Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand (Isaiah: 41:10).
Recently, I went to empathise with a family friend who was abducted on her way to attend a family function. What was supposed to be a family celebration and thanksgiving, turned out to be for her, and her entire family members and friends, a nightmare and traumatic experience. Unfortunately, this has been the experience of many travellers in Nigeria who are now at the mercy of armed Fulani herdsmen, the neglect of elected government officials, but ever under the protective watch and care of God. After listening to her story, I was left with no iota of doubt that she was in a state of trauma, and in need of recovery and healing. How soon, is a matter of time. Trauma is one of the most difficult physical, psychological, and emotional challenges to overcome. It can take many forms, happen in many places, and occur over time. Yet, God can still be found in traumatic experiences. There is no doubt that, the woman mentioned above, like every other surviving victim of this hellish experience is surely traumatized, and in need of psychological recovery and spiritual healing.
Dr. Johanna Arenaza describes trauma as “an extremely painful experience that leaves the person completely overwhelmed and powerless”. The trauma itself can last three seconds, but its effects could last a lifetime. Samples of trauma involve abuse, neglect, loss, and danger. As Lindsay Bicknell-Hentges and John Lynch, professors of Counseling and Psychology, at the Chicago State University, rightly noted, an individual’s reaction to emotional trauma is complex and difficult to predict. What this means is that a person’s age, past exposure to trauma, social support, culture, family psychiatric history and general emotional functioning could influence how one responds to trauma. In addition, the emotional and physical proximity to actual danger, degree of perceived personal control, the length of exposure to trauma, the reaction of others to the trauma, and the source of the trauma (e.g., natural disaster, abuse from parent, abuse from stranger, random personal violence, combat, terrorist act) also impact an individual’s reaction to trauma.
Trauma occurs because of the terrible experiences people encounter in life. Such events end up destabilising and devastating the person to the extent that the person is not able to cope with the situation, and worse still, sees life as worthless. It could leave a feeling of despair. Some of such experiences are abduction (kidnapping), war, terrorism, poverty, unemployment, insecurity, hunger, abuse, domestic and socio-political violence, and illegal migration. They are all possible triggers and risk factors of trauma. For example, a family man who is unemployed and lacks the financial strength to take care of his family, a single parent (widow) on whom falls the sole responsibility of the children’s welfare and education, an unemployed young graduate who has no steady source of income, a student who caters for his/her educational expenses without any external aid, a woman who is regularly assaulted and abused in her marriage, a young girl who has to face the challenge of carrying the responsibility of an unplanned pregnancy alone, a child who loses her father and drops from school, victims of abduction, displaced persons, and immigrants, will most likely be exposed to conditions that could cause trauma or be traumatizing.
Some of the notable symptoms of a person in trauma are anxiety, fear, anhedonia (inability to feel usual pleasure), dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life), anger, aggression, dissociation (state of being disconnected), episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness, or fearfulness, exaggerated startle response, problems with concentration, sleep disturbance (e.g., difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless sleep), irritable behaviour and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects, reckless or self-destructive behaviour, despair, suicidal thoughts, and hypervigilance. When trauma is not identified early enough and treated, it could have some devastating effects on its victim. Some of the effects and consequences of trauma include involuntary intrusive memories, avoidance, hyperarousal, increased sensitization, and distress, dissociation, addiction (sex, alcohol, and drug), self-destructive behaviour, re-traumatization. Trauma in adolescents can be related to an increased risk of delinquency, substance abuse, high risk behaviours, poor school performance, dropping out of school, and sexual promiscuity.
Others are feelings of resentment, blame occasioned by guilt, distrust, denial, and distraction. Unfortunately, people are easily judged by their behaviours, as enumerated above in the symptoms and effects of trauma. The truth is that, behind every behaviour, there is a need. But hardly do people take time to find out why people behave the way they do sometimes. In other words, merely condemning and judging somebody based on the behaviour and emotions presented, may be unfair to the trauma that person is experiencing due to neglect, abuse, loss, grief, violation of dignity and rights, and denial. The good news is that people recover from trauma. Yes, people do grow from their trauma. A traumatizing experience is an overwhelming experience, one that people probably will remember for the rest of their lives. But they can recover from it, even though it might take work and patience. One way to recover from trauma is to transform the pain or the loss into growth and hope.
This is referred to as post-traumatic growth. This will depend on one’s character strength and co-operation with God’s grace. When Paul experienced trauma too, and he prayed to God, he heard the following soothing words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Resorting to prayer and hoping in God are highly recommended for recovery and healing to occur. Another strong recovery strategy is the level of social support available to the person who is traumatised. This includes the affection, prayer, visits, solidarity, care, concern, love, and goodwill received from family members, friends, religious organization, and the community where the person resides. This could have a far-reaching positive impact on the person. People who have experienced trauma because of a life-snatching ailment or near-death experience have expressed their surprise over the extent of goodwill, calls, visits, and assistance they received while the condition lasted.
They confessed they never knew how useful and important they were to people. And that has heightened their resolve to do more, and impact people’s lives more positively. Empathic listening is one of the most powerful tools for helping someone with trauma. Empathic listening makes the retelling of the story therapeutic. The understanding and the empathy of the other person makes them feel less alone with their experience and that could be powerful and beneficial for them. This type of listening does not encourage or accommodate being judgmental or blaming the person who is already traumatized. There is no room for fault-finding. It is a way of staying with the person where he or she is now and helping the person to go through the dark and down moments of life. Any form of blame and harsh accusation could make the person withdraw, become aggressive, or fall into depression. A helping not a hindering hand is more recommended at this moment. Referral to a professional psychologist, counsellor, psychiatrist, and spiritual director would be necessary if some of the above symptoms continue, especially when the person is becoming unusually restless, hopeless, exhibiting suicidal behaviours, and manifesting signs of mental incoherence and instability. Such a professional intervention would greatly assist the person to recover from the trauma.
• Fr. Valentine Anaweokhai is of the Diocese of Auchi.