Shell shock describes the myriad of symptoms of battle or combat fatigue which ensue from prolonged engagement in the terrors of warfare. The negative side effects include nightmares, sleep disturbance, anxiety, panic, an inability to reason, emotional detachment and physical symptoms such as nausea, sweating, rapid pulse, headaches, or dizziness, among others. During World War I, soldiers identified as suffering from shell shock were given only a few days rest from battle then returned to their assigned posts in the line of fire. Since that time, we have learned much about the effects of trauma on the human body, mind, soul, emotions, and spirit and how to begin the mitigating and healing process.
Classified now as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these and other symptoms can manifest in the wake of various experiences of trauma – when an event or series of events are too much to bear or when life goes beyond the edge of what is possible to perceive and respond to. Too much happens too fast. Trauma distresses body, mind, soul, relationships, and communities, producing frightening thoughts, painful and wide-ranging emotions, and physical duress. At the same time, as some succumb to stress with diminished coping, others step boldly into the front lines, energized and focused, ready to take on the battle. In time, their sacrificial service will require a high personal cost, often occasioning physical exhaustion and compassion fatigue. Caregivers among us know the cost only too well.
In the wake of trauma, in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, we may feel out of control, afraid, jarred, disoriented, tired, agitated, overwhelmed, exhausted, and powerless. Energy runs out quickly and we feel unproductive or foggy. We have difficulty concentrating and wonder how we can go through so many emotions in one day. We can become teary in a moment, then laugh uproariously at a funny meme in the next. We dive head-long into worry and snap back with an angry flare. When a friend asked how I was coping with the effects of this pandemic, I replied, “I am all over the map.” She felt relieved to hear me confess that because she was concerned about her own volatile emotions.
As trauma’s effects intensify, some persons experience hopelessness and depression and may choose to deal with pain by numbing-out or self-medicating. Chronic health problems often increase. Sleep disturbances – too much, too little, or nightmares – erode our ability to rest in a restoring pattern. We can become hyper-aware and over-reactive to life’s annoyances. Sometimes, we experience flashbacks to previous traumatic events and are easily triggered into re-living previous terrors. Some may engage in self-harming behaviors as a way to deal with emotional pain. Present trauma often re-surfaces past trauma when it has not been sufficiently healed or mitigated. This multiplication of the combined effects of past and present trauma is overwhelming.
How shall we then live in this season of trauma, stress, and loss? How do we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, maintain and even deepen our trust in God in the midst of suffering? Doubtless, you have read many articles and listened to many sermons and podcasts offering guidance, reflection, and advice for living faithfully in this season. Permit me to offer a few suggestions from the viewpoint of a healing prayer minister.
Be honest with yourself about how you are coping on any given day. You may wish to write your thoughts and feelings or speak them aloud to God or a friend. Share your feelings and experience of living in this time of crisis with another person who will listen deeply to you, one who will not attempt to fix or make you feel better. Good listening enfolds the other in a safe space, does not judge or advise, accepts the person as he or she is, and communicates support at a deeper level than words. Consider professional counseling if the effects of trauma become debilitating or unrelenting.
Think of believers through the centuries, and even today, who pray these psalms and be comforted that you are not alone in this time of trial. You are among a faithful community, a great cloud of witnesses, who have walked a similar path. Jesus himself cried out from the cross those soul-rending words from Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” King David gave voice to the fears of God’s chosen people when he lamented in Psalm 13:1-2, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”
Meaningful psalms for this time include those that express both disorientation and re-orientation, both lament and hope. Theologian and Old Testament Professor Walter Brueggmann suggests praying these psalms constitutes a bold act of faith, addressing God with pleas, complaint, personal and communal lament, and even imprecation (giving voice to resentment and desire for vengeance). Psalm 38 is described as a prayer for healing, featuring lament, isolation, petition, and confession. Hope rises as the psalmist prays, “But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer” (38:15). Grieve your losses; offer the pain and anger to God. Find companionship in prayer with the psalms.
“Jesus, show me where you are (or were) in this experience or memory.” The truth of God’s Word is he is with us always (Matt 28:20; Heb 13:5); that nothing can separate us from his love (Rom 8:39); and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8). Jesus was and is with you in every place and time. Picture him with eyes of faith as being with you and for you in any experience or memory, especially in suffering. Watch what he does; listen to what he speaks. Record what you see and hear; share it with another person. Know his healing presence, words, and actions through prayer.
Prayer offices such a Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer, and Compline before sleep, keep us anchored in prayer, scripture, and community in a season where everything else in our world feels out of rhythm and untethered. Listen to and make music with spiritual hymns and songs. Rest in a comfortable chair or couch as you listen to quiet worship music, inviting the Holy Spirit to fill you during a time of soaking prayer.
Reach out in small ways to others who are hurting or need assistance in some practical way. Be a channel of God’s tangible and healing love for someone this day.
Finally, beloved, call to mind the faithfulness of God, the track record God has with you. Remember God’s saving acts and grace in your life.
“May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together – spirit, soul, and body – and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it”
(1 Thess 5:23, 24 MSG).
By The Rev. Dr. Sandi Kerner, Chaplain of The Prayer Center, St. Christopher Camp & Conference Center