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The Critical Importance of Facing Your Trauma

Dan AllenderBy Dr. Dan B. Allender

Joan, a Bainbridge Island firefighter, was in my house with a group of our neighbors, telling us how to prepare for the earthquake that will inevitably hit our island. Apparently our neighborhood sits squarely on the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Earlier, when Becky informed me that we were hosting the gathering, I’d asked her if I needed to attend. When her eyes flashed with incredulity, I quickly retracted my question.

I had no doubt that Joan, no more than five feet four inches and 120 pounds, could swing my dead weight over her shoulder and carry me down a flight of stairs if I needed saving. But now she was telling us, “You are on your own. When the big one hits, don’t expect the fire department, EMS, police, or any other cavalry to save you.” Joan reminded us that we live on an island. I knew this nearly 20 years ago when we moved here. I ignored it. She explained that the bridge to the peninsula would likely go down and the ferry to Seattle would be terminated. Access to save our burning home or to attend to our crushed arm would be delayed until those not on duty could get to the island. Those first responders would naturally tend to their families first and then their neighbors. We would receive care only after those in greatest need were served. Therefore, we must have at least two weeks’ worth of food and water, cooking and camping gear, medication, clothing, and first aid supplies to deal with our needs.

Joan handed out all the written data we would need to survive, but what I recall most vividly are the faces and mood of my neighbors. We moved from mild interest to increasing sobriety to quiet terror. I lost count of how many times she said, “You are on your own.” I felt sick to my stomach. Images of disaster invaded like a nightmare as I complimented Joan and thanked her for a highly motivating presentation.

After a mere 12 hours and a disturbed night’s sleep, I moved on to more pressing issues—conflicts at work, an upcoming seminar, and a lawn that needed cutting. It didn’t take half a day to forget Joan’s prophecy of doom.

Our inability to prepare for a disaster lies in our immense capacity for denial. There is no command in Scripture urged more frequently than the two-sided “Do not forget the LORD your God” and “Remember the LORD your God” (Deut. 8:11, 18). Why are we reminded not to forget? Is it because we so often misplace keys and forget birthdays? Or is it a much darker reality than the mental strain of multitasking or the memory deficits of aging? I posit that we refuse to remember because remembering disrupts our illusion of control. We prefer our delusion that we are far from death. If I remember my great need, then I can’t presume that what my calendar says will come to pass. Yesterday I was flying home from a conference in Nashville, and today I am sheltering in place. Much of what I count on to give solace and meaning to my daily, hourly, minute-to-minute life rests on predictability, safety, and control. And when that is gone….

At play here is a psychological process called “motivated inference,” but we can easily think of it as self-righteousness. We interpret reality by what seems most consistent with what we want to see, what personally benefits us. Our presuppositions lead us to be selective and to discard what does not confirm our beliefs as untrue. We refuse to be troubled for long.

In a disaster, we are often reminded to consider God. The Bible implies that when we do so, in remembering we will be comforted. And while this is true, usually, it first brings upheaval. If we realize we are dependent on God, then we cannot trust any other kingdom, idol, or savior. If instead, we give into self-righteousness, or motivated inference, we can ignore the coming tumult and erase the past harm by willful blindness. We don’t want to remember God because to do so intensifies our helplessness in the face of loss, prompts a fight with the Almighty, and calls us to name past heartache we’d prefer to ignore.

Consider Psalm 77 as a paradigm for engaging all kinds of anguish: “I cried out to God for help…. When I was in distress, I sought the LORD…. My heart meditated, and my spirit asked: ‘Will the LORD reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?’” (vv. 1–2, 6–7).

Whatever prompted the psalmist to cry out to God, his suffering could not be soothed merely by turning to spiritual platitudes. He could not find rest, and he would not be comforted by any person or truth. This passage is the Word of God. It is Scripture and it is true. But the truth isn’t always enough. It’s not biblical to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, it is finished.” The Bible itself says that truth alone is often not enough to trust or find comfort in until one wrestles with God to an uneasy truce. Only in the context of raw and honest anguish could the psalmist come back around to remembering God.

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his
right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.

Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psalm 77:10–20

If you’re familiar with the Bible, you’ll recognize the allusions in Psalm 77. This passage is poetry from the great rescue event in the Hebrew Scriptures—the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt toward the promised land. It’s impossible to overlook the intensity of sound, light, and fury resonating throughout this passage and its contrast to the unseen but unmistakable footprints of God. The writhing occurs in the first several verses of this psalm. The writer’s tears pour out like rain. He convulses in groaning, and his guts are churning. But then he affirms that unlike the gods of the world, his God is good.

When the psalm ends, is the writer’s suffering over? Does he now have the perspective to face serenely what is ruining his life? We don’t know. He doesn’t end this psalm with repentance or exaltation. He ends with naming God as a shepherd, recalling Psalm 23:1, “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” Comfort is implied, but the passage asks us to do what David did that seems so difficult: to embody our heartache.

Entering Trauma

Current suffering can’t be engaged until we let our bodies accept heartache. It is perhaps one of the most important things to face about our refusal to prepare for disaster: we don’t want to feel what our bodies suffer in trauma. When we feel suffering in our bodies, we can’t help but connect the present to the past. We remember the day before the tragedy ensued. We were happy once, even if we aren’t in this moment.

