Trust is in the lesson of the first year of life. This happens through the attachment cycle; when the child cries, someone comes and helps them “regulate” and calm down…because their needs are met. This is how the child learns that they have needs, a voice, and are precious.
On the other hand, when our early interactions do not include positive, loving exchanges and when our experiences are stressful, fearful, or traumatic, things can go terribly wrong. Similarly, when any of us, at any age, experience deeply distressing events, we can get stuck in the oldest and lowest functioning part of the brain (the brain stem), which gathers information from the body and houses the fight, flight, freeze “survival strategies.” 1
Trauma triggers the “watchdog” part of the brain (the amygdala) to become hyper-responsive in people who are experiencing a deeply disturbing event. They can remain in a constant state of reactivity…constantly questioning whether they are safe and continually scanning the environment looking for potential threats. They are investing their energy in feeling safe… which causes the higher functioning (thinking and processing) regions in the brain to go “offline.” Simply put, fearful people are stuck! They can no longer connect with their upstairs thinking brain. What we see is the survival behavior resulting from their fight, flight, freeze response…and it escalates quickly! 2
Simply put, fearful people are stuck! They can no longer connect with their upstairs thinking brain.
However, here’s some inspiring news… relationships built on trust are actually “brain food.” Research in brain plasticity has shown us that our brains are not static and that we can help stimulate the brain through loving, trust-based relationships. As we connect with others and build safety, we can help. We can be a part of the healing process! God has given us a wonderful opportunity and privilege to stand in the gap for others. 3
Let’s try to put this into a context that we can relate with right now…today. We’ve been talking about the pandemic and its challenges and difficulties, and as we’ve already mentioned, we’ve all experienced “pandemic trauma” to one degree or another.
However, here’s some inspiring news… relationships built on trust are actually “brain food.”
Simply put, trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Who can’t relate to that! Anxiety is the feeling of worry and uncertainty caused by a traumatic event. Therefore, fear and anxiety grip all of us…because these are the same feelings brought about by the unknown. It is no surprise then to see that anxiety levels have dramatically increased over the pandemic because fear and anxiety are normal responses to these kinds of situations.
God’s word tells us that these feelings and emotions are associated with the “heart.” Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” According to this verse, the “heart” is a person’s moral and motivational control center, out of which come thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and speech. This makes understanding our emotions important! Additionally, feelings and emotions are wonderful gifts from God; they prepare us to respond to situations, and each emotion has a valuable purpose.
However, emotions can easily lead us astray if not held in check. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul speaks of emotional management when he mentions, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Feelings and emotions are wonderful gifts from God; they prepare us to respond to situations, and each emotion has a valuable purpose.
In this chapter, Paul is urging the Galatian Christians to stop the conflict in their community. If the bickering among the Galatians was going to stop, they would have to exhibit self-control in their lives. From Paul’s perspective, self-control applies to managing our thoughts, feelings (passions), and behaviors, and its motivating purpose is to honor the Lord in our lives. 4
We tend to burn out when our emotions run wild and begin to drive our thinking and behavior. Let’s go back and visit with our superhero, Elijah. As was mentioned in part 1 of this blog, Elijah had been on top of the world. But, when Jezebel threatens to kill him, fear overtakes his physically exhausted body, and his emotions take over. Elijah is filled with fear and running for his life (Definitely in the “flight” survival mode.) He wants to quit. Elijah isolates himself from everyone, including his servant (indicating that he is leaving the ministry.) He sinks into depression, sits down under that tree, and wants to die. He goes into hiding, allowing himself to fall into self-pity, thinking that he was all alone in serving God and that everyone was trying to kill him. 5
We see that Elijah is sleeping when God comes to Elijah with tender mercy, wakes him up, and tells him to eat, and then…another nap! First things first, right? Take care of the physical needs before addressing the deeper emotional and spiritual needs. And when the angel came back a second time to minister to him, the angel touched him. Sometimes we just need a gentle touch or a hug, don’t we? God is gentle and relates with us. He knows our weaknesses. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Is 42:3
God is gentle and relates with us.
