Understanding Trauma and Abuse

By |Published On: August 31, 2023|Categories: For the Church, Podcast|

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“When someone goes through a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, their wounds can last long after the initial encounter. The trauma of a physical, emotional, or even spiritual wound can have a deep and lasting impact.”

Darby Strickland 
Close up photo of Darby Strickland smiling at the camera.

Author and Christian counselor Darby Strickland joins the podcast to talk about trauma and abuse.

As a specialist in counseling people in abusive marriages, Darby provides a biblical response to domestic abuse and other forms of oppression.

In her own counseling practice, and through speaking and writing, Darby comes alongside pastors, counselors, and others who seek to help those suffering abuse, oppression, and trauma.

Tune in to learn how to recognize the signs of trauma and abuse, and what you can do for those who need protection, hope, and healing in your church and community. 

What is trauma? 

Early in her career Darby encountered striking cases of trauma, especially where children and women had been subjected to abuse. God shaped Darby’s calling by continuing to bring her many women struggling with domestic abuse, whose marriages were characterized by fear and control.

In her work she has developed a definition of trauma: “Trauma is caused by deeply distressing or disturbing experiences, or an experience that completely overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. The word trauma literally means wound. So I tend to conceptualize it as someone who’s still carrying significant wounds from their experiences that have had lasting adverse effects on their ability to function mentally, physically, socially, emotionally, or spiritually.” 

Seven Categories of Woundedness for Trauma and Abuse Victims 

Darby names seven categories of woundedness that she regularly sees with victims of abuse and trauma: 

Physical anguish: Trauma manifests itself in our bodies physically through anxiety or panic attacks, inability to concentrate, fatigue, struggles with sleep or eating, heart palpitations, and chronic pain.  

“A lot of unexplained pain can come from a history of untold trauma stories, stomach aches, headaches; and it really is intolerable to have a body acting this way.”


Shame: Shame often accompanies trauma, leaving a victim feeling wounded and inadequate, questioning their value, wholeness, and ability to cope. This can include feeling unlovable, defiled, broken, and disgraced.  

“Ed Welch says at best. He says, ‘Shame says you’re wrong. It is a large indictment. It’s life dominating and stubborn and once entrenched in your heart and mind, it’s a squatter that refuses to leave.’ And just imagine having to deal with the actual events or things that harmed you, and then you have to deal with this life-dominating shame too,” says Darby. 

Faith struggles: Trauma and abuse victims naturally wonder where God has been in the midst of their suffering. This leads to hard questions and, sometimes, difficulty holding onto faith. 

“Sufferers of all kinds, we’re always forced to confront deep questions about who God is and what his purposes are. But trauma victims tend to ask, ‘Why doesn’t God help me or hear me or see me? Does he care about me?’ And these are good questions we all ask, but in a wounded heart, they’re amplified,” says Darby. 

Hypervigilance: People have not been trustworthy, and trust with [trauma and abuse victims] can easily be broken. People recovering from trauma may be hypersensitive, hyperalert to threats, and slow to build trust. 

“They’re hypersensitive to any harm you might cause them, and that’s good. That’s what life has taught them. And so I always say allow them to be [this way].”   


Intrusions: Following trauma and abuse, unwelcome flashbacks—whether physical, visual, emotional, or psychological—may occur, bringing back memories and pain from the past. 

Sometimes the intrusions can be thoughts, like self-condemnations or a constant loop of anxieties. [People] just can’t turn their minds off. They’re trying to make sense of what happened,” says Darby. 

Avoidance: Avoiding difficult emotions from trauma can take many forms, from internet scrolling, watching TV, sleeping, and video gaming to more destructive coping mechanisms like substance abuse. 

Overwhelmed emotions: After a traumatic experience, emotional responses can be delayed. When the floodgate of emotion opens, it often becomes difficult to manage. 

“I usually see this as a good sign that later on when victims are more connected to their own experience, and they then feel what happened to them. But the emotions are usually repetitious, and a floodgate opens. So it becomes difficult to manage and [the emotions] spill over into all of life.”


“Those who have suffered trauma are often unseen.” 

In addition to carrying wounds, victims of trauma and abuse often feel unseen, misunderstood, and judged. An assault victim, for instance, might use mechanisms to protect herself or hide. This can result in her looking overly anxious, hypersensitive, and aloof—or even reactive and harsh. She may live as a person who knows great danger, but now the women around her label her as dangerous. 

“She might isolate herself and keep her friends at a distance… [And] we tend to judge what we do not understand.”


Even when trauma and abuse victims find the courage to share their pain with members of a community—especially leaders in the church—they too often face skepticism and judgment.

Darby explains: “We often don’t believe the unbelievable, particularly when there’s been abuse. We have a hard time believing that someone else would perpetrate that kind of evil against another, or that someone we know is accused of doing harm…  

It is hard for victims to talk about their experiences and be seen and be known because we are so skeptical of them… We don’t believe that those things really happen, and we tend to minimize or dismiss other people even when they bring up a concern.” 

How can churches care well for the abused? 

Looking for help, victims of abuse and trauma often turn to the church. Too often, unprepared leaders deepen the pain and suffering of the people who come to them in need.

As Darby says: “Oftentimes we look at people and we say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ when the question really needs to be, “What has happened to you?’” 

In cases of abuse, too often oppressors manipulate leaders and community members, twisting the truth to accuse or ostracize their victims.  

In her work equipping leaders—especially in the church—to care well for people undergoing trauma and abuse, she collaborated with a team of experts to create a free learning resource recommended to any leader seeking to address issues of abuse in a biblical, wise, and compassionate way: Church Cares | Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused 

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Romans 12:15 

On an individual level, Darby points leaders to the example of Jesus—his way of drawing near to people and entering into their suffering. She points to Scripture as an example:  

“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord, they replied. Jesus wept.”

John 11:32–35 

Darby points out that Jesus handles Mary and Martha differently after the death of their brother Lazarus. When Martha affirms her trust in the power of Jesus, he speaks comforting truth to her. But when he sees Mary, distraught and falling at his feet, he enters into her pain, and he weeps. 

Jesus models willingness to be affected by the stories (and pain) of others. He enters in with those he loves at the ultimate cost—his death on the cross. And in his interaction with Mary, and others, he demonstrates the power of lamenting with another person, sitting with their pain beside them. 

How can victims of trauma and abuse find healing in the church? 

“Trauma changes the way that people think about the world, other people, and God. It’s important to gently, carefully, and tenderly help them see God accurately… Inviting people to see Jesus and his care for them, I think that’s what’s going to heal and impact their hearts the most.”


Darby encourages churches to patiently learn from traumatized people. Instead of treating them like a project or something to be “fixed,” allow their suffering and questions to “propel us deeper into Scripture.”

She says: “God uses the wounded in so many beautiful ways to make his people more humble and gentle and Christlike. So I don’t think we should fear someone’s grief and loss, or traumatic stress, or their tears… we actually need to help them express it and come alongside them.” 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

Luke 4:18 

Is It Abuse?: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims

Darby Strickland shares practical tools and exercises to help identify a range of abusive behavior and better understand the impact of abuse on victims. 

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