That Helplessness You're Feeling Is a Trauma Response | Sojourners

That Helplessness You're Feeling Is a Trauma Response

People wait outside a community center as long lines continue for individuals trying to be tested for COVID-19 during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in San Diego, Calif., Jan. 10, 2022.
People wait outside a community center as long lines continue for individuals trying to be tested for COVID-19 during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in San Diego, Calif., Jan. 10, 2022. REUTERS/Mike Blake

In January 2020, COVID-19 was first detected in the United States. In the two years since, we’ve experienced death and mourning on a massive scale, lost relationships over politically driven misinformation about the deadly virus, and felt constant fear and anxiety as we try to protect ourselves and our loved ones. This trauma has shaken many to their spiritual core in ways that will leave lasting effects. As the omicron variant rips through communities, I’ve heard many people express feelings of resignation. Helplessness. Hopelessness. And given how trauma works, we shouldn't be surprised when we notice ourselves experiencing these feelings, even in our churches.

The first step in moving through trauma is recognizing it. There is currently no national or global standard definition of trauma, though there have been efforts to create a shared understanding. In 2014, the United States’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) published a landmark report titled “SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach.” This guidance integrated three areas of trauma work: research, current practice, and the lived experience and first-person narratives of trauma survivors. The goal was to create a shared definition that would help coordinate trauma research, practice, policy, and education to aid people navigating trauma — or at the risk of experiencing it.

The report’s definition explains that:

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being (emphasis mine).

This language helps us understand the spiritual and/or moral dimensions of the trauma we've been experiencing in the current COVID-19 pandemic (that is soon to become endemic to our global society).

This pandemic has made the past two years of life and living feel heavy. This is not to say that life was anything close to easy before COVID-19 and all of its mutated minions entered the picture. Prior to 2020, there were millions of families, children, and communities struggling with the stress and burden of poverty exacerbated by decades of underinvestment in rural, urban, and suburban America. More than 1 in 4 households experienced a major hardship such as an inability to afford adequate food, housing, or utilities over a three-year period prior to the pandemic. A third of those households had children; Black and Latino households with children were twice as likely to experience these hardships as white households with children.

Our world was weary well before COVID-19 hit; now, things feel worse and are worse for so many.

Part of why so many people are feeling hopeless is their belief they are doing the right thing — taking all precautions necessary to decrease risk to self and others — while witnessing others around them refusing to act with that same level of care. Getting vaccinated, boosted, and wearing masks to protect others and hasten an end to waves of mass death should be basic responsibilities for people who claim to care for their neighbors. The frustration that some Christians are touting individual rights over the common good and common responsibility, coupled with the grief of witnessing and experiencing ongoing tragedies wrought by the pandemic, creates doubt in the promise and hope that God hears us and answers our prayers. This promise is echoed in Isaiah 43:2-4 (emphasis mine):

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze . For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you.

As Christians, we look to this promise to sustain us when we feel like we are fighting against the world to survive. This promise is at the core of our faith. We believe in a God that is patient, kind, loving, a God who sent us God’s only Son to save our souls and equip us to build God's kingdom here on earth. Isaiah 43:2-4 is also a guide for how we should uplift others, a call to action for Christians to govern ourselves accordingly. We also care for our fellow human because of their inherent dignity, as people holy and precious in God’s sight.

Therefore, it injures us when we bear witness to the suffering of others during the pandemic, especially when that suffering has been exacerbated by other people of faith acting in a way that violates our shared moral, spiritual code. We start wondering whether the good we are scripturally called to do is worth it, especially when it feels impossible to protect the vulnerable and least among us. It plants a seed of doubt that overtakes our hope in God’s promise. This rupture in our belief system also induces a strong emotional and physical response that shows itself as many of the same symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as loss of sleep, racing thoughts, feelings of anger and irritation, and even avoiding places or people who remind you of your moral wound. Your spirit is weary, so the flesh becomes weak.

Healing from trauma is difficult and is not a linear journey; it takes many fits and starts for a trauma survivor to feel safe and secure. It’s also difficult to heal from trauma when you’re still in the middle of it. While many are proclaiming they are “over it” and burying their heads, the omicron variant has quickly surged through schools and communities, once again causing hospitals to operate above capacity and leaving medically fragile people in limbo. We are still living through a collective trauma; if we want to arrive at a place of hope, we must come together as a community to accept that we're living through trauma and look toward the work of repair.

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