Newsletter 635 – Helping People Wherever They Are

Jean-Christophe in robeJean-Christophe Bieselaar is one of my closest friends (shown here with his son Paul). Born, raised and currently living in Paris,  Jean-Christophe is consulting pastor of one Parisian church, Parish Associate at The American Church in Paris, and a chaplain at five hospitals. We kept in contact during the night of the recent terrorist attacks and I was impressed (but not surprised) at how he responded as the events unfolded. The following principles are well known but sometimes forgotten when crises arise in our own environments.

  • Try to remain calm. Jean-Christophe wrote that there was no chaos in the hospitals. The professional staff was “calm, focused and organized”. Calmness in caregivers tends to spread, especially to people who are afraid and agitated.
  • Resist the urge to rush to the location of the crises. Have you heard about counselors, medical people, or church groups who rush to the places of tragedy, including trips overseas in times of national disasters? These people go with good intentions, but they don’t know what is needed and get in the way of local responders who understand the situation better.
  • Be alert to the place where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe went to two churches where he normally serves. One is a young adult congregation. “They were all speechless and shocked. They had never faced anything like that. I encouraged them to turn their eyes from TV and their mobile devices. We read some Psalms particularly Ps 121 and I asked them to focus on John 14.1. Then we spent a long time praying. And the peace of God came upon us all like a healing water”. After this, my friend went to the E.R. at a hospital where he is known and works.
  • Notice the recommendation to turn off media broadcasts. Watching endless media reruns or commentary can arouse, rather than reduce anxiety. In addition, media consumption can lead to fear-inspiring addiction. This stuff is fascinating to watch.
  • Do what you do best in the setting where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe worked in the places and with the people where he is known. Few of us can do much in Paris right now, but what about the nervous people in our churches or workplaces? Do you have neighbors with friends or relatives in Paris? Could they benefit from your support, encouragement and prayers?
  • Keep focused on the peace and hope that comes from God and on empowerment from the Holy Spirit.

What would you add? Please comment.

Newsletter 563 – Why Do Bad Things Happen?


Yancey - WhyShortly before Christmas in 2012, a man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting at terrified seven-year old kindergarteners and school staff. Twenty-six people died, along with the gunman and his mother. A few days later author Philip Yancey was invited to speak at a community-wide memorial service. Yancey’s earlier book Where is God When it Hurts, had sold 1.5 million copies, and early this month he published a follow-up, The Question That Never Goes Away: Why. This is a short, reflective book that draws on the author’s experiences and interviews with people in Newtown, Sarajevo Japan (where many were swept out to sea after the 2004 tsunami), Boston following the marathon killings, Virginia Tech after the shootings there, Columbine, and parts of the southern US devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Why does a good and loving God permit this? Why does the Bible never answer this question? Why does he quietly stand aside while agnostics and other critics mock God and make fun of believers? Yancey struggles with questions like these and describes life changing experiences in his own life where he suffered and cried out to a silent God for answers. Can any topic be closer to the work of counselors, religious leaders, and others who help people deal with the why questions? If you are a people helper (we all are, Galatians 6: 2-3) you might want to read Yancey’s new book.

Don’t expect deep philosophical or theological arguments and reasoned conclusions. Philip Yancey is a superb story-teller and sobering commentator. Here are some of his observations:

  • God never promises to protect us from calamities or tragedies.
  • Well-intentioned cliché comments do not help in crises. Just show up and say nothing rather than “This will all turn out for good,” or “God just wants your loved one to be with him!”
  • People heal faster and better when they are connected with caring communities.
  • Pain, grief and why? questions never go away but how we respond can be healing. It is understandable to grieve about the loss of a future but never forget what we enjoyed for a while in the past.

Yancey’s book left me sobered and thinking more about God. Maybe that’s what the author intended. Please comment, especially if you’ve read Philip Yancey’s new book.

Newsletter #543 – Continuous Traumatic Stress

This month, Monitor on Psychology (September, 2013) stresses the need for more psychologists and other care-giving professionals with training in trauma management. Of course this includes working with victims of natural disasters, military combat, political turmoil and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Continuous stress 1But the Monitor introduced me to continuous traumatic stress (CTS), a term that originated years ago in South Africa. CTS is ongoing and often inescapable. Unlike stresses that occurred in the past, these are ever-present daily realities that include living in poverty, crime-infested areas, abusive environments and constant famine. I have a friend, a college graduate and young professional who was brought to the United States illegally as a child but has grown up living in the fear of being discovered and deported to a country that he has never known with a language that he does not understand. Unlike victims of past stress, these are people with no place to go for help or safety and often with no hope or way of escape.

Could on-going stress in the workplace be similar ? The Monitor describes bullying and other stresses at work as well as in schools. Undoubtedly these are easier to tackle than genocide or human trafficking but they too provide continuous trauma. For people with no job alternatives and limited credentials for finding alternate employment, entire lives may be spent trapped in jobs that bring constant misery. This is worse when there is job insecurity, long hours or lack of social support at work.

I did some cursory research that confirmed what the Monitor demonstrated in its articles. Describing CTS is common. Providing treatment options is much more difficult. Individual treatment is of limited help when whole communities are impacted—like gang dominated neighborhoods or racially prejudiced environments. Community-wide interventions are difficult and governments rarely take action. Sometimes businesses, schools, churches or community activists work to bring changes but how often does this work?

Is the only alternative to look the other way and get on with our lives? I like these weekly posts to be upbeat and positive but that’s not today. Some courageous people try to take action and bring improvements but it can be thankless work. What’s the answer to this depressing story? What would Jesus do? What have you done?  Please comment.

