When a Traumatic Experience has Challenged Your World View

When we go through a trauma in our life it is a shock to our entire system.  We go through a progression of emotional responses similar to grief:  Shock, denial, bargaining, depression, anger and finally acceptance.  But sometimes we get stuck.  Sometimes the feelings get too overwhelming and we “abort the mission.”  We get stuck in the anger phase or we numb out or dissociate.  Or our bodies can “short circuit’  by getting so overloaded that we “shut down the whole mission “.

When this happens the energy that our bodies incurred during trauma can get trapped in our bodies; trapped in certain frozen motions or experienced as somatic symptoms – stomach aches, unexplained numbness or twitching or shaking.   Or later we may experience flashbacks. Flashbacks are when similar parts of the trauma occur in our environment and we react as if it is still happening.  A young woman flinches when she sees a white van like the one that crashed into her. Or an Iraqi war vet drops to the ground when he hears the backfire of a car. At that moment he believes he is back in Iraq and an IED has just gone off.  These are symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder  (PTSD).  There are various treatments for PTSD.  Most of the ones today involve some type of somatic (body symptoms) re-experiencing and re-processing of the trauma.  

That is because we know that trauma gets stored in the body.  Also the last ten years of research of the brain shows that traumatic memories get processed differently in the brain than other experiences do.  And when under extreme stress the parts of the brain than normally interpret experiences don’t function properly and the trauma gets experienced as a mass of physical and emotional sensations. So the somatic therapies of today work to get both sides of the brain to “talk to each other” to make sense out of it.  Some of the therapies that are used today to facilitate this coordination of the various parts of the brain are EMDR (eye movement de-sensitization  reprocessing); Somatic re -experiencing, and mindful meditation.  Healing prayer has also been demonstrated to have the same effect All of these interventions are geared to access the physical part of trauma as well as the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain.

But what I would like to focus on in this article are the cognitive and spiritual parts that need to be addressed in trauma work. And when I say trauma work I am now going to generalize these principals to not just trauma as we would define it in the PTSD literature (where someone experiences a situation where they feel they are going to die)   I want to broaden this concept  to include recovery from Capital T traumas and what I will refer to as small “t” traumas: those life experiences that have a profound effect on us and that “change us” so we are never quite the same.

The reason I am focusing on this is because over and over I am seeing that if a person isn’t able to “make sense” of their experience they seem to get stuck and it starts a “slow erosion of faith” … faith in themselves, the world and in God.

In his book on Psychotraumotolgy,   Jeffrey Mitchell a specialist in Critical Incident Debriefing has a section on what he terms as World View (Weltanschauungs).  He suggests that when a person gets stuck in the treatment process he/she is usually feels violated in one of 4 areas:

(Note:  Research results from  Edmonds and Hooker (2006) supports this view of the violation of ones World Views as they write: “This (sic) disruption undermines long held beliefs that the world is predictable or fair, that the universe is benign,  that important relationships can  be counted on when needed, or that important relationships or that they are capable and competent in the face of adversity”. ( from the Grief Newsletter)

These are the major World Views that tend to get violated:

Just World Belief
I will get what I deserve, I deserve what I get and others deserve what
“The way I thought the world operated has been seriously challenged!”

Sense of Self
Who I thought I was has been seriously challenged
Who you are and how you see yourself (e.g. He used to think he was invincible and sickness was all in one’s mind and then Rey got cancer)

Abandonment/violation of trust
Who I thought you were has been seriously challenged
e.g.” I never thought in a million years that my own brother would betray me or that my best friend would cheat on me with my own husband!”

Sense of safety ( a basic need)
My safety in this world has been seriously challenged
“I always felt my home was my sanctuary, but now I have been robbed and can’t relax at night.”  

And I would like to add my own category to the mix:

Perception of God
My idea of who God is has been seriously challenged;
“How could He let this happen to me, I have served him all my life and I just ask Him for this one thing and He lets my daughter die!”

 My experience is that one can develop a low level depression and or anxiety if one of these “crisis of belief” experiences goes unresolved.

Often is it a “slow slide down a slippery slope”, imperceptible to the person and those around them.  They just know they haven’t been the same since so and so.  If it is a crisis of belief in God, they find they don’t have joy in worship or their prayer life becomes affected.  If it is sense of safety that has been violated, they find themselves avoiding going out or being super cautious of new situations that before they wouldn’t have even given a second thought to.  If it is a violation of trust, they start becoming avoidant of people, preferring to be by themselves and relying on themselves.
And if it is a Crisis of belief in self they find themselves second guessing themselves a lot.

In all of these situations, it is necessary for the person to:

  1. Identify what exactly is going on and what has been violated.  Often it is more than one of the above.
  2. Embrace the experience of not knowing and the emotions of grieving over “what was” but now isn’t the same.
  3. And thirdly have to rewrite and/or expand their worldview to incorporate their life experience.

If this sounds familiar to you and you feel you are struggling with a challenge to your World View because of something traumatic you have gone through and if you would like help in sorting out your feelings and perceptions,  please feel free to contact me to set up an appointment to discuss this.


Written by Jill Dodge, LCSW
(619) 615-5065, jilldodge.com

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