Complex Trauma

I finally started seeing a therapist, and it appears I have symptoms indicative of what is known as Complex Trauma. The unique aspect of Complex Trauma is that it is not tied to just one traumatic event in life but exposure to traumatic events over time. Further, for those suffering from Complex Trauma, the issue is not so much the nature or even severity of traumatic events but that they get “stuck” in a way that the past is ever-present. It’s like a recurring loop of reliving, rehashing, and ruminating on certain events over and over.

For example, I now have similar recurring dreams stemming from past events. Usually, when we sleep at night, the brain can process things and “clean house.” Most people, therefore, wake up feeling refreshed or with solutions to problems they hadn’t thought of while awake. However, I have trouble falling asleep, and when I wake up, I am often emotionally exhausted, depressed, and stuck in past experiences that aren’t processed normally. Besides the sleep situation, I struggle with being hyper-vigilant and over-reacting to situations that don’t merit the emotional response I tend to display. Social settings are also particular challenges for me.

I am sharing this because I find it interesting that right before I started therapy, I was talking with a leader of another mission organization who has been leading for decades in multiple countries worldwide. We spoke of the many worldwide challenges we are seeking to navigate in our ministries, and she noted that in all her years, she has never seen the world as complex and traumatized as now. There have always been crises, challenges, and even World Wars. Still, the level of complexity and global trauma over these last couple of years is a new shared experience.

The point is, there are those exact two words again, “Complex Trauma.” Those two words describe not only a worldwide reality but also what many are dealing with personally, whether it’s an official “diagnosis” like I am working through or not. The world and people’s lives are full of unique complexity and trauma.

So, what do we do, and how do we navigate a complex and traumatized world?

I am a classic over-thinker, so much of my therapy will involve what is known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy). Instead of only talking and thinking more about events I am stuck reliving, EMDR helps process this trapped trauma differently using more body/movement exercises. I’ve already read many books on PTSD and trauma, being I found myself relating to some symptoms associated with these things, but EMDR will be a new approach for me. As I am reading up on it, I find it quite fascinating why they think this helps people like me.

For this article, I think the application for anyone in these globally difficult and traumatic times is that God’s people need to focus not just on the mind or messages. We need a more holistic approach to life, healing, and processing complex life realities. This is where activities such as song, art, nature, leisure, and soul-care come into play. Anyone who knows me knows I am extremely task oriented. I am highly functional in the sense of accomplishment. In some ways, my hyper-vigilance, sense of responsibility, and focus have served me well in ministry and responding to crises worldwide. But this comes at a cost to my mental health and relationships. I find it extremely difficult to truly relax or enjoy life at a leisurely pace without having to accomplish something of significance.

I will caution, though, that I think there are always two extremes. Some people are simply checking out altogether and avoiding any sense of responsibility to the complex realities of life or the world. For them it becomes all about political talking points not people’s lives. Their vision is small, their focus too narrow, and their heart is not engaged with the suffering of others worldwide. While I understand it is overwhelming even to try to keep up with everything happening in the world or beyond our personal lives, we are repeatedly called in Scripture not to turn inward only. God’s people must have an outward-focused, other-centered, global perspective.

But we also can’t neglect our own needs and health. Burning out will not help anyone for very long. How can we love others as we love ourselves if we don’t take care of ourselves?

Somewhere there is a balance to strike. On the one hand, we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, give generously, and make sacrifices. We are called to follow Jesus no matter the cost. We have a responsibility to serve and care for the poor. We have been charged with preaching the Gospel and making disciples of all nations. Jesus said we would be his witnesses near and far, locally and globally.

On the other hand, as the Good Shepherd, God provides rest for his people and takes care of all their needs holistically. Jesus called all weary to come to him and promised they would find rest for their souls. He commands us to cast all our cares on him and assures us he will give us his peace that passes understanding. Rest and Sabbath were built into creation and even Jewish festivals.

I believe we are more complex than we realize and less self-aware than we know. We must recognize that we live in complex times, face complex global realities, and are complex people. Further, whether experiencing trauma first-hand or simply second-hand via the news or other people, there are many traumatic things happening on a global scale 24/7. And while everyone handles trauma differently, the world is full of dark and brutal realities. Simply acknowledging this is a starting point. Turning to and trusting God is another crucial step. Amid constant change, complexity, and trauma, we must hold deeply to what seems like a simple truth but is a profound truth repeated throughout Scripture: “The Lord is good, and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:5).

I don’t have all the answers, nor can I adequately articulate solutions that will make all complexity or trauma disappear. But I know that if ever there is a time to constantly remind ourselves of God’s forever goodness and enduring love, it is now.

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