Trauma Informed Practices in Churches and Faith Communities.

written on 20 September 2021 by Deli Macro-Nottage

Art by Nat Iwata

In this talk from the Our Church Too Conference 2021, Deli talks about encouraging trauma-informed practices in the church. After giving a great introduction to trauma and trauma-related issues, Deli encourages a more individualistic look at theology and the church.

TEXT (imported from subtitles so apologies for grammar mistakes):
Hi. My name is Deli. I'm in the UK. I'm in Sussex. I am a trauma-informed practitioner. So I work for a local charity in Brighton, and it is a feminist charity that helps women with drug and alcohol misuse problems. I'm an early years manager. So I mainly help the moms, and the tinier children kind of with their trauma and kind of just, I get to play with children all day as well, which is the funnest job in the world. so I've only got 20 minutes and trauma is a huge, huge subject. So just to warn you, this is not even touching the surface. This is just the start of an introduction. I would say. It's not even really an introduction, so I will go through this. It will be quick. We can ask questions at the end, but this is more like just a bit of a taste, into, what trauma-informed practice is and what is trauma.

so firstly, what is trauma? Indy is being my slide person. I love that. so this is my favorite definition of trauma. and it's by a lady called Judith Herman. She is a trauma researcher. She says trauma is an event or series of events, which overwhelms the central nervous system trauma occurs when one's ability to defend. I can't read the next bit cause your lovely faces protect and say no is overwhelmed. so it's really important, I think when we're talking about trauma to talk about trauma as being different to bad events because that helps us understand people in their trauma a bit more. so you can have two people who go through the exact same bad event and one person can be traumatized, and the other person might not. I'm not going to talk too much about that, but the main difference is the effect that that trauma has had on the nervous system. So it's the brain reaction. There's all sorts of things at play there. So it's stuff like protective factors, kind of, if they've had any other, their resilience kind of their, they've got a support network behind them. All of those things will affect how someone, experiences a bad event and whether it becomes traumatic for them or not. That's really important when we're thinking of church, because I think sometimes we can hear people's stories and be like, oh, it doesn't sound that bad, but actually we need to be looking at what the nervous system is doing and then not just what the event was.

so types of trauma. There are lots and lots of types of trauma going to run through them really quickly, acute trauma. So a single distressing event, I've just realized I haven't done a trigger warning. So we're not going to talk about like specific trauma, but look after yourself, be aware that like the kind of I'm getting an unstable thing again, the pressure is on. Can you still hear me? Yeah, great. you know, look after yourself, feel free to leave the chat if you need to. I'm just, I'm just really aware that trauma is a really hard thing to hear about sometimes. so acute trauma is a single distressing event, so that might be witnessing a car crash. It might be a terrorist attack. chronic trauma is trauma that is long-term or sustained. So, someone that might have been like long-term abused, that can also cover chronic health problems, cancer treatment, stuff like that. So stuff that kind of goes on for a while system-induced trauma is really important, particularly when we're talking about churches. but there's a really interesting side to that. So particularly in children's services, Sometimes there's trauma within systems that we can't avoid, but we still need to acknowledge that that is trauma. So an example of that would be removing a child from a family. by social services. So that's done because that needs to be done for the child's safety, but that is still a really traumatizing event for that child and the parent.

So we're kind of acknowledging and seeing the trauma there, historical trauma, so specific cultural, racial, ethnic, integration, intergenerational trauma. So we see this loads in my work. We've got some families that have been with us for like four generations. Complex trauma so where there's more than one type of trauma present. So when you're looking at the list, you can kind of see how that would quite easily happen vicarious trauma is really common with professionals. It's really important that we're kind of empathetic enough that we feel a bit sad when we hear trauma. So then when you're working with trauma, you're making yourself vulnerable to also being traumatized and perpetrator trauma, which is really interesting. So there is a specific type of trauma that, that is received from committing violence. and that is usually most, a lot of emotional numbing. yeah, so that's a really quick kind of types of trauma. Trauma responses. So there's four main categories of trauma responses. and then there's kind of a summary that I find really helpful.

