learnings from counselling – it’s called trauma

2020 was a year of unprecedented change and challenge for many. (And also the highest ever recording of over-used terms like unprecedented.) So much was disrupted and there was an incredible amount of grief and loss experienced by people in various ways and to differing degrees. All of this at a time when many of our regular mechanisms for processing grief and loss were unavailable – which only served to cause more grief and loss. In fact, experts are predicting a grief bubble is still to burst as people come out from under the immediate threat and the need to ‘just keep going’ and start to feel the full extent of the losses they’ve experienced.

In May-June I experienced a specific (non-Covid related) life event that was devastating for me – personally, ‘professionally’ and relationally. Living alone and in various stages of lock down and restrictions meant it was a particularly bad time to face something so deeply impacting. I needed my huggers and my ‘bucket holders’ (you know, the ones who can handle the messiness while you word-vomit all the things that are clogging up your brain and heart). And also, the nature of the event meant there were sensitivities around who was able to know what I knew or who would be adversely impacted by what I would share – therefore caution was required.

So you just soldier on, right? It wasn’t good, it hurt, I felt disappointed (and all manner of other feelings) but there was work to show up for and things still to be done and people experiencing far more dramatic and challenging life circumstances than mine.

So you just soldier on.

By November the world around me was starting to open up again – shops and restaurants were functioning, the “ring of steel” around metropolitan Melbourne was opening up visitation to and with my family, work was readjusting and churches were starting to gather in person again. But I found myself feeling stuck.

I was struggling to get excited about social outings (yes, me!), feeling the affects of not having a home-church community, experiencing anxiety when I went out in public spaces, fearing or avoiding interactions and conversations, crying too much, sleeping poorly, reliving negative encounters in my head and rehearsing potential future ones. Stuck. It was an unfamiliar and decidedly unenjoyable place to be.

I thought about counselling. I’d never done that before. I thought about it out loud to a friend and the energy behind their response was strongly positive.

A friend once said “If anyone ever offers you a breath mint – take it!” You never know if they’re just generous sharers or are offering it to you for a reason! I think the same is true for friends or family who are enthusiastic about you going to counselling! šŸ™‚ So I booked myself in.

When I sat down for the first session my counselor asked me why I was there. I bumbled my way through a brief summary of the event/s that happened and the various and numerous ways I’d been impacted. I shared how I was embarrassed by the way I was (or wasn’t) coping with it now – some six months later. And the counselor interrupted me.

“It’s called trauma!”

What you have experienced (and are now experiencing the ongoing affects of) is trauma.

Broadly defined, trauma is the response to events that are distressing or disturbing. There’s not really objective criteria for determining which events will cause trauma response. In fact, two people can respond differently to a shared experience. Trauma might evidence itself through flashbacks or intrusive memories, somatic or physiological symptoms (such as those responses associated with the “fight, flight or freeze” mechanisms, brain fog, increased heartrate, feeling hot or cold, gastrointestinal problems, headaches etc), negative thoughts or feelings, general changes in arousal responses, insomnia or oversleeping, emotional dysregulation, substance abuse, anxiety, or depression.

There’s also the phenomenon of ‘vicarious trauma’ which is experienced by those in helping roles or professions. Where, over time, the continued exposure to others’ stories and experiences of trauma builds up to overwhelm a person’s ability to cope themselves – impacting their own physical and emotional wellbeing.

To varying degrees, we all face “distressing and disturbing” events regularly. If we are emotionally healthy and functioning within our own range of normal, we are able to adjust and adapt to circumstances around us with reasonable agility and resilience. Bigger events of loss, threat, conflict or uncertainty move us to the edges of our capacity to cope and the longer we hang out at those edges the more likely we are to start experiencing and exhibiting the above symptoms of trauma.

It turns out, that ‘soldiering on’ probably wasn’t my best strategy. In fact, pushing past emotions and feelings was probably doing more to exacerbate the trauma impact on my physical and emotional wellbeing. Prolonging its disruption to my life and perpetuating unhelpful coping strategies (or avoidances) rather than naming and owning my experiences so they could be more appropriately processed.

“Give yourself a break.” was the basic learning from session one. Acknowledge your trauma, give yourself permission to not be ok … then we can start to work on healing and recovery.

monday morning ministry


These are not my children. I borrowed them.

They’ve been seconded for an important Monday morning ministry that required availability in two categories. The first – that they needed to be somewhere at a specific time prior to 9am on Monday morning – in their case, school at 8:20am. Done. The second – they needed to be up for an early morning conversation – not a difficult task for this 15 year old deep-thinker, 14 year old sanguine and 11 year old lover-of-a-good-story. Done.

The ministry requirement is this – to help me fight a debilitating case of Mondayitis.

Although Sundays are my favourite days, they are also my longest and most physically exhausting. The love tank is full but the physical energy is depleted. Then comes Monday morning and we have our review and planning meetings – where I’m called on to bring the creativity, energy and lateral thinking. But more consistently, all I’m really able to bring is the coffee.

After a few challenging meetings, some disappointments in my own attitude and contributions, and just knowing that things were not functioning as positively or helpfully as they could, I was talking it through with a mentor. She encouraged me to consider ways to get myself in a better frame of mind and readiness for the start of the day and week.

Enter this fabulous trio.

The need to have them at school means I arrive at work 40 minutes before my first meeting – rather than 1 minute before (or after!) it starts. I have time to get a few emails processed, sort through things left on my desk and say hello to a few other people in the office. I’m more relaxed, switched on and ready to engage a better version of me.

As an externally processing extrovert, people interaction is what kick starts my engine – especially when I’m weary. Arriving at morning meetings having not actually used my voice let alone had a laugh or shared a moment of human interaction is not a great way to start. These kids ensure many laughs and a whole lot of random chats in the brief trip to the school car park.

And as an added bonus this team has totally adopted their ministry role in my life. If you ask them why I take them to school on Monday mornings they’ll tell you that they help to get my day started well and make me work better. As they get out of the car they’ll often check to see if they’ve made me laugh enough or told enough random stories. Bless them.

Some encouragements for you. Have you reflected on your own responses and best practices to be able to set yourself up to win? Who can you recruit to help you achieve that? And what might your ‘Monday morning ministry’ be? Who could you bless with some practical or emotional support?