I was compassionate, but I was also ignorant. I was a counseling a young woman who had experienced sexual assault in her past. I wanted to help and while I was slow and cautious, I also did not understand the nature of trauma. So, it comes as no surprise now, that when I began to ask her to share about her traumatic past she quit counseling. I had provided no means of stability, no safety net for her as she began to share those things. And, as she became overwhelmed with the painful memories she simply couldn’t endure the counseling sessions anymore. I look back on that incident with shame. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I so wish I could go back and do it differently. There are several practical ways to help victims of trauma develop the stability necessary to navigate painful memories.
It must be acknowledged, again, that stability is a first (and ongoing) goal in helping those who have suffered from trauma. If we attempt to dredge up the past without providing such individuals a means by which to return to stability, navigate overwhelming emotions, and live in the present we will cause them more harm. Re-traumatizing is the term often applied to those who relapse into a state of trauma because of a triggering event. When that triggering event is the counseling you receive it can leave a person feeling completely hopeless. Yet, God’s approach to the weak is one of compassionate care. He tells us that a “bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matt. 12:20). Those who are already struggling deserve more tender care. God commands His servants, then, to imitate His gentleness (Eph. 4:1-2; see also Gal. 6:1; Col. 3:12-15).
Stability in this post refers to one’s ability to recover after a disturbing negative emotional overload. It is the movement towards a restored state of equilibrium. No one, of course, is ever perfectly stable in this life. We know that our bodies await their redemption when Jesus returns (Rom. 8:23); yet, it is possible to achieve degrees of stability in this life.
Stability grows best within the boundaries of predictability and routine. At the start of counseling, then, a good counselor wants to help a counselee create a healthy and simple routine that bookends both the morning and the evening. They might incorporate patterns and habits of prayer, listening to mellow music, eating dinner at the same time and choosing specific comfort foods. Individuals should establish a simple and repeatable bed-time routine and should avoid unnecessary stressors late in the evening. For example, don’t do homework late at night or first thing in the morning. Don’t engage in violent, intense, or dramatic content for entertainment before bed. An established routine can provide a sort of safe-space in which to decompress from stressful events of the day.
Anchoring techniques can be another effective tool to help create stability. I follow counselor Brad Hambrick’s model of anchoring, which emphasizes the five senses: see, smell, touch, sound, and taste. The goal is to help people connect to the present. Traumatic memories flood our minds in such a way that they draw us backwards to the moment of the actual trauma. It is an invasion of the past in the present. As a result, many sufferers feel a sense of reliving the traumatic moment, of being caught in the past, and even believing that they are presently experiencing the traumatic event all over again. Anchoring reminds them of where they are in time and space. A quick explanation of each sense’s role in anchoring can be useful.
See – Darting eyes around can keep a person agitated, as if they are looking for some threat. Keeping eyes closed, however, can give a person too much of a blank canvas on which to project fears and memories. Instead, a person needs to look intently and intentionally. That means seeing actual things before us and owning what we see. I recommend that people look in the mirror. Make eye contact with yourself and study your face. Describe, perhaps even aloud, what you see: the lines on our skin, the color of eyes, the position of our hair, the freckles or dimples present, the dryness of our lips, or pointiness of our nose and ears, etc. Concentrate on what you actually see.
Smell – Memory is closely associated with smell, so we encourage counselees to look for scents that have good associations for them from which they can draw. A particular candle, a piece of candy, anything with a strong scent can be a comfort and a tool to disjoint the power of a traumatic memory.
Touch – Our emotions can be fueled by bodily sensations. Holding and feeling something specific in our hands can be a particular way to change and challenge those sensations. What does a counselee enjoy? Find a physical sensation that can occupy their hands. Think of items that have a strong or distinct feel to them: a leather ball, silk, an ice pack, a warm cup of coffee, etc.
Sound – External noise can add to the internal noise we sense in moments of panic. Give our minds an opportunity to concentrate on a particular sound can refocus us in the present. Again, pleasant and distinct sounds are necessary if they are going to help provide calm and stability. Perhaps a particular song has that power (avoid high volumes and high tempos), reassuring sound a friend’s voice, or simple white noise (a fan is a good tool). Focus on listening to the sound intently.
Taste – Tastes also come with their own distinct associations, so having a good taste on hand can be a useful tool in anchoring someone in their present experience. I encourage counselees to carry a favorite piece of candy with them, a mint or a piece of gum. You want something that can be popped in the mouth quickly, nothing you have to fix and prepare.
Anchors are not saviors. They are not rescuing someone from their problems, they are a tool to remind them that they are in this present moment not their painful past experience.
As people grow in these two areas, we also want to encourage reflection as a stabilizing tool. Emotions are overwhelming and so long as we are unable to process them they will remain so. Reflecting on what we feel, why we feel that way, and where it came from can increase awareness and decrease panic. Reflection can serve two purposes. First, it can help people to identify specifically their current experience and response. We might have a counselee answer the following questions as part of a journal assignment: what am I feeling? When did I start feeling this way? What triggered that emotional response? How is this response appropriate or inappropriate? Am I being tempted to believe any lies or partial truths? We may start with general feelings (both positive and negative) and then help them zero in more specifically on moments of anxiety and panic. Secondly, learning to reflect on my emotions helps me to adjust my responses in the future. Reflection will necessarily start in the beginning with retrospective reflection. Looking back after the fact. Most of us fail in the moment of negative emotions to evaluate them carefully, we must learn to do that over time. So, we start with looking back at what we did, but that can still prove helpful. The more aware I become of what I did, the more I can begin to predict what I will do in other similar situations. As I learn my response patterns, I can learn to better prepare myself for the future.
Finally, we want to help people move towards stability through Biblical education. The vital key for stability is knowing who is ultimately in control. We want people to meditate on God’s character of sovereignty and strength. I often invite people to write Scripture memory cards that utilize short and pithy statements about God’s sovereignty. So, they might carry verse cards that include Psalm 103:19: The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all. Or perhaps they might focus on 2 Samuel 22:32: “For who is God, besides the LORD? And who is a rock, besides our God?” Or we might boil verses down to their essential components for a pithy reminder. We may take, for example, Isaiah 41:10, which says:
fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
To help a victim I may have them write the reference on a card and then on the back paraphrase it with:
He will strengthen me, help me, and keep me. He will hold me in His hand.
The goal is to “hide God’s Word in our hearts” that we may be able to stand firm in the face of chaos.
These are simple strategies for helping someone who wants to navigate their traumatic past establish stability. It is important to remember that this is an ongoing process, however. Good counselors want to be patient and give plenty of time for these routines, habits, and truths to take root. They will also want to regular revisit them with a counselee. Leave time at the end of a counseling session to reestablish stability before dismissing a counselee. God cares about the whole person, and He is compassionate towards those who are fragile, those who are bruised. Good counselors don’t misrepresent Him by rushing past these necessary steps in care.