by Evan Owens
After walking with hundreds of people through the valley of their trauma, I’ve found that there is one secret weapon, that if used properly can make the difference between them merely surviving and living life to the fullest…
There isn’t a shortage of emerging treatments to help people heal from trauma. There’s an eye chart of acronyms for therapies. EMDR, CBT, PET, Somatic Response Therapy and the list goes on. There are apps to help you manage symptoms, books to read, and mountains of medications all designed to help you cope or heal from painful experiences. But in all of my experience, there is one secret weapon that is often the key factor which determines if someone heals or just exists. It is the weapon of community.
I have learned over the past nine years that the leading factor which determines long term health is a person’s level of participation in authentic, loving, trusting relationships. What if the key to trauma healing is found in one of the most time-honored traditions of the human species – friendship?
But trauma and mental health challenges make finding community difficult because those around us just don’t get it. They push when they should be patient. They give advice when they should listen and they over-simplify instead of seeking to understand.
For many trauma survivors or those with mental health challenges, finding a loving, trusting community is a difficult challenge. Trauma often causes us to distrust people, it causes us to avoid crowds and it makes us want to draw inward into our shells. In fact, trauma makes us isolate and pull away. But overcoming trauma or mental health challenges isn’t easily done alone. It is a team effort.
Community Defeats Isolation
Trauma makes us pull away from the source that may be most likely to help us heal – our friends and family. Satan would love to make us think that our diagnosis or experience is the final word on our lives. Like a nail in the coffin – trauma has defined our future. The further he can push us into isolation, the more power that trauma has until it controls our entire life. He knows that a warrior by themselves is more easily defeated than one with covering fire and support.
Community Silences Destructive Voices
You know you’ve been apart from God and others for too long when you start hearing voices that contradict what God says about you and your situation. Isolation is a breeding ground for depression and fear. Alone, it can be all too easy to listen to the voices in our head rather than those of God and the people who care about us. These voices only want to bring more pain, loneliness, destruction and defeat into our lives.
The more we listen to them, the more familiar and louder they become. Like ringing in our ears, if we zero in on the ringing it can become deafening, overpowering all other noises.
We can’t be the best version of ourselves, by ourselves. It takes others to help us tune out the noise and hear the truth before we can even begin to overcome our trauma.
Community Helps Discovery Purpose
Finding purpose through your pain doesn’t happen when you are alone. Purpose after trauma is often discovered when you let down your walls and let other people in. Not only do you have a chance to release some of the weight you’ve been carrying, but you also allow the light in your heart to seep out through the cracks caused by trauma. As you engage in community, you’ll find you have a positive impact on people. Because of your testimony, they’ll rid themselves of attitudes, mindsets or beliefs that aren’t of God because they get a front row seat to your journey. You’ll find ways for your story to help others who are hurting. Purpose is most readily discovered in the service of others.
How To Find Healthy Community
Depending on your diagnosis or experiences, it may not be as simple as just showing up to a small group at church. So what does a healthy, helpful community look like and how do you find one?
A healthy community is one in which you feel safe, challenged and valued. In a social media world, this isn’t an easy task for anyone, whether you’ve experienced trauma or not. It takes intentionality on all parties. As my wife teaches our boys, sometimes you have to be a friend to make a friend. This means getting out of your comfort zone, approaching someone and entering into their world.
Like it or not, most people are afraid to enter your world for fear that they may say the wrong thing or trigger your symptoms. So you may have to take the first step and give them permission to come into the cave you’ve constructed around yourself. While it may be scary, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
1 – Write down a list of people who care about you.
For some of us, this list may be 10 names long and for others it might be 2 or 3. The length doesn’t matter at this point. Take this list and ask yourself, do I feel safe and challenged by these people? Are they showing they value me by helping me become the best version of myself or are they enabling bad behaviors?
You see, some of you have the wrong community. You’re surrounded by people who are going nowhere and they are keeping you from getting anywhere. They enjoy being stuck with you.
They talk about all the reasons they can’t move forward. As long as you are in the passenger seat of a parked car, you’re not going to make progress. Or even worse, they may be continuing to traumatize you over and over again by their actions. So-called friends that want to take you on a road trip that doesn’t go anywhere aren’t real friends. Find a new road tripping crew and hop in their car.
2- Go to those people and tell them that you are wanting to move forward.
A friend of mine named Lara always talks about learning to function forward in spite of her chronic pain. Tell them that you’d like them to help you function forward. Ask them to check in on you and to challenge you. Give them permission to ask you the hard questions.
3 – Find ways to make deposits into the friendship.
Friendship isn’t a bank where you just withdraw – you contribute. Give back to them. Challenge them and ask them the hard questions. Over time, invite others into your community and soon you will have created a place where even people will want to belong.
Community is the secret weapon to overcoming trauma and mental health challenges. It is free to use and doesn’t require a PhD to offer. What if your breakthrough after trauma or from your mental health challenge isn’t found in some emerging therapy or pharmaceutical innovation? What if it is found in authentic friendship? What if the healing you desire is found through others investing in your life and you investing in theirs?
You’ll never have a more awkward conversation in your life, but taking the first steps toward building a healthy community will be worth it. You’ll be moving forward – together.
Evan Owens currently serves as the Executive Director of REBOOT Recovery. He is certified in military ministry and has personally facilitated trauma recovery groups for over 350 combat veterans and military spouses. REBOOT is a non-profit that helps veterans, first responders and their loved ones to heal from the moral and spiritual wounds associated with service-related trauma.