Tag Archives: triggers

Trauma from the Inside Out

Aftershocks. The first few times they came, they shook me to the core. Was it happening again? My mind knew it was over, that I was safe, but something else inside me was screaming otherwise.

Safety no longer meant the absence of danger;
it meant the presence of God.

I lived in a state of perpetual high-alert, anticipating the next round of terror at any moment. The attacks had caught me off guard the first time around, helplessly overwhelmed. Never again would I be caught like a sitting duck, oblivious to the danger all around. At the slightest touch of my T-shirt to my neck, I would be bolt upright in bed, ready to fight off the hands trying to strangle me. At a sudden brake in the car, my adrenaline would startle into high gear, ready in an instant for fight-or-flight. And a chill… well that was the worst. It signaled to my body that the threat had already succeeded in bypassing my defenses, that all I could do was crumple and moan and beg for mercy.

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger.
Psalm 55:2-3

Words escaped me. I couldn’t describe what I was experiencing. The attacks raged on inside me, even in the absence of a perpetrator. My body was my prison, with an invisible recording continuously running those nightmarish experiences through my consciousness. I cooked meals, I bandaged scraped up knees, I chuckled at children’s made-up jokes—all on auto-pilot, always distracted by another reality going on at the same time.

My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.
Psalm 55:4-5

Usually I could suppress it, choosing to push it to the back of mind so that I could function as a responsible adult. But sometimes it just wouldn’t stay there. Moments when I relaxed my guard and allowed myself to enjoy my surroundings. Experiences that overwhelmed the rigid control I maintained over my mind and body. A migraine. A belly-laugh. An intimidating relational encounter. A fun, chaotic gathering. And then the terror would take over. The horror would overcome me.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest–I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
Psalm 55:6-8

I would search for a quiet, safe place, away from concerned eyes, away from bewildered questions. The strong walls of my own control had crumbled, and I needed a shelter in which to hide until the sobs and shakes had past. Usually that shelter became my own arms, wrapped tightly around my curled up body in an attempt to hold it all together. Sometimes it was the arms of a trusted other, strong enough to face my storm, safe enough to hold me in the midst of it.

But I call to God, and the LORD saves me. Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. He ransoms me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.
Psalm 55:16-18

But through the ups and downs of that tumultuous season, God became my dearest refuge, my closest circumstance. He alone could hear the cries of my soul, too deep for words to express. He alone could see the battle raging within me, far beyond my ability to analyze or direct. I clung to him like a drowning soul to a life-raft. And He never let go.

Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you.
Psalm 55:22-23

Gradually safety took on a new meaning for me. It no longer meant an absence of danger. For months and years to come, those threatening memories continued to return and haunt me. But I had experienced a Shelter so nurturing, so strong, so true that I wasn’t afraid anymore. I could weather those storms, sure to the core of my being that I was safe in His embrace. My world still felt like a dangerous place, but safety meant that He was holding me. In those arms I could finally let down my guard and rest.

Body Interrupted

Mind over matter. Reason regulating emotion. These mantras defined how I approached my life, until it was interrupted by trauma.

I certainly hadn’t anticipated the events that overpowered my body. The fact that they happened to me was a harsh enough reality to deal with. But what I never would have expected was the way they continued to overwhelm my soul.

During the months following the attacks, I kept encountering reactions within myself that I just couldn’t control or make sense of. The neckline of my T-shirt brushing against my throat would send me into a cold panic. The slightest body chill would cause me to curl up into a tight ball and shake violently. A hearty laugh with old friends quickly dissolved into body-wracking tears. The adrenaline rush of an adventure park transformed a fun family outing into a personal nightmare, leaving me curled up on the backseat of our car moaning and sobbing uncontrollably.

The nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I control this? This was not the way that I wanted to feel or behave, but no amount of will power could make it stop. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, the nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

Somehow I felt that as a Christian, I should be better equipped to deal with trauma. Shouldn’t the indwelling of God’s Spirit enable me to be more self- controlled than this? How could my train-wreck of emotions and their obvious effect on my physical frame bring Him glory? Messy and desperate, I searched His Word for any sort of precedent for what I was experiencing.

And I found it. Many of God’s servants had faced overwhelming circumstances, ones greater than what their physical and emotional frames could handle. Elijah hid away in a cave and begged God to let him die. Joseph wept uncontrollably. David struggled to find words that could express his anguish. And Daniel took to his bed and stayed there for a season, unable to move or function despite his pressing responsibilities.

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.” …
As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. “Son of man,” he said to me, “understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet.
Daniel 7:15,28; 8:17-18

What surprised me most about Daniel’s story was the source of his trauma. Daniel was no physical or emotional wimp! Refusing orders. Confronting executioners. Delivering treacherous messages. Facing down lions. He had repeatedly stared death in the face, unflinching in his resolve to honor God. Yet when faced with visions from God too glorious and terrifying for any mortal to comprehend, Daniel crumpled.

I, Daniel, was exhausted and lay ill for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.
Daniel 8:27

The limits of his mortal frame had been exceeded. Daniel had seen and experienced things beyond his emotional ability to cope, and that trauma manifested itself in very real physical symptoms. The brave soldier physically incapacitated. The steadfast counselor emotionally undone. Despite the strength of his character, despite the depth of his faith, Daniel was rendered temporarily useless by the force of trauma.

There are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences.

Clearly, Daniel’s post-traumatic symptoms were not evidence of some weakness that he should have been able to overcome. They were a testimony of the enormity of the burden God had entrusted him to carry. But what I could readily see and accept in Daniel’s story took me a bit longer to apply to my own.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:15-16

I had to come to grips with the fact that my mind is not fully my body’s master, that there are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences. I found solace in the company of my spiritual ancestors, reliving their stories with newfound understanding. But even more I found solace in the God who knit us all together.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14

God knew my frame when I could not make sense of it. He had designed its limits and He had ordained experiences for me in which they had been exceeded. For much longer than Daniel’s “several days,” I continued to be a physical and emotional mess, but at least I was God’s mess. Like a child’s broken toy, I laid myself in my Father’s hands, trusting that He could fix what was broken. And in time He did.

His hands held my body. His love governed my soul.