2020 has become the year of communal trauma. The pandemic, racial injustice, the politicization of our social contracts, economic fears, worries about the school year, all the questions about how to be the church—all of this has created a global nervous system that is in a trauma state. This, I think, is vitally important for us as leaders to know and understand, for ourselves and for the systems we serve.
As a spiritual director I sit with leaders (currently over Zoom) and hear over and over again: You aren’t sleeping well; your eating has been thrown off. Some days your mind won’t stop; other days your mind won’t start, and you just sit in front of the TV. You had to switch to virtual worship on a dime, and you can’t stop comparing your production to the church’s down the street, or you suspect that you could be reaching out to your older folks more often, or your families aren’t engaging in your story hour like you had hoped.
You are carrying the anxieties of your community and worried about their physical, mental, and spiritual health. On top of that, you are carrying your own anxieties and worried about your own physical, mental, and spiritual health. You are trying to be a non-anxious presence but come on!
How are we to lead when it feels like the bottom is falling out from under us? How are we to lead when we are suffering the same trauma as those in our congregations? We are in uncharted waters, but we are not without help. We can learn a lot about leading in difficult times from those who understand how our nervous systems operate and those who have done work in the field of trauma.
I believe the key to our own health as leaders begins in an understanding and awareness of working with trauma. Trauma is a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. It affects us physically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, and socially. Trauma is dysregulating to the body and especially the nervous system. This dysregulation is why we aren’t sleeping or are oversleeping, are going on crying jags, feel sick to our stomachs, are short-tempered, indecisive, or whatever else is making you feel like you just aren’t cutting it as a leader right now. These are normal, physiological responses to trauma. When our nervous system gets dysregulated because of crisis or trauma, we shift into survival mode where our fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in. We don’t have the same capacity for problem solving, critical thinking, or imagination that we usually do because our nervous system is just focused on trying to survive.
Please hear me: this isn’t about you failing to manage your anxiety. You aren’t failing to live up to the expectations to lead in this moment if you are feeling indecisive. You aren’t failing your faith if you are experiencing depression. You aren’t failing your people if you just can’t think or program your way out of this.
You are in trauma. So are those you serve.
When we remember that what we are experiencing are normal, physiological responses to trauma, we can tend to our nervous systems (and ourselves) with compassion and grace. When we remember that we are experiencing trauma as a community, we can be more compassionate with those we interact with who are under the same stresses that we are. The good news is that our brains, our bodies, and our spirits can heal even when we can’t imagine the pain ending. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, complex creatures, capable of learning new ways of being in our minds and hearts, and we have the ability to retrain our autonomic nervous system responses so that we don’t stay entrenched in our trauma responses.
Many of our spiritual practices and biblical stories can be tools to help us re-regulate our nervous systems, signaling to our brains that we are safe. Our practices can bring us back into the present moment and into our bodies, away from our spinning thoughts and churning emotions. These are a few practices to consider as you tend to the health of your nervous system and your spiritual health.
- Grounding: God called to Moses from the burning bush to remove his sandals because he was on holy ground. This story reminds us that sometimes we need to step off the path, remove our shoes, and get grounded in our feet in order to hear God. Use your feet to notice the earth, the sensations of standing strong, how you can sway a bit but not fall over, how you are indeed on holy ground wherever you are at in this moment. Grounding, or getting into our bodies by noticing something as simple as our feet, is a helpful tool to reorient us to our surroundings. Too often in trauma we feel dislocated from what is real in the moment. Our feet invite us back to the holy ground of the earth.
- Breathwork: Ruach, the Hebrew word for breath, spirit, or wind, is not only part of our life force and our belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit, it is also an important key in re-regulating our nervous systems. When we are in crisis or trauma, our breathing becomes shallow, and our bodies are poised to respond in fight, flight, or freeze mode. But if we pay attention to our breath, specifically exhaling longer than we inhale, we can begin to calm down our nervous system. The longer exhale is a signal to our brains that we don’t need to be on the alert. Pairing our breathing with lines from the Psalms, or prayers, helps return our focus to God as we invite the Holy Spirit to work in and through our breath to heal us.
- Silence and stillness: We believe that God is present in and through all things, but the story of God meeting Elijah in sheer silence is an invitation to seek silence and stillness in the midst of the storms we are facing. Like Elijah on Mount Horeb, we might feel like we are facing strong winds, earthquakes, and fires as we navigate changing information about COVID, decisions about how to be church together, and our own personal worries. Intentionally taking time for silence and stillness calls us into a different space, opening the door for our nervous system to calm down. Whether you light a candle, journal, pray, meditate, or practice mindfulness, these practices facilitate healing and open our hearts, making us more able to respond to trauma with compassion.
Tending to communal trauma is hard work, but understanding and holding compassionate awareness can assist us in these difficult times. Turn to your spiritual practices or learn some new ones, and let them help you re-regulate your nervous system. And be gentle with yourself. There is so much we just don’t know right now. But we do know that God is here, on this holy ground, in each breath, and in the storm and the stillness, to hold us through the trauma.
Photo by Aaron Amat.