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The role of the body in healing after trauma

Reflections on my bus accident

May 23, 2019

One year ago, I stepped into a crosswalk and was struck by an oncoming bus.

The trauma of the accident has made me reflect much on the role the body—both the physical body and the church body—plays in spiritual healing and recovery.

That it even happened seems surreal—like a bad dream or a too-vivid movie about someone else’s life: the close-up I saw of the bus just as it was about to strike me, the voices I heard of people surrounding me as I lay in the intersection, and the stabbing knives of pain I felt throughout my body over the following hours and days. For someone with a well-developed imagination, for whom the best-written stories become just as much a part of my mind as my own experiences, it would seem these memories could just be stored away in a part of the brain that retains information about things that happened to other people.

But my body doesn’t make that possible.

There is the lingering pain, of course, from the fractures to my spine, shoulder, ribs, and pelvis (now permanently stabilized by a large titanium screw). Then there are the visible scars from the chest tube and the staples, as well as the bruise on the inside of my knee, still faintly visible a year later.

But my body retains even more than these reminders of trauma, memories carried deeper inside, beneath flesh and bones—visceral memories. It is this visceral dread that causes my body to react to scenes in the news or movies of people being struck by vehicles. I had no idea until my accident just how common these scenes are. It makes me flinch involuntarily at passing vehicles while I’m running. (It took me quite a while not to envision every single vehicle that came toward me hitting me.)

I confess that before experiencing this trauma, I thought that emotional (as well as spiritual) healing consisted primarily in thinking the right things and believing the right things. I didn’t understand the role the body plays. Yet, the original meaning of the word “emotion” is “a physical disturbance.” Emotions originate in the body, not the mind. And as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies.” Because trauma is an embodied experience, the book shows, those who have suffered trauma must pay attention to the sensations of their bodies in order to recover:

Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them.

For healing from trauma to take place, Van der Kolk says, “the body needs to learn that the danger has passed” [emphasis added].

Although I have known, loved, and talked to many traumatized people, I never really understood this phenomenon until I experienced it for myself.

I have a friend who, years ago, was hit by a car while walking at night and suffered irreparable injuries. For many years afterward he always wore fluorescent orange shirts so he could be seen easily wherever he went. I didn’t get it. But I do now.

I have another friend who went on a job interview and was raped afterward by the man who interviewed her.  It has taken her a long time to learn to trust her own judgment about all kinds of life decisions, and I didn’t really understand why.  But I do now.

A year out, the hardest part of my trauma now is not being able to trust what my own senses are telling me. I look both ways into traffic several times—and still feel like I’m leaping off a cliff every time I cross a street or pull my car out onto the road.

Furthermore, I’m now viscerally aware of a truth of which I previously had mere head knowledge: our lives truly are in the hands of the Lord. In the blink of an eye, a fraction of a second, or the changing of traffic light, everything can change.

Yet, to dwell on this truth would be paralyzing. It would be easy for the spirit to be overcome by the reality of just how fragile the body is.

This is why our physical bodies need the body of Christ.

God himself chose this metaphor-that-is-more-than-a-metaphor of “the body” to describe his people. It is his people whose flesh houses his Holy Spirit and carries out his mission with hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongues to touch, feed, shelter, listen, and speak the good news. The church ministers to us not only in delivering songs and sermons for the mind and spirit. The church ministers to us physically, too. This ministry to the body requires, of course, bodily presence. But it requires more, too.

According to The Body Keeps the Score, human relationships are always the context in which healing from trauma occurs.

The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.

Yet, the church today is not always hospitable to those who have been traumatized. By absorbing the programmatic, formulaic, results-oriented ethos of the surrounding culture, the church can sometimes, if inadvertently, squeeze out the space, time, and comforts needed by the traumatized. Indeed, even our emphasis on a moment of salvation that occurs on a distinct hour of a certain day of a particular month in a definite year can, even if only implicitly, contradict the processes of healing that are slow and serpentine, not so easily recorded in a date book.

The young man who shies away from shaking hands during meet-and greet might be recovering from abuse that makes him feel anxious and unsafe. The woman who shows up at church just a few times a year might be bearing the burden of false guilt because of things that happened to her at home when she was a little girl. And in my own case, as trivial as it sounds, if my church didn’t have comfortable seats, my experience of worship would have been entirely different, if I were able to attend at all.

Many biblical resources exist to help churches wisely minister to the traumatized. But perhaps the foremost model is offered by the good Samaritan who, upon encountering one who was suffering had compassion, rescued him from his immediate distress, and made sure his future needs were met.

Because human beings are both bodies and souls, our brokenness will always manifest itself both physically and spiritually. Thus the body of Christ must minister in both ways for healing to occur.

What is true of the physical body has implications for the church body as well. Just as we receive cues from our physical bodies, we also respond viscerally to the messages—intended or not—sent by the body of Christ. Just as the traumatized must listen to what their bodies tell them, so too the members of the body of Christ must listen to one another, to each part—hand, foot, and toe—whether healthy or broken.

And all who listen to the Lord will find healing to the flesh and refreshment for the bones (Prov. 3:8), and will eventually find themselves “at ease, without dread of disaster” (Prov. 1:33).

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United... Read More