Emotional Trauma: Is it Possible for Me to Heal?
About the Guest
Does it feel hard to find your way out of emotional trauma? Counselor, speaker, and relationship expert Debra Fileta helps you identify personal trauma—and a clear path toward healing.
Emotional Trauma: Is it Possible for Me to Heal?
Ann: We live in such a culture where fitness is so important, and body image, and all of that. When we were going to seminary, I got into this real fitness phase. Do you remember this?
Dave: Oh, do I remember! [Laughter] You were like six percent body fat? What was it?—four percent? Look at her; she had four right on her lips.
Ann: Well, it was terrible; because I was teaching classes at a gym. This was when the fitness craze hit the culture, where gyms were opening. I had been teaching these classes with a hundred people in them, but we had to do body fat testing once a month in order to teach there. If it got to be a certain point, we were disqualified; and we’d have to lose weight in order to teach.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
I mean, there is a lot of messed up stuff in my background with eating disorders and all kinds of stuff. So talk about triggering—now, I’m like, “I’m winning the competition,”—so I dropped my body fat down to four percent. This was just messed up anyway, and it is just feeding all of my insecurities.
Dave: She—I remember this class at this gym—all the men took her class, because she’s the hardest instructor; and she was! She was a former gymnast—she just—I couldn’t even survive.
Ann: So then, at the same time, we’re taking seminary classes. I took some classes, especially on how to do counseling. I’m thinking, “Oh, this will be fun that I can help people.”
As we’re in the class, they’re doing our family tree. And then, we get into abuse. Then I’m digging into sexual abuse that I experienced/that I had told you about. I thought, “Oh, that’s in the past. It’s fine; it’s over.”
Well, of course, [at that time], I haven’t dealt with any of it. [Then], I’m starting to deal with it: I’m crying every night; I’m working out every night. I’m realizing, “Oh, this mental health thing…”—it wasn’t even a word back then that we used very much, but this was something that was effecting every single area of my life.
Dave: We started on a journey of mental, emotional, spiritual—and the physical—
Dave: —it was all part of it.
Dave: It’s interesting to be sitting here, with a therapist looking across the table at us, thinking, “Oh, boy, were you guys…”—[Laughter]
Ann: You’d love to dig in.
Dave: You’d love to have us in your office—we sort of are sitting in your office right now in the studio.
We’ve got Debra Fileta with us today. You’ve written a book called Are You Really OK? I know you are looking at us, like, “No, you guys aren’t.” [Laughter] Well, we’re glad to have you back at FamilyLife Today. Welcome back.
Debra: Thank you for having me.
Dave: Yes, we’ve talked about quite a few things in this book; but I love your subtitle: Getting Real About Who You Are, How You Are Doing, and Why It Matters.
Debra: There are different aspects to health that we really have to focus on. Just being a Christian doesn’t make us healthy.
It’s funny that you mention the physical fitness in the gym, because we don’t have that mentality with our physical health. We don’t assume that, when we come to Jesus, we’re going to be at the right BMI;—
Ann: Oh, that is so true.
Debra: —our blood pressure is going to be right; our cholesterol is going to be perfect, But we make that assumption with our mental health and our emotional health. We assume that, when I come to Jesus, “I’m good in these areas,” “It’s good.”
Ann: “He’s fixed it all.”
Debra: We don’t see the process, like going to the gym. I always tell people, “Well, what if we were to start seeing counseling kind of like we see going to the gym?” “I’m going to work my emotional and mental muscles and get them strong and fit.” I mean, we’d be high-fiving each other; you know what I mean?
Dave: Yes; “You’re going to counseling! Way to go!”
Ann: Would you say that almost everybody could use that kind of therapy?
Debra: One hundred percent.
Debra: I say that, as a therapist, I understand; [Laughter] but also as a woman, who has been through my own personal journey of mental health, and needing counseling, and needing medication.
Dave: Okay, talk about that a little bit.
Dave: What is your journey?
Debra: Five years ago, I went through a really traumatic miscarriage; it was actually an unexpected miscarriage. I went in for a routine appointment. I found out that I had lost the baby; and then while I was at the appointment, just by chance, I started hemorrhaging,—
Debra: —bleeding to the point where I almost lost my life. The doctor literally ran me to the emergency room in the wheelchair. She said I was just minutes away from losing my life.
