Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

“Shields Up”: Our Defense Mechanism to Prevent Further Trauma

Written by: on April 21, 2022

Over the years I have used the image of the Star Trek spaceship Enterprise, under attack to illustrate the human response to threatening circumstances and relationships. This picture seemed to accurately illustrate the positive and negative effects of our unconscious, spontaneous reaction to protect ourselves. Although, our shields initially provide a safe barrier they continue to weaken with each new aggressive event, as the resources of help and healing are on the planet below and cannot be beamed up through the shields. This primitive association with Bessel Van der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma [1] was my stepping off point into a fascinating look into the Psychology, Physiology, Neuroscience, and treatment of trauma.

Van der Kolk a highly respected psychiatrist, prolific researcher, professor, the founder and director of the Trauma Centre in Boston, Massachusetts, [2] compiled his experience with patients from all types of traumata to produce a must have book for anyone who works with people. The Body Keeps the Score is an easy read that blends psychophysiology, psychology, neuroscience, patient antidotes to create a tapestry of trauma, its effects on the individual their mind, [3] body [4] and behavior. Van der Kolk also provides the reader with a historical view of definitions, approaches and current treatments. His discoveries that trauma physiologically changes not just the psyche, but the mind and body open up whole new ways of looking at people who have experienced severe trauma. Van der Kolk’s comprehensive approach can be summed up in that trauma affects every aspect of a person’s being, [5] even so people are exceptionally resilient and adaptive. People’s unique circumstances and personality necessitates the avoidance of a “one size fits all” approach. [6] In fact he prefers a “thoughtful multi-faceted approach that is tailored to the individual.” [7]

Upon exiting university, I found myself deep in the trenches of human trauma, which carried through my tenure in public education. Reading this book brought to mind the damaging events of those children and youth experienced. I think of my first classroom of students, ten to fifteen high schoolers. These students, mostly boys, had earn the right to be in my class by their extremely violent behavior. I have no idea what the specific traumas that led to these individuals’ violent behaviors. My job as their teacher all day was to somehow transform them into safe and productive members of society.

I am reminded of one incident where to simple, well-known phrase, “Please sit down and take out your notebook,” triggered [8] an explosive angry response of profanity and the violent throwing of the notebook. For some reason on this particular day, the neutral phrase disrupted this young man’s equilibrium of his rational thinking and his need to survive. [9] These students struggled finding that “moment-by-moment registration and management of” their “body’s physiology and the identification of comfort, safety, threat…pleasure and pain.” [10] Their behavior was often sabotaging what little successes they achieved. I wish I had known about the Triune Brain and how it functioned while teaching these youngsters. They embodied living in the constant state of basic survival mode. They had no direct awareness of their behavior and the effect it had on others, the relational damage, or the societal consequences. Their “emotional brain” (reptilian brain and limbic system) was in hyper-mode ready to initiate their “preprogrammed escape plans.” [11] As a young educator it was next to impossible to get them to express their emotions with words, exercise good choices, let alone access their abstract thinking for Algebra. [12]

There were three aspects that Van der Kolk expounded on which I would like to focus in on, purpose, [13] belonging, [14] and agency. [15] Interestingly enough it was these three elements that I introduced into my classroom that resulted in transformed young men, not momentary changed behavior.

He explains that “all creatures need a purpose” [16] but that a trauma often damages a person’s ability to engage in meaningful purpose (Reflex Purpose). [17] This was definitely the situation with my students. They had no interest in school because they were just going to get a job. But because most of them were in trouble with the law school was requirement of their probation. This created a cycle of unfulfilled and unrealistic expectations. The antithesis of Van der Kolk’s emotions “as assets” which are “organized to embrace one’s sense of purpose.” [18]

Brené Brown, and Van der Kolk agree that we are created to be in community, more importantly we need to belong. [19] The disintegration of a healthy extended family unit [20] has made the need to find a tribe that helps individuals who have experienced trauma to relearn how to function. [21] Van der Kolk’s explanation of the need for reciprocity [22] to the development of community, reveals why the rapport I built with my students resulted transformation versus the Behavior approach of teaching social skills. The social support they receive in the process of accomplishing their goals created a safe place in their otherwise unsafe world.

