Living Well through Long-term Trauma

Living Well through Long-term Trauma

Things are not as we want them to be. They are not as God wants them to be. For the past several months the world has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it shows no signs of going away quickly. The stress builds up. Living well through long-term trauma is something most of us have not had to do in the past.

Humans are generally resilient. A hurricane, a major financial setback, the death of a loved one – it hurts, a whole lot. But most people find a way to deal with the trauma and move on, even if they carry long-term scars.

As horrible as those types of problems are, they usually share the characteristic of having an end date. The hurricane winds have subsided and you can begin the cleanup. Your bank account is devastated and now you can start to rebuild. Your loved one is laid to rest and you can do the work of grief.

But this pandemic is going on and on. People are still getting sick and dying. Various government measures continue to try to manage the situation. Parents and educators are struggling with how to manage the opening of the school year. The worldwide economic impact brings wave after wave of pain. Deep political and social divisions further fuel unrest and concern.

And in the church things are no simpler. Many churches are not meeting in person, and may have no clear date for when gatherings will resume. Others are meeting in person, but with significant changes in experience and processes.

These are only a few of the ways our lives continue to be disrupted, with no end in sight. What do you do in the middle of all this? How can you be resilient and live well through long-term trauma?

Low-Grade PTSD

Most of us are experiencing a kind of ongoing low-grade PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Except it’s not “post.” You may have settled into some kind of “new normal,” but be honest. How well are you really doing? Are you truly thriving? What’s the true state of your soul?

How many of these characteristics can you identify with?

  • Struggling to concentrate
  • A heightened sense of anxiety, being hyper-alert
  • Being much more easily irritated
  • Feeling more tired than seems normal
  • Being less productive with the usual amount of time and effort
  • Struggling to know what to do next
  • Feeling disconnected from your normal support systems

Our human brains don’t do well with uncertainty. What makes this season especially traumatic is that no one knows when or how it will end. The enemy we are fighting is invisible, and potentially anywhere. There’s almost no place that feels safe. And for how long?

It’s been 75 years since our society as a whole has faced any similar long-term trauma. But our society has faced such things in the past. The correlation of our current pandemic to the 1918 flu pandemic has often been made. Similarly, the years of WWII kept our country in an ongoing crisis where people had to “suffer” for something beyond themselves. As bad as recent recessions, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hurricane Katrina, and other troubles have been, they have not compared with those past experiences in breadth of impact or length of time involved.

Baby-boomers and all subsequent generations, in our western culture, have no experience of ongoing suffering. And most of us have no idea how to deal with that.

A Christian Perspective

I’ve been asked things like, “Is this God’s punishment for our sins?” “Is this the end of time?” “Maybe this is an attack from the devil.” “Is government response a sinister attack on our freedoms?” And here’s how I’ve responded.

Our world has plenty of trouble. Jesus promised His followers that they would have trouble! (John 16:33) That includes persecution for one’s faith, but I believe it also speaks to the reality that we still live in a messed-up sinful world where stuff happens. Bad stuff. Jesus never promised that our prayers would prevent all problems. The New Testament believers in the early centuries after Jesus left never seemed to expect an easy life.

Ultimately, the devil is the source of all evil. But this pandemic could happen just the same without the devil’s direct involvement. I believe the most likely direct “cause” is the natural consequences of living in a messed-up world. The devil can certainly leverage it for his purposes. But so can God and those who follow Him. God is never surprised or hampered by what happens in our world. (See Isaiah 50:2, 59:1)

As for our freedoms, our faith should make us better neighbors, not worse. As Christians, for example, we understand that seatbelts do not guarantee we will not be killed or injured in a vehicle accident. But we use them, largely in compliance with government regulations, to decrease our risk and also to lessen the burden on our fellow citizens should an accident happen. It’s the same with government guidelines or mandates involved in this pandemic.

Where church gatherings are regulated differently than other gatherings, it is right to challenge government in lawful ways. But for the most part, while we may or may not agree and while government has only partial information to be sure, complying with such regulations means we are a good neighbor to those around us.

But What Now?

What is Jesus saying in the midst of all this? What would He have you do now?

As with pandemics and other long-term trauma humans (and the Church) have experienced, the short answer is “Hold fast what you have until I come.” (Revelation 2:25)

Do not expect things to be easy, or even to necessarily get better before they get worse. We don’t know. As Paul on the ship going to Rome, you might yet have to face a storm, a shipwreck, and a viper attacking you. (Acts 27) But as long as you know who you serve, Who is your God, you hold fast. You stand firm.

That’s not resignation. You and I must be active in doing all that is in our power to do. And here are a few simple but critical steps.

  1. Nourish your soul. Keep taking in uplifting positive food for your heart – connecting with positive people, healthy media, creative pursuits, time in nature.
  2. Manage your attention. What gets your attention gets you. Be intentional about how much negative news you take in; limit it greatly. Invest your attention in what is good. (Philippians 4:8).
  3. Stay close to Jesus. Cling to Him as a drowning person would cling to a life preserver. Be relentless about making time for Him in your daily and weekly routine. Listen intentionally for His voice. And follow whatever He says.

Low-grade PTSD may be impacting all of us. But that doesn’t mean you are powerless. Like even prisoners of war, you and I have a choice about how we manage our thoughts, our attention, our hearts.

And God may just provide you the opportunity to thrive more than you ever thought possible, right in the middle of a pandemic.

Your Turn: How are you managing the stress of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? Are you feeling “PTSD-ish?” What will you do next in dealing with it? Leave a comment below.

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