Vicarious Trauma and the Church

This week’s podcast marks the conclusion of a series on trauma care in the local church. In Part One, Dan discussed the crucial idea that we all—not just trained professionals—need to be aware of the reality and effects of trauma for people in our communities. In Part Two, he reflected on the particular types of trauma that form in the context of marriage. This week, Dan talks about the reality of vicarious trauma that comes as we engage the crises, stresses, and heartaches of the people around us.

“You cannot be involved  at the depths of the human heart, engaging the realities of people’s lives, without consequences. There will be in some ways a joining of their trauma. […] You can’t care and be at war for a person without having some level of wounds and scars.”

First there’s compassion fatigue, which brings an inability to do simple tasks, a feeling that our thoughts are spinning out of control, and excessive reactivity. Vicarious traumatization—or secondary trauma—takes this to a far more debilitating level, says Dan, and is more like the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder, bringing feelings of intrusion, disruption, and a sense of numbness.

Dan returns to the importance of having your feet on the floor, feeling connected, beginning to clear your mind and breathe intentionally, and hearing God’s invitation to rest.

“You need space—intentional space—to let your heart be in the presence of beauty where you’re grounded, breathing, not turning to the past, not planning the future, but staying in your body and breathing. […] It is a spiritual discipline to not be bound to past or future.”

Dan also suggests the daily discipline of writing down two or three things that brought a sense of goodness, as well as two or three moments of heartache and difficulty—to hold before your eyes both the gifts and the costs of the day. Finally, Dan stresses the necessity of prayer: seeking wisdom before taking on new tasks, acknowledging that you’ve been in a major war, letting ourselves hear the words of Jesus: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

“We’re never the one who resolves a broken marriage. We’re never the one who puts Humpty Dumpty together again. The issue is being present to witness, to hold the story with grief, but not pressure—to hold it with hope, but not demand. […] If we don’t know how to cut it off, to not carry what we’re not meant to carry, we take on a burden that Jesus never invited us to carry.”