UKRAINE’S WAR: TRAUMA IN LIFE
On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a military invasion of Ukraine by land, sea, and air. Within a week, more than a million Ukrainians had fled the country as refugees, and those who remained faced devastation and destruction as attacks continued. The attacks ruptured people’s confidence in basic, everyday life. Instead of seeing an abundant, fruitful life, people faced impossible decisions about their families and their physical safety.
In response to such obvious needs, people around the world rallied to offer assistance. But the effects of the trauma that Ukrainians have endured linger, even when physical needs are met. To love well means not only addressing the Ukrainians’ external physical needs but also fostering healing beneath the surface.
GOD'S IDEAL LIFE
God designed humans not only to survive but to thrive, living in connection to one another and to their Creator. The creation narrative in Genesis 1 lavishly describes superabundant thriving. After creating “plants yielding seeds . . . and trees bearing fruit with seed in it” and giving animals the charge to “multiply on the earth,” God then creates man and woman. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God says to them (Gen 1:28). Then sin entered the world and led to disconnection instead of community, pain and suffering instead of wholeness, and fears of unmet needs. “Every human being who has ever lived knows that that garden once existed,” says DTS President Mark Yarbrough, “because every human being is trying to get back to that garden where everything is right.” Jesus speaks to this deep human yearning when He assures His listeners, “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
TRAUMA IN HUMAN LIFE
Part of our role as people known by our love for one another (John 13:34–35) is to aid in the healing process of those who suffer trauma in this fallen world. The word “trauma” originates from the Greek word troma, which means a physical wound. According to one definition, trauma “happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered or disconnected from our bodies.”i The effects of trauma disrupt development, interfere with relationships, and significantly hinder everyday life. Past trauma continues intruding in the present, tainting every experience. Trauma becomes a filter through which a person views all of life.
God’s intricate design of the human body includes a sophisticated bodily alarm system called neuroception: a subconscious monitor of our internal and external landscapes.ii When our brain senses danger, our body prepares for survival through flight or fight. If those responses aren’t possible, our body shuts down, immobilized. Beyond the traumatic event and the immediate responses it triggers, the trauma continues to reside within the nervous system—and daily life becomes increasingly difficult. The body becomes sensitive to any shift in the environment that suggests the possibility of danger. This makes it difficult for a person to engage in everyday relationships and work; the nervous system focuses on detecting threats and surviving. Living in the confidence of God’s promise of thriving and abundance seems impossible.
THE ARTS: TRAUMA HEALING FOR LIFE
In response to the present opportunity to show love to Ukrainians, Dr. Robin Harris (visiting professor, DTS; professor, Dallas International University) began thinking about a way to adapt existing training in trauma healing to the urgent need in Ukraine. Robin had lived in Siberia for nearly ten years, working in music and the arts, and had visited Ukraine just before the war started. Seeking to help people affected by the war, she gathered a team of arts and trauma healing specialists to design a training program for Ukrainians and those who are ministering to them. The result: a weeklong training specific to Ukraine.
In July 2022, twelve people from around the world gathered at Dallas International University for the training workshop in arts and trauma healing. The group represented churches and other organizations and networks. The four Ukrainians in the group contributed their perspectives from several months of war in their home country. Others drew on experience in the mental health profession, care for missionaries, doctoral studies in worship and world arts, and outreach to refugees and orphans from Ukraine.
Distinctively, this training workshop applied artistic expression to every facet of healing the wounds of trauma. The arts connect with the whole brain, especially with the right hemisphere, where many memories and traumatic experiences can become stuck. Amidst all the other broken connections that trauma brings, traumatized people also suffer a lack of brain integration, affecting their ability to verbalize what happened or how they feel. Words alone are insufficient to bring healing; people need activities that draw on artistry.
Culturally appropriate artistic expression enables people to process their feelings as they work toward the whole-brain integration that leads to healing from trauma. The traumatized people choose the art forms used in their trauma healing, including options such as music, visual arts, dance and movement, drama, and more. The familiarity of the art fosters deeper engagement than words alone. Trauma healing facilitators affirm that the creative process is more valuable than the product. The traumatized people guide this process, enabling them to express their pain.
During the week of training in Dallas, people learned the definitions, effects, and scope of trauma, addressing questions like, “If God loves us, why do we suffer?” “What can help our heart’s wounds heal?” “How do we bring our pain to the cross?”
Each lesson began with a Bible story or contemporary story. Discussion included the importance of understanding cultural values in each topic. The group explored Scriptures relevant to the topic and then worked through expressive arts exercises. Those who gathered to learn how to care for others found an opportunity for connection and healing. People completing the course received “apprentice facilitator” certification from the Trauma Healing Institute, allowing them to lead healing groups under the supervision of a mentor.
When asked what lesson in the course was most significant, one person said a lesson in the “grief journey” was deeply moving because what others wrote was what she had wanted to express but had been unable to put into words. Another person said, “The grief session was very helpful because it showed me how common grief is in human experience and the benefit of going through the work of healing together in community.” For many, the experience of the war intensified this feeling of community.
Several people expressed joy at now having concrete tools and a plan to implement in helping Ukrainians find healing. Before the course, they had experienced frustration at their inability to do something that would make a difference. This was especially true for the Ukrainian participants. They relished a special session to express their grief, and in return, they experienced love and compassion through the prayers of others.
RESTORING ABUNDANT LIFE
Although the ultimate result of this training is still in the future, all participants have already been affected deeply by the principles learned, by their own healing through the expressive arts exercises, and by the community of healing and compassion they experienced throughout the week of training in Dallas. For those affected by the war in Ukraine, the road back to abundance will take time and faithful perseverance to restore. Although assistance for physical needs will continue to be an important first step, true spiritual thriving requires healing from the trauma of war.
i Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2006), 4. ii Deb Dana and Stephen W. Porges, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).
About the Contributors
As a professor in the Counseling Ministries department, Dr. Thacker is passionate about teaching counseling students to integrate scripture and psychology and apply those concepts to real life counseling situations. In addition to her teaching responsibilities at DTS, Dr. Thacker maintains a small private practice in which she specializes with children and adolescents and supervises LPC-Interns. She is a licensed professional counselor, a board approved supervisor, and holds multiple certifications in counseling. Most importantly, she is married to Chad and they have three children: Emerson, William, and Webb.
Beth teaches at Dallas International University, where she serves as the Arts and Trauma Healing liaison, PhD coordinator, and associate director for the Center for Excellence in World Arts. She is an Arts and Trauma Healing Master Facilitator and has received training with the Global Trauma Recovery Institute at Missio University in Philadelphia, PA, and Trauma Informed Expressive Arts Therapy with the Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute. Her current research focuses on the neurological aspects of worship and healing through the arts.