3 Things to Know When Processing Trauma

 Guest Post by Allie Chapa

Adobe stock photo

Adobe stock photo

The middle is a disheartening place; you don’t quite see the beginning and you definitely don’t see the end. This is how I would describe my process with mental illness and trauma right now. I’m in the foggy, muddy middle and quite honestly, most days I want to give up.

For the last year and a half I’ve been focusing on recovery from my latest episode of depression and anxiety. I have found that for me, medication and counseling are what I need during this time, even though it may not be what’s best for everyone. More specifically, I have been doing EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, a specialized therapy that focuses on trauma. (You can learn more about EMDR therapy, here.)

Within the last five years, with the help of a counselor, I have learned that my childhood was abnormal from others. I have a loving mother who did her best raising me but unfortunately was also emotionally abusive. The pain from this has manifested in a multitude of false beliefs about myself and others—beliefs so deeply embedded in my mind that I didn’t know they were false until this past year as I’ve processed them for the first time in EMDR therapy.

This journey has been long, hard, and freeing all at the same. I have found relief that the things I believe about myself and others are completely wrong. I have found more anxiety because there are so many false and negative beliefs. I have found hope that I can believe new things. I have found frustration because truly believing those new things is really hard. I have found despair because I feel like I’ll never get past all of my trauma. I have found that I not only grow as I go through the process but I also fail—a lot.

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

I can’t say these tips will apply to everyone because I don’t believe the journey looks the same for everyone. We’re all unique individuals, and our journeys will also be the unique. But here are some things that I’ve found help me as I get through the middle of my journey with trauma. (Note: these are all things I’m still learning to do and definitely have not mastered!)

1. Take time to take care of yourself.

The battle to replace your old belief system with a new one takes a lot of energy and can be exhausting. Make sure to be kind to yourself and do things that give you peace and bring you joy. I usually go and buy some dark chocolate after my EMDR sessions and find time to take a nap to rest.

2. Focus on one new belief at a time.

As my journey goes on, I tend to get overwhelmed and feel despair when I think of all of the new thoughts and beliefs I’m working on. Instead of trying to believe 15 new thoughts, I’m working on focusing on just one at a time. It helps me to write mine out on a large chalkboard I have and display it somewhere I can repeatedly read in my house.

3. Give yourself permission to feel pain.

This one is really hard for me. I’m learning that when it comes to trauma, there are layers and layers of pain to be dealt with. No one likes to feel pain, but I’m told that there’s no other way to get to the other side without feeling the pain.

If you are someone who has experienced trauma, I want you to know that your pain is real. I don’t want to pretend to know your kind of pain, but I do know it can hold you back for too long. Please, don’t wait to find help, because there is so much more to your life than the pain you have experienced.

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5 Reasons to Try Therapy

As I parked, I wondered if anyone would drive by and recognize my car. At this point, I was so worn out from life I lacked the energy to care about the stigma anymore. I shrugged and walked across the street to the Counseling and Testing Center on campus. 

It was a temporary building and everything was a bit squished inside, but I appreciated the office’s relocation to the outskirts of campus instead of at the heart of social life, like it was before. It felt safer.

Over the following weeks, I stopped worrying if people would spot my car or notice me walking in for appointments. In the crowded temp building on the edge of campus, an internal shift began. I gravitated from the outskirts of myself toward the very center, and as I tended to my heart I found there was no place I would rather be.

Three years later, I’m still an avid fan of therapy. In fact, I think everyone should go to therapy. Here are a few reasons why:

1. You probably need it.

After experiencing firsthand the benefits of therapy, I’ve encouraged scores of people (okay, pretty much everyone I know) to make it a priority. The responses vary, but I’ve noticed something. 

The people who are most adamant about not needing it usually need it the most.

A main roadblock to getting into a therapist’s office is stigma. Stigma—which I like to call a Silent Killer—tells us therapy is only for people who are “weak,” “have problems,” or are “broken.” 

But aren’t we all broken? Don’t we all have problems? In this case, “stigma” could be a synonym for “pride.” 

Therapy isn’t solely for times when we’re so beaten down we can’t get back up without help (though it is incredibly helpful for those times). It’s also for anytime we desire to be healthier, know and love ourselves well, and interact with and love others well. Which should be….all the time.