You recover from that—the loss/the trauma—like we talked about earlier. You deal with it; you grieve. You go home, and you live your life again.
But the thing about trauma is it’s not a once-and-done experience. You’ve got to really process it in layers: it comes back for a new opportunity for healing, and then a next layer of healing, and then a next layer of healing.
Ann: —which people always are so frustrated with—I was frustrated with this. I thought, when I was done with seminary, and I had done these counseling classes, “I’m healed! I’ve done it; it will never come back.” And then something triggers it a few years later.
Ann: And there is another layer to be dealt with.
Debra: Not only that, but sometimes, people think time will help me heal; but time does not heal all wounds. In fact, some wounds, when left with time, will just get infected—it will get worse—not better. That is trauma in a nutshell.
When I went home, a few years later, when life was safe and secure, I started having symptoms of panic attacks that came out of nowhere.
Dave: This was, like, months later after the miscarriage?
Debra: It was actually about two years later/—
Debra: —two years later, when it’s not even in my mind anymore. But your body remembers; your brain remembers.
I remember I was on a safari bus with the kids, and I started feeling really hot and kind of light-headed. My body remembered what I didn’t: when I was hemorrhaging, I felt light-headed; I’d actually said to the nurse, “I’m feeling light-headed. Can I get a drink?”
I didn’t realize what was happening; my body was like: “You’re feeling light-headed again; uh-oh.” There is a part of your brain called your amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotional memory; it remembers these deep emotions. When my amygdala sensed the presence of light-headedness, the first thing it probably went back to was: “Uh-oh, the last time you felt light-headed, you almost died. This is an emergency!”
Your body goes into fight-or-flight false alarming; and that’s what a panic attack essentially is. Your body has false alarms that are rooted in something a little deeper. I had to learn to identify what that looked like in my own life and begin the process of healing.
Dave: It’s just amazing how God has made our brain, which is fascinating and beautiful, but it can play tricks on you if you don’t know how to: “Okay, mentally, what do I do?”
Ann: I’m thinking of so many of our listeners—that maybe they’ve experienced depression or panic attacks, or their kids are right now—and they feel at a loss of: “What are my next steps?”
Debra: Well, first and foremost, we thank the Lord for giving us that response; because it is protective: “Thank You that my body reacts to danger and stress”; but now, I’ve got to understand the effects of trauma on this reaction that is causing me to overreact. For each person, it is going to look a little differently.
Trauma fills our mind with lies. How I like to think of trauma: it’s like, if your life is a book, chapter by chapter, trauma is like that big black sharpie that just scribbles all over that page with lies. For me, the lie was: “You almost died; you could die again.” What was the truth? The truth was I was in God’s hands all along. Part of dealing with our trauma is learning to see it through God’s eyes; learning to replace it with what is actually true: “That I am safe,” “That I am loved,” ”That my days are numbered and in His hands.”
There is mental work to be done in battling trauma, and so much of that mental work can be done in the context of therapy. It’s such a helpful way to get a jumpstart on some of that mental work.
Dave: Yes, talk about truth; because we have to replace lies. It may be a physical trauma like that; but it could be lies we’ve heard or even been told from childhood of: “I’m worthless,” “I’m not wanted,” “I’m not gifted.” You come into adulthood, and you are living out lies. How do we replace those? Therapy is, obviously, going to help.
Dave: How many ways can we replace lies with truth?
Debra: I think it starts with us identifying those lies to begin with. I think sometimes we are on autopilot. We don’t even realize all the lies that we are carrying and living out of; we don’t even acknowledge them. I think a huge part of it is recognizing those lies, and then beginning to replace them with God’s truth: “What does God’s Word say?”
But here is what I always have to be cautious because, for some people, this response is so intense that it can be characterized as clinical anxiety, clinical depression, panic attacks. What happens, then, is that your chemistry is actually changing. Your stress chemicals, the cortisol, is getting so high that it’s beginning to highjack your body’s ability to absorb the good chemicals/the feel-good chemicals of dopamine and serotonin. When that shift begins to happen chemically, some people need medication in order to even be able to digest God’s truth.
