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Trauma, the News, and God

Part Three of Reading the News Like a Christian

By Abigail Woolley Cutter

My two previous posts have explored a spirituality of reading the news. I’ve noted that exposure to events far away — whether reported by journalists or acquaintances on social media — can pose challenges to our ethics, to our prayer life, and to our idea of God. It happens to me, and I know I’m not alone in this. So I’ve explored how we can recognize that our reactions to the news are shaped by the very media through which we encounter it; how we can read the news prayerfully; and how we might take an ordered approach to letting our discomfort with the pain we hear about challenge the way we structure our own lives.

In all of this, I’ve imagined us as rational, spiritual, and moral creatures. But this post takes a moment to do something different. As we think theologically, reason ethically, and pray earnestly about the world, we must recognize that news stories can also affect us psychologically. The question is not merely “What should I do, or think, or pray, about the world?” but also, “What is happening to me?”

On one level, think of this post as me “referring out.” I’m a college teacher, not a mental health professional, so find a therapist if you’re suffering from stresses that might be related to what’s going on in the news. But I’m also not just going to pass on the topic: it’s important to note — in a blog that deals with theological ideas, prayer, and church life — that theology isn’t the tool for every job. And we can think about that, too, like Christians.

Unfortunately — and also fortunately — trauma awareness is trending these days. It’s unfortunate because it shows us that many more people are experiencing personal traumas now as a result of the collective traumas we’ve endured in the last few years. But it’s fortunate because those of us who are learning more about trauma now will be better equipped to interact with the people around us who have been coping, perhaps invisibly, all along.

In this series, in which I’m pondering what is going on in our spirits as we take in the news, it’s appropriate to recognize that we may well be confronting some form of trauma response: either secondary traumatization or an interaction between events in the news and our own traumatic experiences. That is, what matters is not only to wrestle with the questions and ethical obligations that distressing news raises, but also to admit to ourselves that that very process of wrestling can take a toll on us.

The APA describes trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, disassociation, confusion or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events… often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.” The APA, along with a host of other experts on trauma, explains that what matters more in defining trauma is the individual’s experience of the event, not whether the event fits a limited set of recognized triggers. Some events, indeed, like the sudden death of a close family member, are likely to be traumatic universally, while other kinds of events — the loss of a job, for instance — could be traumatic to some people and not to others, depending on many factors. Trauma can be acute when caused by a single event, chronic when caused by a long-term situation like abuse or bullying, or complex if it is the cumulative effect of repeated traumas layered on top of each other. In general, trauma is caused by an event or experience that simply doesn’t fit with normal life, with the result that it overwhelms the person’s ordinary structures for support.

Another aspect of what distinguishes trauma from other (non-traumatic) bad experiences is that it has lingering effects. An experience of trauma actually changes how the brain processes both information and normal daily stresses. A person can become hypervigilant, irritable, numb, tense, anxious, or unable to sleep. They may have flashbacks, lose the ability to remember aspects of the event, or even have a reduced ability to concentrate or process language. Trauma can also lead to an overall change in outlook or a shift in basic beliefs. These symptoms can be short-lived in cases of acute trauma, but they can also be ongoing and lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In short, the brain of a traumatized person has learned to rely too widely on survival instincts and has difficulty processing and responding to the world as if it is safe.

Now hold this knowledge of trauma response in your mind, and think about the experience of reading and watching the news. What do they have to do with each other?

Maybe for you, as it was for me, the first thing that comes to mind is how news exposure could actually be traumatizing — if in a more indirect or cumulative way. Indeed, the recognized category of “secondary trauma” does apply here. That term refers to trauma response that results from learning about the traumatic events that someone else experienced directly. Maybe you’ve heard it described in relation to people who help others cope with trauma as part of their jobs: therapists, first responders, and (as studied more recently) teachers. But research has also documented symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in people who are exposed to traumatic events only through the news. In a study following September 11, 2001, people who watched many hours of television coverage of the event showed an increased likelihood of experiencing symptoms of trauma.