If you haven’t figured out how to love yourself yet, therapy is for you. If you ever have conflict with others, struggle with self-hatred, or have a screwed up family, therapy is for you.

If you’ve figured out life already or if you are smart enough to figure it out without help…therapy is especially for you. (I know because that used to be me.)

Adobe stock photo

Adobe stock photo

2. It's a healthy practice - like a wellness checkup.

In nursing school, patient education is heavily emphasized, especially when it comes to disease prevention.

“The best treatment,” I remember my professors instructing, “is prevention.”

When it comes to mental health, a similar premise holds true. Much like medical care, therapy is not limited to addressing acute situations. Rather, therapy is useful for promoting wellness holistically.

It helps increase our emotional IQ (I didn’t even know this was a thing until I started going to therapy) and keep our mental habits and frameworks in working order. 

Nearly every operational thing needs periodic maintenance in order to function at full capacity—cars need oil changes, air filters in our homes need changing, etc.

Our brains benefit from maintenance too.

3. Counseling is different from venting to a friend or receiving advice from a mentor.

A common misconception about therapy is it’s simply a place to vent or externally process—much like a coffee date with a close friend or phone call with a confidante. 

While therapy does provide the opportunity for both venting and processing, it also creates space for so much more. 

It provides an objective perspective—and someone who will call you out on your bull. Many times, we aren’t aware of our weaknesses or lapses in judgment, and neither are the ones closest to us. In fact, they might have the same blindspots we do.

Therapists focus on what's best for us and are extensively trained to identify and help us address underlying issues.

They are equipped to see past the smoke screen and find the fire. Sometimes the fire is obvious and blaring, and other times we've dismissed it as a smoldering pile of ashes from the past. That's a skill worth paying for.

Sessions are helpful for working through difficult situations, but perhaps their true value comes in the way they challenge our way of thinking.

4. It allows you to empathize with others.

Being willing to try therapy for yourself serves a dual purpose when it comes to relating to others. 

First, it allows you to relate to those who go to therapy. Some of the people I connect with most are friends who also go or have gone to therapy. They understand how wonderful it can be and how difficult, how the stigma still stings sometimes, and how it’s worth it anyway.

It shows me they are humble enough to seek help and admit they’re still growing. It lets me know they’re less likely to judge me for my issues.

Second, it gives you a leg to stand on when you suggest someone else try out therapy. Mental illness is increasingly widespread, and odds are you have already suggested that a loved one seek therapy. It’s one thing to encourage a form of treatment you’ve “heard” works. It’s a whole different thing to endorse a practice you’ve been willing to try yourself.

5. It could change your life.

When I walked into the office for the first time on campus, I was terrified and I was proud. 

Yet therapy changed my life—and it still is. (At some points, it probably saved my life.) Therapy isn’t the be all end all, but it is incredibly helpful.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in therapy, it’s this:

We’re all broken, including me. It’s okay to need help, and it’s courageous and healthy and right to ask for it.

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My Journey through Depression to Happiness

"Why you smiling, Miss?" I turned to see who was speaking. I was volunteering with high school students, and one of them looked at me expectantly, waiting for an answer.

"Because I'm happy," I replied, my smile widening. As the words left my lips, I almost cried. I wanted to add, "Because it's been six years since I began struggling with depression, and I'm finally happy. I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life! I'm happy to be volunteering here, and I'm happy to be alive."

Six years later, I'm happy to be alive.

When I first experienced depression, I had a lot of ideas about what the cure was. Most of them were wrong. Today, I still have a lot of ideas, and though now I'm better informed, I admit a lot of them are probably still wrong. We only know in part, and we see as in a mirror, dimly.

Six years later, I'm trashing my formulas for happiness and discarding the empty claims I know what "holistic healing" is. As I look back, here's what I notice.

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Therapy counts.

Stubbornness tends to run in my family, and pride tends to run in me. This combination resulted in a three-year refusal to consider seeking professional help. A breakdown (or five) after a difficult summer in Cambodia led me to a counselor's office, where I finally found hope in the face of suicidal thoughts.

In therapy, I learned how to process emotions. I experienced grace. I met Jesus in a new way.

However, though therapy brought me a long way, I still floundered in waves of depression, especially with transitions to and from life overseas.

