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Our Gospel Identity in Christ and Sexual Abuse “Triggers”

August 21, 2014

Biblical Counseling and Suffering--Our Gospel Identity in Christ and Sexual Abuse “Triggers”

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Adam Embry

Biblical Counseling and Suffering--Our Gospel Identity in Christ and Sexual Abuse “Triggers”

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 4 in a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series on loss, grief, suffering, and Christ’s healing hope. In today’s post, Adam Embry addresses how mind renewal and our identity in Christ can help sexual abuse victims to address unwanted memories and “triggers” of past abuse. You can read Part 1 in this series by Bob Kellemen at There Is Hope, Part 2 by Pat Quinn at Infertility: Grieving the Loss of a Long-For Child, and Part 3 by Paul Tautges at Cancer, Denial, and the Sovereignty of God.

Resources for Sexual Abuse Recovery

The statistics on those who’ve been sexually abused is staggering. According to the reported numbers, a quarter of women and a fifth of men will be sexually abused. That means a significant portion of our local church contains people who’ve been sexually abused. So, we must be equipped to deal with this issue.

Thankfully, I’ve found two biblical counseling resources that have helped my counseling. Justin & Lindsey Holcomb’s Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault and Robert W. Kellemen’s Sexual Abuse: Beauty for Ashes. Justin Holcomb also has an hour long plus video on his book that’s worth watching. The Biblical Counseling Coalition also has a helpful list of resources on abuse.

Unwanted Reminders

In this blog I’d like to trace out an aspect of how fearful thoughts, thoughts that are caused by “triggers”—surrounding environments, spoken words, and similar situations—facilitate the counselee reverting to fear that places them back in a mental state of abuse.

This is a very real experience for them. It’s helpful to learn their thinking pattern. According to the Holcombs’ research, merely acknowledging and discussing the abuse to someone who believes the abused person helps them tremendously.

Consider an individual who was sexually abused for years. Sinful acts done and words said in secret can bring about connections today. This person can be in a public environment, completely safe from harm, when someone does something to remind them of previous abuse. A conversation overheard in a restaurant unknowingly makes verbal connections that “triggers” the counselee’s thoughts, drawing them back to words and sentences used in connection to abuse. The sexually abused didn’t ask to be abused. And they didn’t ask to have “triggers” bring back those memories.

Consider that a sexually abused person was placed in an environment they never asked to be placed. Because of this, people can unknowingly invade their space. A pat on the back. An unexpected hug. These could be unwelcomed touches, even from friends and family. Or, unknowingly the abused can feel trapped by the way people around them are moving, walking, sitting, being close, or any other physical position that could unknowingly cause a “trigger” for physical uncomfortableness.

The abused will struggle with how to deal with these “triggers” today, even when no longer abused. Why? In one sense, even if they have acknowledged to friends, family, and counselors that abuse took place, there’s still a level of denial that needs to be dealt with. Denial isn’t merely acknowledging the abuse did happen. The abuse has stopped but the “triggers” still continue. The way the counselee reacted to abuse is the way they will deal with the “triggers.” Denial occurs when the abused revert to a coping mechanism to deal with the pain—physical and emotional.

The Holcombs write:

“In your denial you tried to protect yourself from further betrayal or comfort yourself by relying on obsessive-compulsive behaviors, abusing drugs or alcohol, creating distance in relationships and isolating yourself, and/or promiscuity” (Holcomb & Holcomb, Rid of My Disgrace, Kindle location 959).

Without wise and compassionate biblical guidance on how to renew their minds (Eph. 4:23), the abused will revert back to a fearful state when the “triggers” occur.

The state of mind the abused enters is very real, even if there is now no abuse. Essentially, when a “trigger” occurs, they’re placed in a position to revert back to their previous identity of an abused person controlled by fear and sinful abuse.

From Abuse to Identity

Consider this chart that displays the progression from abuse to identity:

Reality > Years of sexual assault > Denial/coping mechanism > Identity of shame, possible sinful responses to abuse, false confidence to deal with abuse
Perception of real abuse caused by “trigger” > Immediate mental state reminding them of sexual assault > Fear/panic attack > Identity of shame, possible sinful responses to shame, false confidence to deal with “trigger”

Both real and perceived abuse lead to a state where the counselee reverts back to living with an identity of shame, fear, and potential sinful responses to cope with the sinful abuse. What needs to happen when the “trigger” leads to fear is that the fear/panic needs to be replaced with godly thoughts that will lead to an understanding of the person’s new and true identity in Christ.