The ways many of us have been feeling in the last couple of years — anxious, stressed, losing sleep, and wrestling with big-picture questions about God and the world — seem like utterly commonplace ways to respond to the kind of news we’ve been hearing. We might be surprised to hear it spoken of in terms of trauma, or to think of it as connected to the news (rather than just the events themselves). But it makes sense to me that an experience of disconnect or overwhelm would be especially common when we interact with world events through the news: our devices allow news stories to break abruptly into the rhythms of our days; events have often become newsworthy precisely because they are shocking; and in many cases, stories come to us with no context or warning, so we are unprepared to process and interpret them. We “can’t work under these conditions!” as they say. Of course not. And if our reaction isn’t quite that of secondary trauma, or if shocking news is so frequent that we can’t bear to engage empathically, we might also be having the related experiences of “compassion fatigue” or “disaster fatigue.”

Maybe, however, when you think about how news exposure interacts with trauma, you are thinking about how the news is sure to affect people who are recovering from their own previous or ongoing trauma. When I asked my friend Angela Goodson — a therapist specializing in trauma treatment and a theologically-trained Lutheran deacon — to talk about these questions with me over lunch, this is the dynamic she thought was likely to affect a larger number of people than strictly secondary trauma, because of the sheer number of people already processing their own trauma. For instance, she said, if you’ve endured manipulation or abuse by someone with a narcissistic personality, and you then see a public figure using similar tactics to control your friends and family — and succeeding because of it — you are likely to be triggered and begin to suffer again. Or if you’ve endured racism and its chronic effects, and you then have to witness dramatic instances of it in the news, experiencing your own struggles as the subject of public controversy, this can reactivate the trauma or add yet another layer.

As Angela pointed out, the responses of our communities to public events — which we also often learn about through the news — are so important because of the vital role of our support systems in trauma healing in the first place. Recall that, as I mentioned above, trauma occurs when our normal support mechanisms are overwhelmed. Indeed, some events are so out-of-the-ordinary that, no matter how tight-knit and supportive your community is, they will be traumatic. But with reliable support from others, the effects of the trauma are not as likely to linger and cause ongoing damage to your ability to cope. By contrast, if your community or society responds by denying or even adding to your suffering, the damage is deep. When trauma triggers are mediated through the news — since the news reaches most members of a community — this social aspect of enduring trauma and healing from it is especially important.

Let’s be clear: to observe that prayer, ethics, and theology aren’t enough for a Christian spirituality of reading the news is not to rule them out — even when trauma is involved. Asking questions about good and evil, God and pain, responsibility and injustice, may be an inevitable part of someone’s process of grappling with trauma (primary or secondary), and the questions are not to dismissed as if they are merely a symptom of psychological distress. But the relationship between therapy and theology can be murky.

I lack the space, and the expertise, to do justice to that question here, but those interested in exploring it further should consider listening to Warren Kinghorn’s interview on TLC’s podcast. Rod Wilson’s helpful Counseling and Community probes how churches should think about fostering the kind of emotional intelligence that allows their community to be part of, rather than an obstacle to, healing. The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology has a list of recommended books that bring theology into conversation with trauma.

As I think about the spiritual challenges specific to secondary trauma, Miroslav Volf’s comment, made the day after the Newtown shootings, rings true: “Those who observe suffering are tempted to reject God; those who experience it often cannot give up on God, their solace and their agony.”

We would always prefer that a disaster bypass us and our loved ones. But even when it does — unless we have hearts of steel — we are still affected when we hear about it, maybe in a way that eats away at us emotionally or spiritually. We might be struck by the initial impact of the tragedy but have nothing to do except carry on with our routine. In the following weeks, months, and years, those who were directly impacted are picking up the pieces. They may be learning to re-narrate their lives, finding redemption, building resilience, and renegotiating their relationship with God. Those of us who were “unscathed,” however, don’t go through that process, and we hear nothing… except about other, new disasters.

If we sustain one “little” secondary trauma after another, but never walk through the full process that includes healing, are we theologically impaired?


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