s physical health can help drive them to seek professional help.
Those who have been traumatized may seem always “stuck in the past” …experiencing flashbacks or unwanted emotional reactions to small things. However, it also affects the present, as Kolk notes:
“Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”
Those who continue battling the feelings they feel, yet see little change in their reactions to situations others have no difficulty with, often are “traumatized by subsequent experiences.” They often repeat relationships with other abusers. Maybe the belief that psychology is “unspiritual” or embarrassing keeps targets from seeking help of the sort Kolk would recommend. However, the effects of trauma can be long-term and continue to plague the victim, deeply affecting relationships with those whom they love and even their physical health.
Seemingly unrelated medical issues can actually be results of the reactions the brain is having to the trauma.
There are many therapies that have proven effective in reorienting the working of the brain that men and women, gifted by God in their study in neuroscience, have discovered. Though there is so much more to be learned, God is working through His creation to bring healing to victims of abusive leaders sorely needed in His church.
 Bessel van der Kolk MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 1st ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), Kindle Locations 5245-5246.
 Ibid., Kindle Locations 227-228.
 Ibid., Kindle Locations 231-233.
 Ibid., Kindle Locations 1297-1302.
 Ibid., Kindle Locations 4174-4175.
 Ibid., Kindle Locations 2286-2287.