Reach Again: Tools for our present trauma

January 20, 2021

By: Karla Hovde

This article is the last of a series that took place throughout 2020-21 in conjunction with the virtual Reach! webinar series. Access recordings and materials from all of the Reach! webinars.
Just one day after the riots at the U.S. Capitol, Rev. Dr. Ron Bell, Jr. presented the final Reach webinar of the 2020-21 series. His message was remarkably fitting for the situation.
“Today I really want to help us get through some of the work of dealing with the present trauma that we're going through: tools and resources to help us begin to manage so that we can lead well,” said Bell. He noted that we all know about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but what can we do when living in a situation of present trauma?
Bell is the pastor of Camphor Memorial UMC in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is also the author of several books and has served as a church planter.
Three tools to use during present trauma

Bell gave attendees three strategies to deal with present trauma.
The first tool you can use immediately in the midst of stress or trauma is to ask yourself: What five things are troubling me right now? What five things am I grateful for?
The second tool is to think through the following three questions: 1. What is my body telling me right now? 2. What emotions are bubbling up for me, and where am I experiencing them? 3. How is my mind right now?
The third tool is asking yourself: What are five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can touch, two things I can taste, and one thing I can smell right now?
“Notice, I’m not asking you to fix [the trauma you’re experiencing],” said Bell. “I’m not asking you to change anything that your body is telling you. I’m asking you to be aware of it.”
He pointed out that our brain’s one function is survival, and instincts like fight, flight, or freeze are normal. But when we feel fear from something we see on TV or when we are overcome by an upsetting event, we can use these tools to change how our brain reacts to the situation. Instead of focusing only on the problem, we are able to step back and see that we can survive it and that God is still with us. We can change how our brain interacts with the world and react with justice, love, and mercy.
Permission to be present
The six core emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust—all have a vital purpose. 
Bell explained that there are six core emotions we all feel: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and fear. They all have an vital purpose and tell us something important about what is going on in our environment.
For example, if we feel disgust when eating a food, it may tell us the food is rotten or poisonous—vital information we need to know and share with people around us.
“The problem is, as leaders, we have begun to hide our core emotions,” said Bell. “Instead of expressing my sadness, now I pretend that everything is okay. We ought to be able to give ourselves permission to be present in our own trauma.” He acknowledged how hard this can be for leaders to practice.
He also recalled how, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, he received a lot of phone calls and requests for a statement.
“I had to say to all of them: I need a moment. I need some time to deal with this. I'm a black man and just watched another black man die; I need to take a breath,” said Bell.
The sooner we are able to give ourselves permission to be present in our trauma, the sooner we can allow ourselves to be present in our own healing. Then we will also be able to model this behavior to those around us.
When we look at the events of Jan. 6 and the past year filled with anxiety, death, loneliness, and political stress, we can start to deal with what has happened by being present in the trauma we’ve experienced.
Check out the recording of the full webinar, including Bell’s answer to attendees’ questions, such as: What do we do when we’re still upset and not ready to feel gratitude? How do we apply these strategies when we experience ministry setbacks or criticism? And if we could practice these techniques in therapy, why do we still need the church and Christianity?
Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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