Western Friend logo

Healing Trauma in Community (abridged)

Leann Williams
On Healers (September 2023)
Inward Light

This article is excerpted from an address to the 2023 Annual Sessions of Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends. The original is published at: https://westernfriend.org/media/healing-trauma-community-unabridged

We, Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, are a pretty motley crew. We come together with diverse backgrounds, diverse belief systems, and varied expressions of personality. We want so very much to see “that of God” in ourselves and in others. Sometimes this is hard.

Phyllis Tickle, a Christian church historian, wrote about a pattern she identified – great upheavals every 500 years. We are in the middle of one of those great upheavals, a great re-formation. We see philosophies shifting from modernity to postmodernity. We see political chasms that are disturbing and frightening, no matter which side of whatever political spectrum you find yourself. We see technological changes that are both utterly amazing and potentially terrifying. We see cultural shifts creating divisiveness and a seemingly insurmountable lack of civility. Oh yes, and we are living with the remnants of a pandemic.

Simply reading a list like that can be traumatizing. But what is trauma? In many therapeutic settings, trauma is defined as any experience or repeated experience that results in an individual feeling terror, powerlessness, and a sense of being overwhelmed, and which challenges their capacity to cope with life. Traumatic events can range from large-scale horrors to the smallest of interpersonal exchanges.

Our bodies respond to traumatic events physically and store those responses as visceral memories. When we face similar situations over time, our visceral memories can affect our behavior.

Let’s review a few basics of neuro-physiology. When we watch babies first learn to pick up food and feed themselves, their actions clearly demonstrate exertions of mental energy. After repeating certain actions thousands of times, the motions are recorded in the neural pathways of the babies’ bodies, and eventually, no thoughtful work appears to be needed for the babies to put food in their mouths. This is an example of memories stored in the somatic nervous system, the “conscious” part of our bodies. The somatic system carries many reflexive responses, and it also carries sensory information that we can choose to ignore, such as pain or indicators of stress.

Working alongside our somatic nervous system is our autonomic nervous system. This is the unconscious part of the nervous system. It controls basic body functions and, as a fundamental system for survival, it processes input and determines appropriate responses without conscious thought. Depending on our stored memories, we may respond to a situation calmly or we may respond to it as perceived danger, activating a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Traumatic experiences are given priority while they are recorded in memory, which helps prepare us for danger in the future.

When personal traumas go unhealed, they can become transgenerational traumas – traumas that are transmitted subconsciously to subsequent generations and to society. All of us have been born into a world of unhealed traumas. Dr. Maria Yellow-Horse-Brave-Heart describes “historical trauma” as a “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding” from massive group trauma across generations. Examples include slavery, genocide, colonialism, and forced relocation of indigenous peoples. Quakers share in these historical traumas, in no small part due to our ancestors’ complicity in them.

One of the tricky complications of trauma is that people can respond to the same event in radically different ways. One might rejoice in victory while another feels despair.

Even so, we can seek healing from any trauma – and especially from collective trauma – by reconnecting first with our own bodies and our own internal experiences, and then by reconnecting with one another. International facilitator Thomas Hübl teaches us that relational trauma requires a relational context to repair it. Collective trauma needs collective healing. Such healing can only occur in a safe environment.

Another discovery in neuo-psychology – the mirror neuron – can help us understand how to create the safe environments that are required for collective healing. Mirror neurons help us learn appropriate responses to life. They are involved in imitation, language acquisition, and the synchronizing of our nervous systems with each other. Mirror neurons are at work when someone is comforting a baby. The caregiver speaks softly, rocks, and uses their own calm nervous system to calm the baby’s nervous system. A calm nervous system is also sometimes called “regulated,” while a stressed or agitated system is called “dysregulated.” Most of us have experienced our bodies responding with dysregulation upon encountering someone else who is dysregulated – highly fearful, agitated, or just has “bad energy.” And most of us have also experienced the calming effects of the simple presence of a person who is calm.

Developmental traumas can occur early in our lives, possibly at times when we lacked the mirroring we needed from others to help us learn self-regulation. Fortunately, we can find ways to heal our developmental traumas at any time in our lives. Quaker minister Windy Cooler reminds us that we need safe spaces to create opportunities for healing. Any setting that provides us a sense that we are seen and known and heard can create the internal safety we need for healing trauma. This could be writing in a journal, talking with a therapist or friend, or participating in a group that knows how to listen without giving advice or judgement. The most hopeful news to me is that our nervous systems can influence others.

Withdrawal, mistrust, inner distancing, and feelings of isolation or separation are major symptoms of collective trauma. We have work to do to connect with each other as Friends. A variety of practices can help us co-regulate our nervous systems – singing, humming, chanting, breathing, rhythmic movements, drumming, and responsive readings. These co-regulating interpersonal activities can increase our capacity to manage relationships.

Moreover, we should hold ourselves back from asking anyone to recount their trauma. We can receive such stories when they are freely offered, but we must resist coaching, advising, or looking for answers. We must simply witness, notice, listen, and hold what we have heard with respect and mostly silence.

I have been profoundly affected by the work of Donna Schindler, a White psychiatrist who has worked with Maori, Navajo, and indigenous peoples in California. My key learnings from her work are these: In seeking to heal trauma, love is listening. The atrocities that are unspeakable must be spoken. Though the stories you hear may sound unbelievable, believe them; they are true. Hiding the truth prevents healing. We who listen must be willing to let our hearts be broken.

Friends, this is work we can do. This is work that Quakers have been doing for hundreds of years. We know how to sit still and listen in silence and tune in to the Spirit who guides us and the souls around us.

We have been invited to bear witness to the stories of indigenous peoples in their pursuit of healing historic and ancestral trauma. Let us be faithful to do our own trauma healing so that we are vessels fit for the Creator to use.  ~~~

Leann Williams is a massage therapist who co-pastors Friends in Common in northern Idaho, offering regular weekly meetings, book groups, and women’s spiritual nurture groups. She offers pastoral care to whomever God brings her way.

trauma spiritual healing collective healing

Return to "On Healers" issue