Newsletter # 450 – Stress Management Skills Part 2

A previous newsletter (449) summarized the findings of researcher Robert Epstein who argued that “we receive formal training in writing and math but learning to manage stress is left entirely to chance.” Writing in Scientific American Mind, Epstein gave a psychological analysis of what he termed “stress-management competencies.” But there was no acknowledgement that what we believe impacts how we anticipate and manage stress.

When natural disasters occur or when terrorist attacks kill thousands like they did ten years ago, millions of people find solace and coping skills in their religious communities and their beliefs in the supernatural. How interesting that the Mayor of New York declared this week that there would be no prayers at the tenth anniversary observances. There has long been speculation why some politicians and scientists ignore anything to do with God even though there is clear data that religious and spiritual beliefs, including prayer and meditation on Scripture, bring comfort to people in difficult times.

We live in this troubled world but “we don’t fight in the same way the world fights,” writes the apostle Paul. “We fight with weapons that are different from those the world uses. Our weapons have power from God that can destroy the enemy’s strong places” (2 Cor 3-4). These biblical words do not focus on stress specifically but they are reminders that Christians have access to supernatural resources for stress management. Most of us believe that of our established stress-reduction methods ultimately come from the grace of God. They can be effective and work to bring calm in difficult times. But the more direct  “weapons” that come from God can (and do) bring unexplainable peace, changes in the way we think, and inner tranquility in times of pressure and crises (John 14:27; Phil 4:4-7).

It is easy to lose this perspective when we work with scientific data, evidence-based methods, professional guidelines, and sophisticated explanation models. But in times of increasing uncertainty it is well to pause regularly and remember the divine resources that we bring to our work and to our clients.

Newsletter #428 – Secondary Trauma Victims

This week, Time magazine shows a cover photograph of a woman in Japan, apparently overwhelmed by her circumstances and surrounding devastation. The magazine describes the suffering and remarkable resilience of the Japanese people but there is little mention of what sometimes are known as secondary trauma victims. These include family members and friends far away from the disaster zone, unable to contact their loved ones, feeling helpless and intensely anxious. Secondary trauma victims also include first responders, rescue workers, medical personnel and others on the scene who experience exhaustion, compassion fatigue, burnout and the emotional drain of seeing so much suffering. Closer to home, secondary traumatic stress comes to emergency room personnel, firefighters, friends of people involved in car accidents, families of combat veterans, or those who know innocent victims of criminal violence.

An article in The Counseling Psychologist (February, 2011) discusses how business and social service organizations can help. Churches, schools, counselors, coaches, leaders and others can help as well, even without rushing to disaster zones where well-intentioned, self-appointed care-givers sometimes get in the way and hinder relief efforts instead of helping. In addition to prayer and donations, how can we stimulate help?

  • Be sensitive and available to secondary trauma victims who often are forgotten.
  • Encourage the recognition that it is common and acceptable to experience exhaustion, sadness, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Caregivers and family members sometimes feel guilty about their own feelings. Some believe that overwork, self-deprivation, and determination are marks of honor or that only the weak succumb to fatigue or despair. There is value in recognizing that secondary trauma is normal, that it is OK to feel exhausted, to grieve, to cry.
  • Be supportive. Caregivers sometimes comment that they can manage the demands if they feel “supported, validated, and valued by their” supervisors, colleagues and others.
  • When possible, encourage secondary trauma victims to utilize stress management and relaxation strategies. Remind them to get rest, exercise, and eat well.
  • Never overlook the spiritual support that comes from other believers and from God who sustains us in times of stress.

How have you helped secondary stress victims in ways that could inform the rest of us?

Newsletter #414 – Treating Trauma

Sometimes I am amazed how we teach and do therapy, counseling or coaching using the same old ways, oblivious to changes in the world around us.  Psychotherapy Networker (November/December 2010), focuses on victims and veterans of war, showing how the needs are enormous, the mental health community is overwhelmed and resources are limited. Conventional therapeutic approaches often are ineffective and unsuited to military culture. Methods and models that focus on individual treatment do not mesh well with the communal values of the military including its resistance to mental health professionals, especially civilian outsiders. The Networker magazine (currently online here) focuses on veterans and their families but many conclusions extend to other kinds of trauma.

Traumatic situations can involve people in three roles. Predators cause trauma. For many reasons, including military training, people learn to fight, to hurt others. The prey are the victims of the trauma. Their natural impulse is to flee. Witnesses are those who observe trauma and often freeze, sometimes unable to move. Each of these predator-prey-witness experiences makes a unique biological impact. Each can require a unique form of treatment. People in trauma may experience only one of these roles but the military is among the environments where all three occur at the same time. Troops are trained to be tough predators. In combat they are prey, always alert to danger. In battle they witness and experience significant stress. Many also believe that good soldiers don’t go for therapy believing this shows weakness and can block promotions.

Here are some thought provoking conclusions that apply broadly:

  • Therapy as usual often can’t serve the needs of traumatized people including returning troops and their families.
  • Trauma work is cross cultural. To be credible and effective, care givers must learn about military or other cultures, including common terminology, expectations, values, and accepted ways of handling stress.
  • Diagnoses like PTSD may turn survival responses of the automatic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze) into psychiatric diagnoses that lead to long term hopelessness, helplessness and despair.
  • In many situations, including postmodern or communal cultures, community based approaches work better than individual therapy.

How do you respond?