Your Lord has not forsaken you: Addressing the impact of trauma on faith
Giving a Voice to Unbearable Pain
When you hear the word “trauma,” images of a soldier in combat, holding on to dear life while people all around him are being violently killed, may come to your mind. Or maybe you envision a refugee who forcefully left her beloved home to relocate to safety, only to have her entire family drown at sea. Trauma can provoke a wide range of ideas, but if you are like most people the clinical term feels exceptional and uncommon, and like something that doesn’t happen to average people like us. But what if you don’t need to travel to different corners of the world to bear witness to experienced trauma? What if these struggles are much closer to home—something your friend endured as a child, an event your sibling has kept private to themselves, or a load that you have been quietly carrying with you without even realizing it?
According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, in a sample of over 17,000 individuals, researchers found that 64% of the people surveyed had experienced something traumatic during their childhood years. Contrary to the images of trauma we discussed before, like war and violence, these more commonly experienced traumatic incidents included emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation/divorce, incarceration of a household member, emotional neglect, and physical neglect. When you walk down the street, two out of every three people you pass by has experienced at least one of these significant traumas during their childhood. These substantial traumas are sometimes called ‘big T’ traumas.
Now imagine what the numbers would look like throughout a person’s life span, especially during the tumultuous years of early adulthood when most people are experiencing intimate relationships for the first time, having children, coping with major changes like entering the workforce and adjusting relationship expectations with parents. Allah ﷻ tells us, “Do the people think that they will be left to say: We believe, and they will not be tried? But we have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars” (Qur’an, 29:2-3). Adverse experiences and traumas are much more common than we might expect and can include conflict with family (spouse, parents, or children), extreme stress at work, natural disasters, financial trouble, unexpected illness, divorce, or legal issues. These smaller, but still significant traumas, are sometimes called ‘small t’ traumas. When we broaden the definition of trauma in this way, then everyone has likely been touched by trauma in one way or another.
Trauma, even trauma we may not realize has impacted us, can manifest itself in ways we cannot anticipate. We may see signs of trauma all around us, like heightened anxiety, nightmares, irritability, and depression but completely overlook the connection of what we experienced in the past with our current day-to-day lives. The huge blow-out with your spouse that left you shaky for a day, that shame you felt as a child when your parent hit you for something you didn’t do, the racial slur you heard at the supermarket when you were a teenager all invisibly piled up in your nervous system without you knowing and one day you wake up feeling really unhappy and have no idea why. Did you know that many people who think they have chronic depression and anxiety actually have residual trauma? Did you know that some individuals who appear to have ADHD or fits of uncontrollable anger are actually acting this way because of unhealed trauma? Even physical ailments like frequent headaches, stomach issues, and body aches can be linked to trauma when no physiological reasons can be found. Many times in trying to figure our own selves out we look to the byproducts of our trauma, like anxiety and depression, instead of the actual source itself—leaving us vexed as to why we can’t heal that part of us that seems to be ever beyond our grasp.
Does it feel like your soul is tired no matter how much rest you get?
Are you overcome with restlessness and anxiety, even when you think you should feel safe?
Do you feel a sense of emptiness and struggle to connect with others in a genuine way?
Do you find yourself losing your temper over seemingly small things because a bigger cloud is overshadowing you?
Do you feel that you cannot trust anyone because nobody has your best interests at heart?
Are you numb and completely disengaged from your life and relationships?
Do you struggle to deal with stress effectively and find yourself always fighting or running away from conflict?
Are you angry with Allah because it feels like your load is too heavy to bear?
Do you find yourself crying frequently and unable to shake a sadness weighing you down?
Do you struggle to find joy in your daily life or even to get menial tasks completed?
Do you carry a deep sense of shame and feelings of unworthiness?
These painful feelings can all be residual effects of trauma, and when you begin to heal your trauma at the source, what is weighing heavily on your mind, body, and soul will begin to disappear. Healing will make space for connecting with others, experiencing joy, revitalizing your relationship with Allah ﷻ, and regaining a sense of control over your emotions, thoughts, and responses to situations. When we are overwhelmed by the circumstances that surround us, we tend to lose parts of our identities and ourselves. Through healing, we can regain the parts that have been lost and replace the puzzle pieces that trauma has removed from our minds, bodies, and hearts to allow ourselves to be whole once again.
The Science Behind Trauma
As two therapists who have seen scores of individuals and families in our private practices over the years, we have borne witness to the tremendous impact that trauma can have on people and the community. Trauma affects both the brain and body, altering the biological stress response system. Unbeknownst to many, ‘big T’ trauma and compounded ‘little t’ trauma can embed themselves into our bodies insidiously without us realizing it. Research shows that even when we no longer think about trauma, it still hides in our body so hypothetically something that happened to you at age 7 can still be affecting how you cope with stress, and how you manage your relationships today.