So there's affective. So hypervigilance, depression, mood changes, hyper-vigilance is really interesting. So a lot of people with trauma are really, really jumpy at things that you wouldn't expect to be jumpy. behavior avoidance, suicidal thoughts, substance misuse, sexualized behavior, aggression, all of these things, cognitive, so irrational beliefs, intrusive thoughts, the things I find of more affecting kind of the mind. and then with that, you've got complex trauma, which is continuous struggles to regulate emotion, hold good personal relationships, mental health, and often struggling to keep yourself safe. so in this book, which has been kind of one of my favorite books I've ever read, and I'll reference it later, Karen, O'Donnell kind of summarizes all this as ruptures. So when you experience trauma, it's like a rupture, and you kind of, you have a rupture of bodily integrity, language and cognition, and time. So your bodily integrity kind of gets a bit lost and you kind of. So your trauma is felt within your body language and cognition. So your language is your verbal language is actually the first thing to go in a trauma response. and time you kind of get stuck in time and your kind of concept of time isn't necessarily in reality.

How are we doing? You still hear me alright? Brill, okay. So what happens. So this is something that often trauma-informed practitioners use it's called Polyvagal theory. It's super, super simple. and we love that. So it's just a traffic light system. So you're. Around someone, or maybe you yourself are experiencing a trauma response. you kind of, you go from green and you go to your Amber when you're in your green, this is your safe space. So your heart rate is good. You're kind of calm. You're connected. You're grounded. You're able to have good conversation you're listening. and then you get your trigger. We'll talk about triggers next, but when you get your trigger, you kind of go up. So then that's when you start to get those kinds of behaviors. So you'll get anger, rage, and then part. So trauma-informed practice is about noticing those triggers. And what you're doing is you're kind of finding a way to deactivate those triggers to deactivate the nervous system. To bring people back down to green because that is the safety that we want. So if we're failing to do that, what we're going to do is people are going to go up to red. And when people go up to red, that's a very, very unsafe place to be. So that's when you get your kind of. Fight, flight, freeze, those kinds of responses which I'm sure you've heard about. Polyvagal theory also kind of links to what's going on in the body. So it's all on here. I'm not going to go into that too much because of time, but there's things like raised blood pressure, stuff like that. So it's, it's not just an emotional response is a very, very bodily thing.

So triggers next slide. Triggers are a reaction of the brain where the brain responds as if the danger is still present. So examples are stuff like sounds, tastes, smells, dates. There is no end to what a trigger might be. so the key to really understanding people's triggers is to understand the person, to be able to understand emphatic listening and be able to understand that person's story and kind of, so at work, we do something called mentalization, which isn't just about you having a conversation with someone, but you spend time to think what it's like for that person's perspective when you're doing that, you can kind of start to get a bit of a picture of triggers. You can't avoid triggers all the time. so for some parents I work with, maybe talking about their child's safety might be a trigger. But I still need to have those conversations, but this is where trauma-informed practice is really helpful because we can do things to make that a bit easier.

So I'm gonna talk about grounding, which is one of the things that, we can do to make that easier. so grounding is kind of things you can do to remind, the body that is safe and that the it kind of strange. And when you're triggered you're, you are pretty much back in that kind of danger zone. So you can do things with your body. That reminds the body of mind that is in safety. So just objects that you can fiddle with are really good. Blue tack is a massive one. We do a lot of, kind of Play-Doh work, stuff like that. Anything that's super tactile, sometimes with tiny kids we'll take off their shoes and just kind of being able to feel the ground beneath them is enough. What else? So I always have this bracelet on me and I can spin it so these tools as well. So, you know, I talked about, kind of the trauma that people have from hearing trauma. Sometimes these kinds of things can also help you as a bit of a preventative thing. changing smells of rooms are really good and I used, I always have stones in my pocket and I will kind of feel them, feel the texture. And I will remind myself of where I am. there are lots and lots of different grounding things. There are also things that people can do, in terms of like naming things in the room and stuff like that, I find the more physical things, more helpful for me. But again, this is about knowing who you are with and who you're kind of interacting with and getting to know what works for them.

So I think, could we go two slides along? And then next one. Great. So again, I've talked about how trauma is held in the body. So this book is kind of like the standard trauma book and it is probably worth the hype it's it's a little bit male-heavy, that's my criticism of it, but yeah. So Bessel van der Kolk talks about, how it's kind of not enough to treat body and the mind, but it's, trauma in the mind. It's also important to treat it in the body. so this is a quote from him. He says, traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their own bodies. Their past is alive. from the gnawing of interior discomfort, their bodies are constantly bombarded with visceral warning signs and they often become experts at ignoring their gut feelings and numbing awareness of what is played out inside, and they learn to hide it from themselves. So this is kind of a bit of an insight... back into green why is it important in the church?

