Leaning on the Great Healer in Times of Anniversary-Effect Trauma

My hands trembled as I approached the stage. Silently, I placed my typewritten notes on the podium and adjusted the microphone. I looked out across the sanctuary at the large crowd at Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

I took a deep breath, my throat suddenly dry. “Good evening,” I said, my voice unsteady. “I want to share my testimony of how God changed my heart and redirected my life through the events of 9/11, and how he used this church as a vessel in which to do it.” My husband and I had witnessed the attacks from our apartment, six blocks from the World Trade Center. As we stood watching the first tower burn, we saw the second plane headed toward the towers. We felt, rather than saw, the impact and were blown back inside our apartment. I awoke on the living room floor to my dog panting in terror as he jumped on my chest.

We eventually escaped Manhattan by boat, but we couldn’t return to our apartment, our neighborhood, or our jobs. We found ourselves displaced and unemployed in the months that followed. Redeemer had established a fund for victims of the attacks, which helped us pay some bills and provided a haven where we discovered a new relationship with Christ and a community of believers. As I finished my story, I grabbed my notes and left the stage. Instead of rejoining the congregation, I raced out the lobby doors and into a nearby subway entrance. I found an empty seat on the train, hid my face behind a copy of the New York Post, and sobbed softly for my half-hour ride home.

I was a licensed New York City tour guide who took visitors to the World Trade Center complex several times per week and had spoken frequently about the events of 9/11, but I’d never before experienced that kind of reaction. When our church had asked for anniversary testimonies, I’d been eager to share, believing my story could point people to Christ and give back to the church that had given us so much. But as the 10th anniversary approached, my anxiety had become overwhelming. I cried constantly and felt like a dark cloud had descended on my normally sunny outlook.

When I remained inconsolable in the days after my Redeemer speech, I contacted the therapist who had diagnosed my post-traumatic stress disorder after 9/11. I described my recent emotional upheaval and told her I was baffled. But my therapist was not baffled—or even very surprised. “You’re experiencing a reaction related to the 9/11 anniversary, Christina,” she explained.

Trauma and the Anniversary Effect

Psychologists and trauma therapists describe the “anniversary effect” or “anniversary reaction” as a unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts, or memories that occur on the anniversary of a significant experience.

“A trauma victim seems to anticipate the anniversary of the traumatic event by subconsciously reliving it,” said Steve Hoppe, a Christian counselor, pastor, and author. “The victim’s body, mind, and soul have memorialized the physiological, psychological, and spiritual effects of the trauma, and such memories become realities as the commemoration of the dreaded event draws near.”

An approaching anniversary can cause a change in sleep patterns and prompt irritability. Buried memories may come flooding back. Pain related to injuries suffered during the trauma can flare up and become exacerbated, and unrelated and unfamiliar aches and pains can begin. Christian leaders who learn to recognize anniversary reactions and understand the effects of trauma can better support and sustain the wounded. In addition to offering practical aid, churches and Christians can share the balm of a God who reveals himself in suffering love. Christian leaders who learn to recognize anniversary reactions and understand the effects of trauma can better support and sustain the wounded...and can share the balm of a God who reveals himself in suffering love. Click To Tweet

Trauma often arises from dire and disturbing events, such as natural disasters, famine, violence, terrorist attacks—or a global pandemic. COVID-19 has claimed more than 650,000 American lives and millions more across the world while shutting down normal routines for months on end. While isolated at home, Americans saw endless video replays of the death of George Floyd; witnessed protests that sometimes boiled over into violence; suffered through historically destructive fires, hurricanes, heat waves and deep freezes, and lived through the most contentious presidential election in modern history.

Even people who did not experience a direct impact from either the 9/11 attacks, COVID-19, or other highly publicized traumatic events may find themselves struggling in the aftermath or when anniversary milestones are marked. Research has shown that people who are exposed to traumatic events through the media can suffer emotional reactions similar to those of people who were directly affected. Due to the events of the past 18 months, many Americans are already feeling fragile as the US prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Upcoming anniversaries related to the pandemic and other recent traumatic events may also trigger anxiety and instability in many people.

Christian Response to Trauma: Comfort and Perspective

Churches and Christian organizations have developed many ways to help individuals and communities in the aftermath of traumatic events, from providing food and shelter to offering therapists and counseling programs. World Vision, the Salvation Army, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Catholic Charities, and the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team frequently offer help in the wake of natural and manmade disasters. Local churches also play important roles as their community roots help them target assistance with more precision. But churches and Christian leaders have more to offer in the aftermath of tragedy than just passing out emergency supplies or providing trauma-based therapy. In times of upheaval and trauma, the church should be addressing the age-old questions about human suffering and God’s role in the world.

