Traumatized to the Core of Who we are
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, the author of The Body Keeps the Score, has been studying and treating trauma for over thirty years. He is the founder and director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University, and has been a leading researcher of traumatic stress. In this exceptional book on neuroscience and psychiatry, Dr. Kolk takes the reader on an intriguing journey of discovering the neuroscience behind trauma and the reality of people suffering from trauma. The book takes the reader into a reality of our world of the mental warzone as Dr. Kolk integrates science, real human stories, and treatment techniques. Throughout the book, he brings up this challenge for our modern society full of traumas and PTSD: “How can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?” The book is divided into five sections – 1.The Rediscovery of Trauma, 2. This is Your Brain on Trauma, 3. The Minds of Children, 4. The Imprint of Trauma, and 5. Paths to Recovery invites the readers to “dedicate ourselves to facing the reality of traumas, to explore how best to treat it, and to commit ourselves, as a society, to using every means we have to prevent it.”
On Wednesday morning, the country woke up to another tragic mass shooting incident that took place in the Brooklyn subway. And everyone who saw the news and saw the horrific videos they were asking the same questions that I was asking myself: ‘Oh no! Not Again? Why?’ Even though the traumas are all caused by different incidents, such as Vietnam War, 9/11, drunk driving accidents, domestic violence, Russia-Ukraine War, or Brooklyn mass shooting, it leaves the same marks of life-altering wounds on all victims of the traumas. According to Dr. Kolk, these experiences from traumas “affect our innermost sensations and our relationship to our physical reality – the core of who we are.” This current state of unbalanced, broken, and unhealthy mental and physical realities is revealed through these alarming statistics – “one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being life on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.” These statistics reveal that no one on earth grows up in an ideal, safe, and protected environment.
How does our brain react and respond when we face chaotic, traumatic, and dangerous situations? According to neuroscience, the brain’s oldest part, the alarm system, is turned on – “When the old brain takes over, it partially shuts down the higher brain, our conscious mind, and propels the body to run, hide, fight, or, on occasion, freeze.” That’s exactly what I saw on that video when the doors opened on the subway train and smokes came out along with victims who were shot, bleeding to death. For the most, they were running, hiding, fighting, and freezing up because their internal alarm system was telling them to escape the situation at all costs, but I also saw the compassionate few who were standing by the bleeding victims. What made them stay trying to stop the bleeding? What made them overcome and override their own alarm system that was telling them to run away? Every trauma reveals the true picture of our reality and society. The truth in this reality of life is that messed up things and bloody things will always blow up around us and shock us, and it is very near.
I met Randy when I was volunteering at a mental care home to fulfill volunteer hours for one of my chaplaincy classes for seminary. I had to volunteer one hour a week for ten weeks and I grew close to Randy. This mental unit was near my house and I had no idea that this structure was a mental unit until I started to volunteer. The unit was divided into two sections where on one side, the violent patients were housed and the other non-violent patients were housed. Randy was one of the non-violent but mentally very broken patient. Every time I went to volunteer, I listened to Randy’s story. He told me the same exact stories every single time I met him. I have no idea if he even remembered or recognized who I was every time we had conversations together. For the first three weeks, I encountered a run, hide, flight survival system kicking in and telling me to drop it and go find myself a different facility to volunteer. I felt uncomfortable talking to Randy and I even felt fear whenever he talked about some extreme stories (still not sure if it was real or it was delusional stories he made up) But, somehow I got through all ten weeks and at the end of 10 weeks, Randy and I grew closer to one another. Randy smiled at back me after I prayed my last prayer of blessing as I said my goodbye. I enjoyed my time with Randy because I felt how much God loved Randy even though Randy was so broken to the point that society had to hide him away from the world that the world categorized as normal. Through my time with Randy, I had to accept for the first time that there are many things out in our broken world that simply cannot be fixed. There is nobody that can “treat a war, or abuse, rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event, for that matter; what has happened cannot be undone.” The embodiment of Romans 8:11 requires conscience and self-led choice to stand beside those who are bleeding to death. Trauma in our society runs so deep that it impacts all aspects of our psychological, relational, physical, spiritual, and emotional core of who we are. May the power of Resurrection live through all of us to bring healing to the bleeding.
 Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Reprint edition (New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group, 2015), 4.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 21.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 54.
 Ibid, 205.
10 responses to “Traumatized to the Core of Who we are”
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Jonathan, I appreciate the way you connect the book to current events and a very personal story. You note how humanity shares the brokenness of trauma and that must mean the people sitting in church pews/chairs bring that with them. Do you have specific ways to help people “limping” with the impact of trauma? I know you work with students as well and wonder how willing younger generations are to talk about the issue. Happy Easter to you and yours!
Warning: Powerful post here.
I love the differentiation you wrote about as a leader. You can care deeply for people but recognize it is unhealthy to take on their trauma. Therefore, equipping your people and yourself with healthy practices to identify and treat trauma is critical.
Jonathan: Thank you for making such personal connections to this reading and sharing about your relationship with Randy. It made me think of Henry Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus” — if you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest it. It’s one of my favorite books and I use it as a staple leadership book with my students.
Jonathan, I love how you elevated the US stats on abuse. Read all together, they really do tell a larger story of saturation of abuse within the collective. With this in mind, what ways do you see the church responding to this need? What ways do you feel the church is failing to respond?
Good summary, even better personal reflection about Randy. The power of relationships… Van der Kolk speaks of the value of these relationships on page 212. What are other ways you envision deploying the same methodologies for those in your church that have suffered trauma?
Jonathan: I have never thought too much about how trauma effects someone after being a part of something like the shooting in the Brooklyn subway you mention. There will be people reliving that day for years to come. In just 15 minutes, the shooter effected the lives of dozens for years and years. How the brain starts to heal itself after something like that is so interesting to me now because of this book. I think this book will be helpful to all of us in ministry, even if we don’t do counseling.
Jonathan, thank you so very much for your excellent summary of our reading for this week and for sharing your story of time with Randy. Your vulnerability to share what those initial times with him raised in you is so valuable. Being in the presence of trauma’s impacts on a person or a community can be overwhelming and activate our own self-protective instincts. As you consider the reality of trauma in the lives of young adults around you, will engaging that trauma be a part of your work? Will equipping young leaders to engage with their own trauma and the trauma of others be a part of your work? If yes, I’d value learning from you how you would go about facilitating the self-awareness you experienced while with Randy and the commitment to persevere? This is something I’m needing to give closer attention to in my NPO, so I’d value learning from your experience.
From my life and ministry experience, God gave me opportunities to learn to be with and embrace those who suffer from traumas. And yes, I believe one of the greater calling of being a Christian involves living as a “wounded healer”, book by Henry Nouwen, like Christ. The power of the gospel is lived out by Christians who experienced Christ who touched their wounds from their traumas. I think equipping young leaders to live as a the wounded healers for their generation definitely involves an intentional time of mentorship. In my personal context of one-on-one mentorship and discipleship to cultivate young leaders, I try to create first a safe place where traumas and pains are fully talked about and explored together. We try to explore felt realities that rise from the root of these traumas and pains that affects the present life. Then, after some time of exploration and understanding (timing varies depending on the individual) I move onto seeking God together. We try to seek God’s answers, truths, and promises together. The wounds from the traumas can be healed by God’s answers, truths, and promises that the person will newly experience and hold onto. I believe this is the new person reality of the gospel that the Bible (2 corint 5:17) talks about. And when a person experiences this kind of healing gospel internalized in their life, one can begin to move into the God given desire of loving and impacting our neighbors – born as a new wounded healer that God can use to love, serve, and embrace others. Then, We continue to meet to discuss and learn practical skills in Christian counseling to learn how to listen emphatically, being together, and leadership diffrentiation.
Jonathan I too want to echo what others have, your vulnerability is beautiful and I am humbled that you share that part of you!
Can you expound on this more, “I had to accept for the first time that there are many things out in our broken world that simply cannot be fixed” ?
Jonathan, thank you for sharing your experience with Randy in this post. I am curious, with the ever-grown brokenness in our world, how and what might the untrained individual be able to implement from this book to bring healing and restore hope?