For years, this individual may not have learned to deal with the abuse in a godly manner. Through their shame of abuse, they may have missed a chance to learn how to respond to the sin by seeking God’s mercy and grace. Years of abuse have led to unhealthy thought patterns that have shaped their identity. When the “triggers” now occur, they must seek mercy and grace, calling the “trigger” what it really is—unreality, a fictional situation that really isn’t threatening.

Because this individual can’t control conversations overheard in public, awkward situations at work, physical expressions of non-abusive friends and family, they can’t control the “triggers.” However, they can learn to control their reactions to the “triggers” by seeking grace and mercy. Again, the Holcombs help us understand:

“What happens if you remain in denial? You ignore your need and cling to things that offer false confidence and settle for something besides grace and mercy” (Holcombs, Rid of My Disgrace, Kindle location 983).

Years of abuse led to years of settling for something other than grace and mercy for healing. When the “triggers” occur, the pattern repeats itself, and they are left without help. They’re left in a very real mental state of fear and threat. “Triggers” put the counselee in an environment of fear because it brings back the shame, disgust, and filthiness of the abuse. And since the perceived abuse is in public, not in private, the counselee might believe that others around them in public can hear their thoughts or consider them as filthy because of the abuse. This is a very real perception for them. In their minds, it’s as real as the abuse.

Consider the new outcome if they learn to conquer the fear of “triggers”:

Denial/coping mechanism > Identity of shame, possible sinful responses to shame, false confidence to deal with abuse
Fear/panic attack > Identity in Christ, stopping sinful responses to shame, true confidence in Christ to deal with “trigger”

The pattern can be broken if self-confidence is lost and replaced with true help that’s found in Christ.

Progressive Sanctification and Mind Renewal

Renewal will take time. Fearful thoughts must be replaced with thoughts of hope, forgiveness, and cleansing. False thoughts must be replaced with truth. Self-sufficient thoughts must be replaced with thoughts of self-reliance on Christ’s righteousness. All of this takes time and training.

To use an illustration, they’re on a train riding down the tracks and must flip the switch to move onto a new rail. Knowing that they’re about to crash, fear arises. They must begin recognizing environments where fear can occur and also learn to deal with unexpected environments of fear and get onto a new mental track of thinking.

There’s comfort in their old identity, as strange as that sounds. There’s a way to cope that they’re used to, though they despise the fear. Even if their responses to denial are not helpful, successful, or ungodly, it’s a way of thinking that they’ve established that gives them control over a life where there has been no control. They may have asked God for help during the abuse or during the aftermath, but no change in thinking has occurred. No mental change in identity has occurred.

Essentially, their identity of who they are in Christ has not yet replaced their identity of a shame-filled, filthy, sexual object. Yes, they may be genuinely converted, but the reality of being united to Christ has not yet replaced their abused identity. Once this new identity becomes natural in their thinking—a true perception—then victory over the “triggers” will begin to occur. This is how “triggers” occur and remain powerful in the life of the abused, putting them in a mental state of fear, a perception that abuse will occur and that others will know the gross details.

At this point, it’s helpful for counselors to remember that listening to the abused acknowledge what happened and believe them is a huge help to them finding healing. Equally true is the truth that listening to perceived abuse from “triggers” and its impact on them will be a tremendous help for the abused when “triggers” come. By telling you what happened, they don’t want to deny the abuse. Equally true, they don’t want you to scoff at them for saying that when a “trigger” occurs in public that they’re going crazy. As Kellemen reminds us:

“We earn the right to interact about God’s eternal story by first listening to our friend’s earthly story,” practicing what he calls, “incarnational listening” (Kellemen, Sexual Abuse, 22-23).

Counselors and pastors must take time to help the individual identify “triggers” and make a game plan from Scripture on how to fight fearful thoughts with faithful thoughts of their new identity in Christ. This is what all believers must do whether or not a “trigger” is fear from abuse, lust, greed, or any other sin. But helping the sexually abused will need special care and patient investment of time. Again, Kellemen reminds us, “The goal of sexual abuse ‘recovery’ is not only personal healing, but ultimately it is personal maturity—growth in Christlikeness” (Kellemen, Sexual Abuse, 34.)

If the counselor is a pastor or friend at church, helping the individual to identify and defeat “triggers” can come through a biblical friendship that helps them at public church gatherings. Navigating a path of safety for the individual can come by connecting them with members throughout the church so that they know who people are and that these people do not intend to bring them harm when a “trigger” occurs. Equally true is recognizing that the individual will need personal space at times in public gatherings.

Join the Conversation

How can biblical principles such as lamenting to God, receiving comfort from one another, renewing our minds in Christ, and understanding our gospel identity in Christ impact someone struggling with intrusive memories and “triggers” of past abuse?