10 minutes and her life was forever changed.
It was beautiful morning as my friend headed out the door for work. She called her husband to wish him a good day as she walked to her car. During the phone call, she heard a sound behind her and looked to see what it was. She was being rushed. A surge of “fight or flight” chemicals flooded her body just as the first hit slammed onto her jaw. As the hits kept coming, a flurry of obscenities were screamed. In an almost robotic manner, my friend kicked and attempted to defend herself. It seemed like hours before she could get her door closed. Tragically yet thankfully, her husband heard it all and was at her side within 15 minutes.
These things happen to “other” people, not to us or our loved ones...right? I mean, bad things happen to bad people; not strong Christian, nearly angelic, tender, loving people like my friend. How I wish it were true but the reality is, we are promised in scripture that suffering is part of all our lives. One of the most difficult to heal from is physical and psychological suffering. While the bruises have faded, the trauma will unsettle her for years to come.
In God’s original design, He created in us an amazing and immediate response to stress called the “fight or flight” mentioned above. We are created with an intricately orchestrated, instant sequence of physiological and hormonal changes when faced with a threatening event. The amygdala, part of emotional processing in the brain, immediately sends an SOS-like signal to another area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This ‘command center’ area tells the body through the nervous system that the body needs energy to fight or flee. The hypothalamus also connects to the autonomic nervous system immediately signaling the body’s automatic functions to kick into high gear. Meaning, we immediately have a surge in blood pressure, a need for more air, rapid heartbeat, and to open certain key blood vessels for airway into the lungs.
In addition, other hormonal and physiological changes happen as well. The adrenal glands are alerted and begin pumping epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) into the blood. This causes:
- The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up.
- The person starts to breathe more rapidly.
- Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath.
- Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness.
- Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper.
- Blood sugar and fats are released from temporary storage sites in the body.
- All of this leads to a huge energy burst to all parts of the body.
- Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) travels to the pituitary gland and adrenal glands, signaling the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol. Both keep the body on “high alert."
Only God could have created this intricate and immediate life-saving response. Yet here is where things get complicated. When a trauma has been so overwhelming such as with an assault or continues repeatedly as in abuse, the body stay’s in “high alert”; potentially causing serious damage to it.
- Blood pressure remains elevated
- The perception of threats is high
- Excessively high hormone levels damage various bodily organs such as the thyroid, heart, immune system, ears and eyes
- Autoimmune disorders and chronic pain may develop
- Shortened life span
- Arteries can become clogged with harmful, fatty deposits
- Neural and cognitive brain changes can cause chronic stress which contribute to anxiety, depression, migraines, addiction, obesity, insomnia, hearing and vision complications, impulse control, and memory decline
That’s the technical stuff. Now to the practical issues and critical advice for those who can help.
When real or perceived threats become chronic, a person will develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Due to the constitution, shocking assault, and her history of various life trauma’s, my friend is struggling with PTSD. She’s having flashbacks, nightmares, distorted and confusing thoughts, startles easily, interrupted and intrusive thoughts, self-blame, struggles to be alone, has lost 15 pounds due to digestive complications, and ongoing anxiety.
The real kicker ... she looks amazing...you would NEVER, EVER guess she is struggling. She appears happy, rested, smart, engaged at work, with friends, and church. She’s young, beautiful, healthy, happily married; in every way, most would believe she has an enviable life. Sadly, we make this assumption about other’s almost every day. More specifically, this assumption happens in every church around the world. Nothing does more damage than assuming to know how ANY OTHER person is doing without talking, listening, walking through life with them without labeling or judging. Scripture tells us only, ONLY GOD can know the heart and soul fully; so I ask you to PLEASE, please stop assuming to know or believing what you want about another person. God’s job is to know us fully, our job is to love other’s unconditionally.
Helping my friend has begun with loving her regardless of her daily disposition. Here are some other ways you can be an agent of change and assist in healing a wounded soul.
1) Give time to listen without responding with advice-listen empathetically.
2) Verbalize often the person’s gifts and strength-never offer pity or shame (she deserved it, if only he had listened, aren’t you over that yet...those are DAMAGING statements that NEVER help)
3) Offer to help with basic tasks-bring meals, drive to doctor appointments, make a reminder list when their brain is foggy, help with kids
4) Make a CD of calming music which is soothing to the soul
5) Offer to give or purchase a message to loosen tight muscles
6) Plan to do something they enjoy together-go for a walk, exercise, journal, color, go to the park, see a movie...light and fun
7) Help in finding trauma therapists in your area-the most reputable forms of psychological help for PTSD is cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR.
8) Educate yourself on trauma. There are thousands of sites, hundreds of books on trauma...make the investment of time which will equip you even more
9) Make an authentic “Daily Affirmation List” for the person to read out loud morning and night. List their gifts, strengths, interests, abilities, and positive qualities that are true for the person such as...
I am strong
I am smart
I am a great teacher
I am a great wife/mother...
I make good decisions
I am resourceful
I am loved deeply
I am faithful
(Studies show that a list read out loud in the morning and evening for 60-90 days literally alters neurological pathways, promotes healing, and raises confidence).
In closing, the old saying goes ... people don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. Are you known for being a know-it-all or a caring person? Do you label or assume things about others or take time to know them? Your presence can be life-changing for someone with PTSD. How can you begin to help today?
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