“Christians have an opportunity to seek not only comfort, but also perspective, when going to the Bible to help make sense of their traumas and losses, as well as their reactions to them,” notes Dr. Jeff White, an ordained pastor and marriage and family therapist and a master trainer for the Gottman Institute. “Christians have a theological grid available to them in the Bible that not only helps them make sense of their spiritual condition but also provides help as they move through daily life, including the peaceful and painful experiences therein.”

Christians need not shy away from tough questions about God’s sovereignty or his concern for us, advises Kindalee Pfremmer De Long, professor of religion and associate dean of Seaver College at Pepperdine University. “Let the community know they can ask those questions and provide ways so they can find answers to those questions from the deep resources of the Christian tradition.” De Long recommends turning to the books of Lamentations and the Psalms in the face of pain or despair. “Sometimes your experience with trauma is hard to put into words. The Psalms offer language that’s already there, and Lamentations provides the very language of suffering.”

The Apostle Paul wrote about his trauma at length in his letters, De Long said, and in 2 Corinthians, he writes about the power he gained in weakness and suffering. “Paul can rely on God’s power because he finds his identity in the story of Jesus, and Jesus’ story is a trauma narrative,” she said. “Paul is saying our POWER is in the suffering of the experience because it connects us to the power of the resurrection. It’s a resource we all have access to.”

When trauma stems from a public event or affects many people at once, there can be a “disruption in the bond that holds a community together,” De Long said. That’s when Christians should work “to stitch back together the fabric of a community that feels pulled apart by collective trauma. De Long and others were part of such efforts in 2018 when Pepperdine University was buffeted in a span of hours by twin traumas: a mass shooting that claimed twelve lives, including a Pepperdine student, and a massive wildfire that killed three, threatened the campus, and destroyed more than 1,600 homes. In the weeks and months that followed, De Long said, Pepperdine hosted discussion groups, art initiatives, prayer services, and other commemorations that allowed students, faculty and staff to express their feelings and wrestle with their faith. Similar opportunities for reflection and discussion were offered near the first anniversary of the shooting and fire.

De Long said it was important to respectfully commemorate the tragedy, the loss of life, and the ways the shooting and the fires disrupted so many lives. But it was also important to place those commemorations within the framework of biblical truths. “Parts of Scripture are trauma narratives,” she noted. “The Israelites underwent trauma after trauma. And Jesus’ story is not the story of someone who has a non-trauma power. It’s power from trauma, not trauma-free power.” Leaning on the Great Healer in Times of Anniversary-Effect Trauma Click To Tweet

Post-Traumatic Growth

When churches and Christian leaders tap into Christ’s trauma-infused power, they can help wounded and struggling individuals and communities cultivate what psychologists call “post-traumatic growth.” Although we more often hear about post-traumatic stress, mental health experts know that painful experiences also offer opportunities for growth. Trauma causes people to rethink fundamental notions of their lives, and they may gain wisdom and strength from facing hardships and fear and overcoming them.

Hermeisha Hopson, a licensed social worker at Refuge Counseling Wellness Services in Jacksonville, NC, said the key is to “shift what we believe about ourselves, others and the world despite the trauma.” Shifting that outlook allows “the brain to send the correct signal to the body and be on one accord because it recognizes that there is no current threat of danger. This is the essence of post-traumatic growth and what Paul meant when he said, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

I personally experienced that kind of renewal in my post-traumatic reckoning after 9/11 when I learned that through faith, Scripture, and the Christian community, God can reach in and heal wounds, lessen sorrow, and lift up Christians who are experiencing trauma for the first time—or on every anniversary of that trauma. God revealed this mystery to me after 9/11 and again 10 years later when I experienced a trauma I couldn’t even identify.

Since learning about the anniversary effect, I now approach 9/11 every year with intention and try to prepare myself for the negative reactions I might experience. I lighten my workload and avoid making plans with friends for the week before or after the anniversary. I give myself permission to cry at night and sleep during the day. I put my therapist on alert in case I need her services. Knowing there will be an oversaturation of anniversary news articles, TV shows, and documentaries with upsetting images, I limit my media consumption, especially social media that can be loaded with emotionally provoking content.

After my 10th anniversary experience, I decided to write about my 9/11 experience, and I eventually published a book, Out of the Shadow of 9/11, An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation. It was a difficult process but also very cathartic, helping me work through unresolved feelings. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I expect to have an anniversary reaction, but now I have a plan in place to mitigate those adverse effects. I know it will only be temporary, and I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Christians need to remind the world that the Great Healer, Jesus Christ, cares more about our pain and suffering than even we do. Psalm 34:18 states: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Life in a fallen world will always involve trauma, and adversity can lead us to lean on the promises of Christ in ways we had never tried before. Christian leaders should be prepared to nurture post-traumatic growth in the immediate aftermath of disasters and during anniversaries of events that caused grief or suffering.

Let us encourage one another with the assurance that our brokenness is where Jesus meets us in his strength.

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