Observation: Therapy has literally been a life-saver. It brings perspective and fosters humility. It can facilitate major healing. It requires hard work mentally and emotionally. It is often the first step in breaking down stigma and pride. Though it's thought of as a practice reserved for "people with problems," therapy can benefit everyone. We all have problems, after all, whether we admit it or not! Perhaps the only difference between those who go to therapy and those who don't is the humility and courage to recognize and own our problems.

Bottom line: Therapy can do wonders for health! It is not a guaranteed cure for anything.

God can bring breakthrough.

At the beginning of the year, I found myself at a weekly gathering with friends from church. As the sound of piano keys and voices filled the house, I remembered how earlier in the day the Lord had nudged me to ask for prayer for depression. I didn't understand why. Over six years, I'd prayed and asked for prayer more times than I could count.

Yet in obedience, I approached Alexa, one of our leaders and now a dear friend, and tapped her on the shoulder. Her eyes met mine with a smile. Nervously, I explained I was experiencing depression and asked if she would pray for me.

"Yes," she replied, "I actually would love to because I've experienced depression myself."

Surprised and grateful, I closed my eyes as she prayed over me. She prayed for me to experience whatever breakthrough she had experienced.

The next morning, I woke up with hope surging in my chest. I felt 85% better! The Lord had brought breakthrough.

Observation: It's important to realize healing doesn't come as a result of actions or disciplines themselves. This is why "read your Bible" and "pray more" are dangerous solutions to give someone who is depressed (not to mention the propensity to come across as insensitive and judgmental). Even though these practices can connect us with God, these actions cannot heal us. Prayer, reading the Bible, Scripture memory, worship, nor repentance can heal us. Furthermore, God does not promise to heal us from depression or relieve our suffering, even if we do ask Him!

Bottom line: God can heal in an instant. His desire is for His children to come to Him with our burdens. He does not guarantee breakthrough, and spiritual disciplines are not cures.

Medication can be effective.

Shortly before asking Alexa to pray for me, I began taking antidepressants. It was somewhat of a last-ditch effort, as I'd always been in staunch opposition of medications. My reasons ranged from, "I don't want to be dependent on anything" to "They don't actually work" to "I'm weak if I take them."

When I finally visited a doctor, the first medication I tried actually made my depression worse. I'm thankful my therapist recognized and addressed this. When I switched to a different pill, I slowly began to notice positive effects: more energy, fewer suicidal thoughts, and an overall elevation in mood.

Since these effects occurred so closely to the prayer-sparked breakthrough, I wondered if the medications truly did anything or if it was simply the prayer. When I asked the Lord about it, I felt I should continue the meds. Later, a dose increase resulted in more positive effects. In fact, I went from feeling 85% better to 95% better!

Observation: In my head, finding a spiritual answer (prayer) to depression was more attractive because I thought a physiological source meant there was something wrong with me. Additionally, physiological depression can't be proven by a simple test or lab result, so there's ample room for questioning and criticism. This can be the hardest treatment choice for church-goers because it can be seen as a lack of faith.

In reality, taking medications shows incredible courage, resilience, and incredible humility to admit we are not in control of our minds. This lack of control is true for all people, but the facade is often forced down only in those of us with mental illness. Many times, people who take medications are meeting God in a new way, with humility and a recognition of how little we know about our brains and how little we control. If righteousness includes "right thinking" about God and how we relate to Him, then the humility involved in taking medications can bring about a form of righteousness.

Bottom line: Medications aren't for everyone, but the biological component to depression should not be dismissed. Medications can help. They are not a guaranteed cure.

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Circumstances matter.

Situational depression is real and I probably experienced some with reentry, but for now I'll focus on general, ongoing life circumstances: the places we live, the jobs we hold, the social circumstances surrounding us.

When working as a nurse at the hospital, I experienced extreme stress. I felt pressure to be enough—perfect, even—and struggled to keep up with these expectations. The high-stakes and often-harsh environment was rough on my heart and my soul.

For a long time, I categorized my job as an unchangeable part of my life circumstances. I also mistakenly believed resigning from a career meant I was a failure, weak, and not good enough. I viewed quitting a job as a cop-out.