The Lord knew, understood, and cared for Elijah, and he desired to connect with him right where he was. And there, by his side, he created a safe place for Elijah. God didn’t scold him for running away or condemn him for his self-pity. But instead, he was attentive to Elijah’s needs and ministered to him. This is a beautiful picture of a trust-filled relationship as God said to Elijah… “come and rest for a while.”
A downward spiral is caused by our fears, a spiral of trauma that can lead us to depression, despondency, and despair. Like Elijah, we are filled with dread and fear of the unknown! Overcome with anxiety, stress; the pressure is often too much to handle. Exhausted at every level, we want to run away and quit. We sit ourselves down and want to die. We begin to allow our thoughts to be hijacked: verbiage like… “I can’t do this anymore,” “I just want to run away, give up and quit,” and “I just want to die” become the theme of our self-talk. Invariably, we begin to feel guilty for thinking this way, but we are stuck in its pattern. We have taken our eyes off of the Lord and have allowed pressures and circumstances to cloud over our view of God. We get fixated on our problems and concerns, and they begin to grow in size in our minds while God shrinks. Suddenly we are carrying a cumbersome and unbearable burden, and God has become very small and distant in our thinking.
Does this spiral of weariness sound all too familiar? The evil one loves this! I Peter 5:8 tells us that “your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Just like a wounded animal, we are easy prey for Satan when we are down and exhausted.
Meet Lauren. Lauren is a high school student. She and her parents sought help because they were at odds with one another and didn’t see a way out. We began to meet together, and within the safety of the counseling room, these three began to gain new perspectives and understanding, both of themselves and each other. Lauren was given the gift of quality time; she had the presence of her parents, and she had their full attention. Her mom and dad clearly expressed that they wanted to know and understand Lauren. They also wanted to learn how to find healing and restoration in their relationship with their daughter. They were on a mission. Lauren opened her heart and shared her story in the safety of the space, as did her parents. The precious family began to lean into each other. They began to see and feel the love that had been absent. The safety of the space started to become transformative. 6
Everyone desires to feel loved and valued! When we don’t, we can roll in on ourselves, isolate ourselves from others, and fall headlong into a spiral that can lead to flailing and despondency.
If your loved one is stuck, meet them there and begin by establishing safety for them. Those who feel heard, feel safe…so give people a voice. Be emotionally present. Give your full attention and tell them and show them that you’re listening. Embrace what they have to say. When a person speaks, come front and center to listen. It shows them that their voice matters, their needs matter, and they matter.
Everyone desires to feel loved and valued!
The loving and safe relationship becomes the conduit that allows a person who is stuck to “regulate” themself, calm down, and reengage with the higher functioning (cortex) part of their brain because their needs are being met. This is how the struggler learns that they have needs, a voice, and are precious.
Here’s the hope…we can be a part of the healing process! Just as God created safety and ministered to Elijah, we can minister to others through trust-filled relationships. God has given us a wonderful opportunity and privilege to stand in the gap and bring his unfailing love to others. Let’s do this!
The loving and safe relationship becomes the conduit that allows a person who is stuck to “regulate” themself, calm down, and reengage with the higher functioning (cortex) part of their brain because their needs are being met.
Next time we’ll look at the importance of vulnerability in our relationships with others.
- Bath, H (2008). The three pillars of trauma-informed care. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 17(3)
- Purvis, K.B., Cross, D.R., & Sunshine, W.L., (2007) The Connected Child, (p. 47-72)
- Siegel, D., (2017). Neuroplasticity: An Excerpt from Mind, psychalive.org
- Forrey, J., (2017) The emotionally intelligent pastor, Part 3, careleader.org
- I Kings 18 & 19
- The names used in this scenario are false names to protect the people’s anonymity