So why is trauma-informed practice important for churches? We're going to run through this quickly because I don't want to run out of time. Trauma is not a sin. This is the big thing for me. So you look at all of those kinds of behaviors and it would be really easy to look at those If you're around someone that's experiencing them and just label it as sin and try and deal with the sin. It's not, we need to deal with trauma. On the side of that. And the part of being trauma informed is that you are not there to heal someone's trauma, that someone else's job, that's a professional's job and there needs to be a kind of realization of what you can and can't do. but yes, trauma is not a sin. Trauma affects a lot of people. So we're talking about post-pandemic church. Again, we're all going to be responding to that differently because we've all got those different kinds of protective factors. There is a lot of trauma in the world, churches often cause triggers, so if you just think of the classic Sunday, you've got weddings, funerals, births, christenings, mother's day. There's a lot of triggers that can just be on a Sunday. churches often provide counsel and pastoral care. So if you've got like you, haven't got a trauma-informed way of doing that, it's not going to be successful and we're not dealing with the cause of the problems here. a lot of types of trauma can be found in churches. I guess we kind of said that as we look at all those things that they're just around aren't they, provides an intersectional practice. So this is something that's been really helpful for me as a, as a feminist and as a lover of liberation, theology, and queer theology and all these things, it's actually kind of a quite useful tool of gathering it all together. It's not perfect. At all. and there's a lot of criticism going like within it that needs to be had, but it's quite a good intersectional kind of overlook at different things. and doctrine can cause trauma massively. So if we look at stuff like conversion therapy, purity culture, all of those things are actually quite traumatic.

so just the next slide. so what can churches and faith communities do? Grow in awareness of people's lived experiences and contexts. This is kind of my big, big passion is kind of understanding people's stories linking to that is emphatic listening. So listening to actually hear not to speak to actually really hear about that person's story and understand them. Grounding practices, which we've talked about. Practical theology over systematic theology, which is very controversial. Systematic theology is very black and white. The trauma that does nothing for trauma survivors, because the world isn't black and white when you're a trauma survivor. I could talk a lot about that, but we're not going to, Losing suspicion of outside services. So this is kind of about the pastoral thing again. Being willing to say, actually, I think this needs a professional, someone who is actually trained in trauma, and a trauma-informed practitioner is different to a trauma-informed counselor or therapist that they're very different things. And being willing to say, when church isn't safe for someone. So actually being open to church being a trigger for someone and saying, do you know what? Like, we, we can support you in any way possible, but maybe you need to skip church for a bit. And that doesn't sit right does it? It doesn't feel like the right thing to be saying in churches. But actually, I think there is an appropriate time for that. Judith Herman talks about three stages of recovery. I put recovery like this because there is no real recovery as such from trauma. It's more about kind of remaking of self. and this lovely book talks about that lots, which I highly recommend. So she talks about establishing safety, retelling of the traumatic event, and reconnecting with others. So if in your kind of faith communities, you're doing those three things, you are well on the way to trauma-informed practice within your churches.

so the next slide is just kind of some other resources. So we've talked about the body keeps the score, which is, A really good book. the simple guide to child trauma is kind of the book that I always always always use at work. it's by Betsy de Thierry she has also done loads and loads of other books. They're really, really thin which is what I love in a book. And she's done some on like disassociation and stuff, but they are so concise. These two are not, faith-based, they're just trauma theory this one, feminist, it's a collection of essays. It's brilliant. Karen O'Donnell also does a short course that you can do online. She's kind of the leading UK trauma theologiany person, spirit and trauma theology of remaining Shelly Rambo, trauma and grace, Serene Jones Instagram find just shine therapy. I find a really, really helpful page to follow. as there is a lot about trauma. and how it affects people on there. empathetic listening. So on the Harvard University, it might take some Googling because I couldn't find the exact link, but it is on there. there's a guy called Don Laub who did a lot of studies on empathetic listening with Holocaust victims. and it's just a really good resource in terms of what does that look like? What does it mean? trauma recovery Judith Herman I've quoted her a lot. It's like a book, at the bottom I've just linked a recent, what do they call it? Like investigation, independent investigation that was done in the UK. It's not linking to trauma, but it's very much about trauma. and in terms of like looking at doctrines and how they can kind of cause trauma, systematic theology, how that maybe isn't helpful. It's just a really good look through so it's kind of taken all the different independent, reviews from when safeguarding has gone wrong in faith communities and kind of gone through what the barriers were and stuff. And I think it's actually a really important, resource for churches to kind of be interacting with. that is it.