Gloria had never been to a real restaurant before — one with menus, waiters, and unfamiliar foods. No matter how much her foster parents explained what it would be like, Gloria felt anxious.
When it was time for bed, Gloria stared at the ceiling, her mind racing with thoughts about what tomorrow might bring. How could they make her do this? The ball of fearful anxiety in Gloria’s stomach began to turn into the armor of anger and frustration. They always do what they want to do, not what I want to do. Gloria’s anger drove her out of bed and straight into her foster mom’s room. Gloria shouted, “I’m not going to that stupid restaurant tomorrow! I don’t want to go anywhere with you people! You can’t make me!”
The Fear Brain
When people feel safe, they have access to all parts of their brain, including an area called the prefrontal cortex, which helps us learn, use logic and reason, and predict how our actions might affect someone else.
Since the world we live in is not always safe, God designed our brains with an incredible capacity for protection. When we feel threatened by something or someone, the brain “shuts down” parts of itself—most importantly, the prefrontal cortex—in order to save energy for more important activities, like staying alive! This state is often referred to as the “fear brain,” and it instinctively reacts to perceived threats with a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. In that moment, we’re either going to attack the threat head on, run away from it, or freeze, unable to do anything.
This is important for those of us who are growing in our awareness of the effects of trauma. When children live in constantly chaotic and unsafe environments, their brains are in a chronic state of fear. It’s like a gear shift that gets stuck; even if the environment and circumstances change, the brain is unable to shift back to a healthy state.
Living in the fear brain looks like:
** A suppressed conscience, unable to distinguish right from wrong
** Little access to higher level thinking, planning, and reasoning
** Use of protective strategies like manipulation, triangulation, and aggression that prevent healthy relationships
** An inability or unwillingness to express one’s needs
** An inability to discern the needs of others
** A heightened startle response
** A quick, sometimes irrational, shift into fight, flight, or freeze
God is well acquainted with the effects of fear. He knows how unhealthy levels of fear can disable the well-designed function of the human brain. But He hasn’t left us defenseless.
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
— 2 Timothy 1:7 (KJV)
We know both from Scripture and experience that a spirit of fear stands in direct opposition to a sound mind. It depletes our power and stifles our capacity to love. It’s why God is graciously persistent in offering us His perfect peace and protection. He longs for us to find our safety and security in Him. When we do, our brain is able to relax, having full access to all of its incredible capabilities. How beautiful! When we recognize fear and invite the peace of God into our lives and into the lives of those around us, we are empowered to be part of God’s redemptive work in this broken and disintegrated world.
Learning the signs of the fear brain is key to a trauma informed response. Look for:
** An inability to discern right from wrong
** An inability to voice needs or recognize needs in others
** A quick or irrational reaction of fight, flight, or freeze
** Dilated pupils
** A tense body or clenched jaw
** An increase in the startle response
When you recognize these signs of fear in yourself or others, make a plan to increase feelings of peace and safety. Pray for God’s peace, practice deep breathing, give or gather more information, or minimize other stress or distractions.
1. When I am afraid, is my natural tendency to attack the threat head on, run away from it, or freeze where I am?
2. How have I experienced God’s peace in the middle of a fearful situation?
3. What are three ways I can feel safe when I am afraid? What are three ways I can help people around me feel safe when they are afraid?
An excerpt from Presence Matters: A 40-Day Journey into the Relationship between Faith, Science & Trauma by Beth Guckenberger
From the back cover:
Join a movement of safe adults looking to be empowered and equipped through trauma-informed care. Learn through real-life examples, Scripture, bite-sized trauma principles and questions for personal or group reflection.
God is calling us to engage in His healing work — rebuilding, restoring, reconciling and entering into the lives of vulnerable children as a safe presence. This resource will unpack spiritual principles and scientific findings on the topic of trauma. Compiled by a team of dedicated practitioners, these are actual examples of how wise interventions turned stories around. A perfect gift for anyone who connects with children with a trauma background — classroom teacher, foster parent, coach, neighbor, volunteer or grandparent — these insights will equip adults with practical tools and wisdom.
Chapters cover relationships, the past, our felt needs, regulation, feeling safe, the relationship between connection and correction, and the power of presence. What is our role in healing? How do our own histories factor into our interactions with children? What do we do with feelings triggered by someone else’s behavior? What are first steps we can take when a child is melting down? Find the answers to these and other questions as you learn the rhythm of a trauma-informed life.
Beth Guckenberger is the author of nine books, including adult and children’s titles. She travels and speaks regularly at conferences, youth gatherings and church services about reckless faith. Her style is based in story-telling and she draws from her vast field experience as a missionary, Bible teacher and parent for illustrations of biblical concepts. You can keep up with the latest from Beth at back2back.org or on her website at recklessfaith.com.