During exposure to trauma, our mind and body create an adaptive response necessary for our survival as human beings. In particular, the amygdala causes alarm bells to start ringing, our muscles tense, we breathe faster and our hearts begin to pump faster to ensure that more blood and oxygen can access our muscles. This is called the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, which prepares our bodies to deal with a threat or difficult situation that is happening around us. Basically, during stressful situations, we have three options: we attack and defend ourselves, run away toward safety, or freeze and self-paralyze. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for mobilizing the body’s resources during stressful situations, which induces the fight, flight, or freeze response.
In normal stressful situations, experiencing intense emotions and bodily sensations is a healthy response. Although symptoms can feel overpowering during and immediately after a stressful event, they are usually transitory and don’t cause any prolonged negative impact on day-to-day life. Our amygdala, which warns us of impending danger and activates the body’s stress response, is moderated by the frontal lobes, particularly the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). The MPFC helps us make judgments about what is dangerous and what is not by observing what is going on, and predicting what will happen depending on how we choose to respond.
Issues begin to arise when our sympathetic nervous system can’t turn off. This can happen when extreme stress persists over a prolonged period of time, or an incident is so traumatic that the amygdala can’t turn off, constantly reacting as though the danger has returned, when it has not. The more our nervous system is in a traumatized state, the more we will perceive threat all around us. The MPFC cannot be effective when constantly in fight, flight, or freeze mode, causing physiological imbalances and struggles in day-to-day functioning. Patterns develop that cause us to become overly focused on perceived hypothetical dangers, leading us to experience powerlessness, fear, hopelessness, and a constant state of alert. Sometimes trauma or stress can be so overpowering that an individual can begin to disassociate or disconnect from feelings, identity, and memories of oneself.
In the current climate in which we have unprecedented exposure to every tragedy that unfolds through the news, Facebook, and other apps, most people are exposed to trauma on a constant basis without even realizing it. Indirect exposure to trauma, including viewing graphic news reports, hearing a detailed traumatic story from another person, hearing that someone you care about has experienced something traumatic, and working in a field that exposes you to others’ suffering, can yield the same symptoms as experiencing a trauma yourself. This is called vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress. In the same way as experiencing something traumatic yourself, we can get stuck in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, where we no longer feel safe and feel like we have to defend against a threat that is no longer present. After direct trauma or vicarious trauma, our nervous system changes and relates to the world in a very different way than before, with increased hypervigilance and difficulty in fully engaging in life.
Growth and Healing Are Possible
This series of articles seeks to address trauma from a spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical perspective. The unique focus of these articles will be on working through the depressive feelings, worries, and doubts that may arise as negative experiences impact our faith. There is no easy fix for trauma. However, healing is very possible. You can move past your pain. We see it in therapy all the time, and it is incredible to behold. There is even a name for it: Post-Traumatic Growth.
Although trauma can profoundly change an individual’s life-narrative, thought patterns, beliefs, and ability to manage emotional distress, positive psychological changes can be experienced as well. It sounds counterintuitive. However, there is growing research on this amazing phenomenon. Post-traumatic growth is a concept that researchers define as the ability to thrive after enduring a traumatic event and includes positive changes such as the development of new perspectives and personal growth. Researchers have identified five areas of post-traumatic growth, and our intent in the writing of this series of articles is to help you to rediscover yourself through the lens of growth and healing in all of these areas:
1. A greater appreciation of life – After being buried in grief and overwhelming trauma, emergence from the rubble can lead to a changed perspective and much gratefulness, making the mundane details of life seem like extraordinary blessings.
2. Increased closeness in relationships – Experiencing the severance of a relationship or living through trauma can increase the appreciation we feel for significant people in our lives and allow us to be more empathetic toward them.
3. Identification of new possibilities – Life-changing events shift our priorities. Suddenly things can seem clearer and opportunities that may have been there all along are suddenly discernible.
4. Increased personal strength – Before enduring particularly difficult circumstances, you may have thought that everything you are currently handling would have been impossible for you. Once you’ve been through tremendous hardships, future challenges do not seem as daunting.
5. Greater spiritual development – Going through suffering can result in a sense of spiritual and religious renewal and a greater sense of closeness to Allah ﷻ. When our priorities change, God becomes a more integral part of our daily lives, which adds to a sense of stability and growth.
Post-traumatic growth shows you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that your trauma does not define who you are or where you can go in life. You are enough. You are capable of handling this seemingly insurmountable situation. You are perfectly equipped to deal with everything you face because you were meant to face it. And if Allah ﷻ has chosen you to face these tests, then you are guaranteed to have the ability to succeed through them due to His promise, “Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity” (Qur’an 2:286). You are resilient even if you feel like you can barely hold on right now. The strength, courage, and capacity for healing are embedded within you and we pray that this series of articles will be a starting point to help you to achieve it.
Read the original piece from Yaqeen Institute here.