A few months ago, I made the choice to quit nursing in favor of health. After the initial shock of quitting the career I received all my training in, I walked into a season of great joy. I not only made the jump from feeling 95% better to 100%, but I'm happier now than I ever have been in my life! I didn't even know happiness this great existed. Wow, am I grateful!

Observation: Changing careers symbolized a surrendering of my will and sense of security, a courageous step of obedience and trust, and a commitment to what was best for me, even if it wasn't popular. I did (and still do) receive questioning when I tell people I willingly walked away from nursing, but this consequence is nothing compared to the unbelievable happiness it brings me every day.

Bottom line: A stressful circumstance is not to be underestimated. Unhealthy and stressful circumstances can have immense repercussions (like severe depression), but changing them is not a guaranteed cure.

Overall Lessons

Many possible solutions to depression exist, but none are guaranteed. I used to think if I altered just one of these factors enough, I would find happiness. I thought if I prayed enough, if I just kept going to counseling, or if I took the right pill at the right dosage for the right amount of time, I'd be better. The truth is I had to alter all four aspects of my life before I found happiness.

The only guarantee to come with each step I took toward health was a humble questioning of my biases and beliefs.

What do I really believe about depression?

How do I believe it relates to spirituality?

Do I assume others are weak, lazy, or fearful because they won't seek the same treatment I do?

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What Therapy Taught Me About Tithing

Therapy and tithing. What an odd combination of topics.

Counseling is not cheap. I learned this after I graduated college and was looking for a therapist. I was still riding the waves of the emotional hurricane of Cambodian hospital experiences as well as trying to fight off my own personal archenemy, depression.

Counseling is not cheap, but I am. (At the time I was as stingy as Scrooge, and the only difference was I’d had the excuse of being a college student for the previous four years so people didn’t judge me quite so hard.) But you see the equation—something had to give. Well, really, I had to give. If I wanted counseling, that is.

When I first started going to counseling, it was up for debate in my head how often I would go. I was hesitant about spending so much money on myself. It seemed…excessive. Exorbitant, even. However, after the first couple sessions, the decision was no longer a difficult one—because after counseling, I didn’t feel like I was drowning anymore. I felt a little hope rise up in my chest; the suicidal thoughts faded after counseling.

This, I decided, was worth any amount I could pay. If someone had told me I could pay to have the feelings of suicidality go away…it would have been a dream come true. For so many long days and miserable nights, I had wished I could buy freedom from depression—I would have emptied my bank account in a heartbeat!

And here, in a counselor’s office, I finally found that a little bit of freedom was indeed available. Suddenly, the price seemed so small a sum of money compared to the alternative torture of riding the fence of suicide day in and day out.

Photo via

Photo via

It wasn’t a decision, really, because not being suicidal was so valuable to me.

The cost wasn’t even a question anymore because mental health had become so important to me. Every single time I spent money, I weighed the benefit and the cost, but I had never witnessed the scales tip so drastically in favor of the benefits before.

One day, as I was driving home from counseling, I began thinking about money and my mind wandered to tithing. I often found it hard to tithe, just as I found it difficult to write a check to my therapist those first couple of sessions. I cringed a little inside as I thought of the expenses on my budgeting spreadsheet adding up, and I hesitated to add tithing to the list.

Yet as I recognized this feeling—this hesitance to let go of money and a sense of control and security—I thought of the scales weighing benefit and cost, and I had one of those moments where I realized how good God was to me all over again.

God is so good to me. His love is unconditional, and His presence is constant. He gives me breath in my lungs and plants hope in my heart every morning. He doesn’t withhold His goodness if I withhold my tithe or if I rebel or for any reason at all. He is the Wonderful Counselor, and He is everpresent, Emmanuel.

He doesn’t require me to pay for His relationship; in fact, He paid the highest price—His Son’s very life—for me already. For me to spend not a session but eternity with Him. He gives us life itself, and He gives us Him self

Suddenly, tithing seems like nothing. How incredible that He asks for (not demands or requires, but requests) money.

Material money.

Of course He can have it. It’s His, anyway. And when I think of His love, His goodness, His companionship…all the money in the world cannot buy these things. Tithing transforms from a sacrifice to an honor as I realize again how grateful I am for Him, for a relationship with Him, for His love, for His presence, for His promises.

He who paid the highest price for us invites us to walk with Him each day. What a privilege it is to offer back to Him a few dollars in gratitude.

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