The final element is agency or as I like to think, empowerment, the ability to take charge of oneself. No one likes to be seen as broken or need to be fixed. As I mentioned earlier my students lack an acceptable academic purpose. I integrated the district check sheet for work experience behaviors and their academic goals to create a system that the students could see and receive credit for the progress they made daily, versus at the end of a ninety-day semester. They had weekly one-on-one meetings with me in which they practiced putting words to their behaviors. [23] 

Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing with these boys, but it worked. The grace of God got me through many days as I navigated my own devastation when they emotionally erupted for no apparent reason or self-sabotaged. [23]

Some questions that this book raises for me:

Is it possible to positively and/or effectively bring healing of traumatic experiences through acts of authentic forgiveness? Receiving forgiveness from GodExtending forgiveness toward others

      1. In our current societal form where is/are our safe havens?                                                                             * Many of our homes are places of isolation and even abuse
         * Church relationships can be shallow and driven by consumable activities
          * The decline and/or absence of community service clubs
      2. The ever-increasing numbers of displaced people
           * 2016 saw 65.6 million people displaced
           * 2015 1.5 million Ukrainians fled the country (many went and remain in Poland)
                   * 11 million Ukrainians fled their homes for “safer” places in Ukraine.
      3. The majority went to Mariupol that is today destroyed
            * Today 2.85 million Ukrainians refugees have fled to Poland
      4.  The US is seeing record numbers of undocumented individuals crossing the border
             * Most of whom are having to pay cartels for the passage resulting in
                     * Rape, abuse, etcetera
             * Record numbers of unaccompanied minors
      5. Is it possible for the church to reshape itself into a community of authentic, compassionate, inclusive, and empathetic people?
             * That are free of the need to fix others
             * Embrace their own growth journey
             * Empower others to be agents of their own transformation with the help of the Holy Spirit
    1. How do I assist the people I serve in the development and organization of their emotions as assets to fulfill their God given purpose?

      [1] Bessel A. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2015).
      [2] Bessel van der Kolk and Shelagh Daly, “Review: The Body Keeps the Score-Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma,” Nursing Standard 29, no. 14 (December 3, 2014): 32.
      [3] Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 68-71.
      [4] Ibid., 91.
      [5] Ibid., 53.
      [6] Bessel van der Kolk and Margaret Wilkinson, “Book Review: The Body Keeps Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma,” The Journal of Analytical Psychology 61, no. 2 (2016): 240.
      [7] Ibid.
      [8] Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 54.
      [9] Ibid., 55.
      [10] Ibid.
      [11] Ibid., 57.
      [12] Ibid., 58.
      [13] Ibid., 78.
      [14] Ibid., 80.
      [15] Ibid., 201.
      [16] Ibid., 78.
      [17] Ibid.
      [18] Ibid.
      [19] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, 1st ed (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012).
      [20] Vincent Jude Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2004), 46.
      [21] Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 80.
      [22] Ibid.
      [23] Ibid., 101-102.

About the Author


Denise Johnson

Special Education teacher K-12, School Counselor K-12, Overseas field worker in Poland,

One response to ““Shields Up”: Our Defense Mechanism to Prevent Further Trauma”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Denise, I really enjoyed the true stories born out of your experiences in this post. That is not to say the stories are joyful due to all the pain represented in them, but it helps to picture real people working through trauma. Your examples and the help rendered took place in an educational setting. What advice would you have for those in a church ministry setting, especially around your third theme of agency? As I mentioned on the Zoom call, talking doesn’t work according to van der Kolk. What actionable steps can be given to trauma victims in a church setting that might prove therapeutic?

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