To enter trauma is to allow the intensification of loss to seize our hearts and bodies. The result of a single traumatic moment is heightened sensitivity for at least four to six hours. Cortisol pulses and the biochemicals related to intimacy, serotonin and oxytocin, decrease. The moment we feel unsafe in any context, we experience the typical options of fight, flight, or freeze. This chain is hardwired into our brain and operates in babies and small children well before language develops or threats can be assessed and managed. God has divinely equipped us to meet a threat with the best our bodies can muster.

Our natural physical responses to inner traumas help us regulate and return to stasis. Imagine turning a corner and encountering a threat to your life. In an instant, a series of neurological processes will occur to aid your survival. The cognitive center in the left frontal lobe shuts down because you don’t need to philosophize about death, you need to take action to escape. Anything that might get in the way of survival is ignored in that moment. The result is that you probably lose your appetite, sexual desire, and the ability to process your emotions. You get so tunnel-visioned that everything and everyone not related to survival gets put to the side, and you lose the trees for the forest. During that time, you are more prone to overreact, make poor decisions, and fail to ask for help. Instead of reflecting on all your options, you instinctively make a decision that saves you from harm and helps you return to normal again, or at least as normal as possible.

When we experience trauma and find no physical relief or bodily means to resolve the threat (fighting back or running away, primarily), we remain in a hyperactive mode. When a situation feels too dangerous, we’re intent on escaping, even if where we end up is more uncertain than where we began. If significant debris builds up to cause physical illness and psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety, then the weight of that affects our relationships. When our reactive and defensive systems take over our ability to relate, the drama of trauma can effectively silence us, blind us to others, and drown out God’s voice.

Here’s what’s vital to understand:

  • If not properly expressed and resolved, trauma, more than anything else, will shape our identity and our actions. To understand what drives us, we must have access to the moments of shattering that set into motion both our core paradigm for how we see life and our core determination regarding how we will live it. Unresolved pain shapes our deepest fears and passions, and our fears and passions most deeply shape who we are and what we will become.
  • Current trauma unearths past trauma. Our earliest traumas, many of which we consider normal and inconsequential, determine our response to current traumas that often seem far greater because of our hearts’ familiarity with the feeling.
  • Until a bridge is constructed between the past and the present, we are bound to repeat the past without recognizing the real war we are fighting. We end up fighting or “flighting” from an enemy that’s real (like Covid-19 or rejection from friends) but fail to see that we’re also reacting to wounds that are as much a threat to our thriving as anything in the present.
  • Building the bridge requires us to step away from the debris caused by current trauma to see our efforts to construct a safe space for ourselves—a false Eden.

To enter past suffering when we’re fighting for survival will seem like a fool’s errand. It’s hard enough to address the present; facing the past seems impossible. But our learned coping mechanisms won’t allow us the freedom to fully live, let alone process a trauma as great as a pandemic and all its cost. No, if we want to grow and live and help ourselves and others, including our children, we must proceed into the future unencumbered.

If we learn to listen well to our stories, we can begin to heal, and the process will reveal more of God and awaken others to what it means to be fully alive. By learning to bless the heartache of the past, working to build goodness in the present, and committing to imagining our restoration in the future, countless brave ones have found that the arduous journey not only is possible but is the only path to real life.


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Redeeming HeartacheAdapted from Redeeming Heartache: How Past Suffering Reveals Our True Calling by Dr. Dan B. Allender and Cathy Loerzel, M.A. Click here to learn more about this book.

Find freedom and healing from painful memories and relational struggles and learn how your past has uniquely prepared you to experience more joy.

Tragedy and pain inevitably touch our lives in some way. We long to feel whole, but more often than not, the way we’ve learned to deal with our wounds pushes us away from the very restoration we need most. Renowned psychologist Dr. Dan Allender and counselor and teacher Cathy Loerzel present a life-changing process of true connection and healing with ourselves, God, and others.

With a clear, biblically trustworthy method, Allender and Loerzel walk you through a journey of profound inner transformation—from the shame and hurt of old emotional wounds to true freedom and healing. Drawn from modern research and their pioneering work at The Allender Center, they will help you identify your core trauma in one of the three outcast archetypes—the widow, orphan, or stranger—and chart your path of growth into the God-given roles of priest, prophet, or leader. This book will help you learn:

  • What to do about feeling out-of-place and directionless
  • How your coping mechanisms create a false sense of health
  • How to embrace your divine calling and find lasting reconciliation
  • How your heart wounds are your unique invitation to true strength and purpose.

Your past pain does not dictate your life. Answer the call to healing and discover your life’s beautiful story and a future of hope and freedom.

Dr. Dan B. Allender is the bestselling author of numerous books, including The Wounded Heart. Having spent thirty years pioneering a unique therapy centered around inner transformation, he has seen healing occur in countless individuals by connecting the story of the gospel to people’s universal heart wounds. As a cofounder of both the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and the Allender Center, he is widely sought as a speaker on topics of trauma recovery, love, and forgiveness.

Cathy Loerzel is cofounder of the Allender Center. Combining her background in organizational leadership and development with an MA in counseling psychology, she is a respected leader, instructor, and speaker. Over the past decade, she has also helped to develop the groundbreaking Trauma Informed Narrative Theory. She and her husband live in Seattle with their two children, two dogs, and a flock of chickens. Visit her on Instagram at @cathy.loerzel.

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