Ten minutes and her life was forever changed. It was a beautiful morning as my friend headed out the door for work. She called her husband to wish him a good day as she walked to her car.
During the phone call, she heard a sound behind her and looked to see what it was. She was being ambushed. A surge of “fight or flight” chemicals flooded her body just as the first punch smashed her jaw.
The hits kept coming, accompanied by a flurry of screamed obscenities. In an almost robotic manner, my friend kicked and attempted to defend herself against this violent stranger.
It seemed like hours before she could finally close her car door. Tragically yet thankfully, her husband heard it all and was by her side within 15 minutes.
Tragedies happen to “other” people, not to us or our loved ones . . . right? How I wish it were true, but the reality is we are promised in Scripture that suffering is part of all of our lives.
One of the most difficult trials to heal from is physical and psychological suffering. After the bruises fade, the trauma can unsettle us for years.
Fight or Flight
God created in us an amazing and immediate response to stress called “fight or flight.” An intricately orchestrated, instantaneous sequence of physiological and hormonal changes occur when we are threatened.
The amygdala, part of emotional processing in the brain, immediately sends an SOS-like signal to another area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This “command center” tells the body through the nervous system that the body needs energy to fight or flee.
The hypothalamus also connects to the autonomic nervous system, immediately signaling the body’s automatic functions to kick into high gear. Meaning, we immediately experience a surge in blood pressure, a rapid heartbeat, and an increased capacity to flood our lungs with air.
In addition, other hormonal and physiological changes take place. The adrenal glands are alerted and begin pumping epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) into the blood. As a result:
- The person starts to breathe more rapidly.
- Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness.
- Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper.
- Blood sugar and fats are released from temporary storage sites in the body.
- Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) travels to the pituitary gland and adrenal glands, signaling the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol. Both keep the body on “high alert.”
Only God could have created this intricate and immediate life-saving response (Psalm 139). As the psalmist observes, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Yet here is where things get complicated. When a trauma has been so overwhelming, such as with an assault or repeated abuse, the body stays in “high alert,” unable to register that the threat is over.
As a result, a person can develop high blood pressure or excessively high hormone levels which damage various bodily organs such as the . . .
- Immune system
Autoimmune disorders and chronic pain may develop. Neural and cognitive brain changes can cause chronic stress which contribute to . . .
- Vision complications
- Impulse control
- Memory decline
Arteries can become clogged with harmful, fatty deposits. When real or perceived threats become chronic, a person can develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). All this can lead to a shortened life span.
That’s just the technical stuff. Now to the practical issues and critical advice for those who want to help.
Due to her shocking assault and her history of various life traumas, my friend struggles with PTSD. She has flashbacks, nightmares, distorted and confusing thoughts.
She startles easily, blames herself for the assault, struggles to be alone, has lost 15 pounds due to digestive complications, and experiences ongoing anxiety.
The real kicker . . . she looks amazing. You would never, ever guess she is struggling.
My friend appears happy, rested, engaged at work, with friends, and at church. She’s healthy and happily married. Most would believe she has an enviable life.
Sadly, we make this assumption about others almost every day. It’s egregious to presume to know how any other person is doing without talking, listening—walking through life with him or her.
Galatians 6:2 says,
Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ (NLT).
How to Be a Burden-Bearer
Here are some practical ways you can be a burden-bearer and assist in healing a wounded soul.
- Take time to listen without responding with advice. Listen empathetically.
- Encourage the person’s gifts and strengths—never offer pity or shame (“She deserved it.” “If only he had listened.” “Aren’t you over that yet?” These are damaging statements that never help).
- Offer to help with basic tasks. Some ideas to offer concrete help: bring meals, drive to doctor appointments, make a reminder list when his or her brain is foggy, help with kids.
- Make a CD of calming music.
- Offer to purchase a massage to loosen tight muscles (if the person isn’t triggered by touch).
- Do something with your friend that he or she enjoys: go for a walk, exercise, journal, color, go to the park, see a movie.
- Help locate trauma therapists in your area. Some reputable forms of psychological help for PTSD are cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
- Educate yourself on trauma. There are numerous Web sites and books on the subject. Invest the time to research, which will equip you even more.
- Make an authentic “Daily Affirmations List” for the person to read out loud morning and night. List his or her gifts, strengths, interests, abilities, and positive qualities that are true for the person such as . . .
- I am strong.
- I am smart.
- I am a great teacher.
- I am a great wife/mother.
- I make good decisions.
- I am resourceful.
- I am loved deeply.
- I am faithful.
Studies show that a list read out loud in the morning and evening for 60–90 days alters neurological pathways, promotes healing, and raises confidence.
Let Me Hear from You
In closing, the old saying goes . . . people don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.
Are you known for being a know-it-all or a caring person? Do you label or assume things about others or take time to know them? Your presence can be life-changing for someone with PTSD. How can you begin to help today?
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Suggested Online Resources
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” by National Institute of Mental Health
“Caring for Those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” by James Cartreine