Understanding Trauma in the Lives of Missionaries and Global Workers

by | Sep 22, 2023

These days, the word “trauma” seems to pop up everywhere. It’s often thrown around casually, making it challenging to pinpoint its true meaning. What does it really mean and why is it important for missionaries to better understand it?

Defining Trauma

The definition of trauma isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair. It’s a deeply personal experience that causes significant psychological distress. Trauma is a response to a deeply distressing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. It’s not just about a traumatic event but the emotional aftermath it leaves behind and the way an individual processes it.

So how can we recognize trauma? 

In a recent interview for the Modern Day Missionaries podcast, we interviewed trauma psychologist Dr. Jamie Aten, and he gave us three E’s to help explain trauma: the event, the effect, and the emotional experience.

Is It Trauma or Just Stress?

How do you know if what you’re feeling is just everyday stress or something more serious like trauma? Differentiating between trauma and normal stress is crucial for effective intervention. When your struggles start messing with your daily life—like if you’re constantly on edge, pulling away from your friends and family, or reliving distressing events—it’s time to dig deeper.

Symptoms to watch for include feeling jumpy, easily angered, withdrawing from social situations, and experiencing flashbacks. If a missionary starts recognizing these signs, the next step is to seek professional help. Recognizing the problem correctly means you can pick the right tools to deal with it.

Why Do Reactions to Trauma Vary?

Different people will react differently to the same event. While one person may shake off a harrowing experience, another might struggle with nightmares or feel withdrawn or angry. This variability underscores the need to treat each person’s experience as unique and complex. 

Why do some people seem to bounce back while others are left deeply affected? 

Dr. Aten identified several factors that come into play:

  1. Personal Resilience: Some people naturally possess higher levels of mental fortitude.
  2. Adaptability: Resilience can be built up over time, much like a muscle.
  3. Past Traumas: Prior experiences can make someone more susceptible to future traumas.
  4. Social Support: A robust support network can provide the necessary emotional scaffolding during difficult times.

Missionaries and Vicarious Trauma

Missionaries often find themselves at the intersection of vulnerability and trauma, especially when they work in regions affected by disasters or conflict. It’s not only the direct experiences of trauma that impact these workers but also what is termed “vicarious trauma.”

Vicarious trauma occurs when individuals develop symptoms of trauma not from their own experiences but from the experiences of the people they are helping. Think of duct tape. When they’re out helping people, missionaries are like human “duct tape,” sticking to those in need. But the result is that trauma often tends to stick to them, too, affecting their mental well-being and even their ability to help others and themselves.

Healthy Responses to Trauma: The Four Wheels

When it comes to resilience, Dr. Aten suggests we think of it as a car with four wheels (four healthy ways we can respond):

  1. Community Resilience: Don’t do life alone. Draw strength from your community.
  2. Individual Resilience: Personal resilience isn’t finite; it’s like a muscle you can train to grow.
  3. Grit: Continually cultivate determination, drive, and stick-to-it-ness.
  4. Spiritual Fortitude:  This wheel is the most important. It is what allows us to trust God even when we don’t understand, to endure hardships, to be able to still do good in the midst of adversity, and to find meaning in our suffering.

Take the Next Step

Realizing that your distress might be more than just stress is the first step toward getting the right help. Just like you wouldn’t use a hammer to fix a computer, you shouldn’t try to address a complex emotional issue without the appropriate resources and support.

So, if you find yourself struggling, remember you’re not alone. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Whether you’re a missionary, global worker, or anyone experiencing trauma, the key is to understand the nature of your struggle, embrace community and spiritual resilience, and take appropriate steps to heal.


*If you or someone you serve are experiencing the effects of trauma, we strongly encourage you to reach out to your supporting church, organization, or agency along with medical professionals and/or counselors or therapists. You can also hear more of what Dr. Aten has to say on the subject in this podcast episode or by visiting Spiritual First Aid

See the full interview with Dr. Jamie at the link below:

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