I remember the times in my worst moments with panic and depression, if somebody would have given me Scripture, I would have been like, “What do I do with this?! I feel horrible; I feel like I’m dying. I need you to save me, not give me Scripture.” This is where I feel like the church has to be cautious in how we talk about mental and emotional health. God is in the work of healing, and all of these things can move us in the direction of healing.
Ann: This would be/you’re talking about cognitive disorders. You’re saying, like, “Oh, when we’re at this point, it’s okay to come in with a therapist/with a psychologist and psychiatrist to administer some medication—
Ann: —that can help with a chemical.
Debra: Just like a diabetic will go get insulin and change their lifestyle—get insulin, pray over the situation—we’ve got to see mental health in the same way and tackle it in a holistic approach as well. Maybe this problem with worry, that’s controlling my life, is actually undiagnosed, clinical depression or clinical anxiety. I’m not putting a name to it, so I don’t even know how to begin countering it.
I think, sometimes, Christians are afraid that, when we name it, we claim it. God doesn’t lose His power; when we name it, I now see my responsibility in the equation/what I need to start doing differently.
Ann: So you’re seeing both come, hand in hand—like Scripture is important; God’s Word is so alive and vibrant—but also, sometimes, we bring in medication that could possibly help and a therapist that can guide us in that area.
Debra: Yes, 100 percent.
Ann: Do you think a Christian therapist?
Debra: I do. I think that’s an important piece to the puzzle, because true healing is multifaceted. True healing involves our emotional health, our mental health, our physical health, and our spiritual health; they all work together. There are so many resources out there; but even if you go to my website—TrueLoveDates.com/Counseling—there are all kinds of databases and opportunities to connect with licensed counselors, who are also Christians. There are so many different places that have resources for good Christian counselors.
Dave: I know I’ve shared here, in the last 18 months, I sat down with a therapist. It was amazing to me as we sort of put up my life and my childhood on a white board. He had this God-given gift to go: “Hey, let’s talk about this.” I’d be like, “Why that?!” Five minutes later, I’m like, “Oh boy; he’s identified something in my life that is triggering and active in my life.”
All I know—and I’m not saying we’re done—but as I went through this year with Greg—and then Ann went over, and we did it as a couple—I thought, “I wish I had done this
30 years ago.” I thought, “What a gift I could have given my kids, 30 years ago.” At the same time, I’m thinking, “I’m not done.”
Ann: Yes, it’s never too late.
Dave: It’s never too late.
Debra: I love that.
Dave: God can change me in my 60s, and I can have an impact on my marriage and my kids at this point.
But let’s talk about another thing you write about in your book, the physical part as well with the mental. I think we underestimate even the power of rest.
Dave: So talk about how the physical helps us heal as well.
Debra: You know, the body-mind connection is real; and when our mind is struggling, our bodies will struggle. When our bodies are struggling, our mind will also struggle. So even as something as basic as sleep—when we’re not sleeping well, it affects our mental health—our ability to concentrate, and focus, and process, and even our ability to just not get overwhelmed.
So looking at our sleep; looking at our exercise, which actually increases our serotonin and dopamine/those good-feeling chemicals; looking at our diet—all of these things are a part of the equation—I also say looking at your schedule. Because sometimes, we are doing so much in the name of ministry/in the name of the Lord; but we’re depleted. We are running on empty; we’re not healthy, emotionally and mentally.
If we are like a well, pouring out to others, we have to be pouring out of our fullness, not out of our emptiness. We don’t want to wait until we get to a place of burnout before we take care of ourselves. We want to start taking care of ourselves before we get to empty.
Dave: You said in your book, and even at lunch, that you and John say, “No,” a lot. What does that look like, because—
Ann: Yes; because you have four kids; you are travelling; you’re speaking; you’re a therapist. You guys have a lot on your plate.
Debra: You know, we’ve learned that you can only do a few things well. So we’ve begun the discipline of focusing on the things that we can do and saying, “No,” to everything else. For us, that looks like the amount of activities our kids are allowed to be in/the amount of ministries that we’re allowing ourselves to be a part of.
I mean, you know, in this field, you get so many invitations and opportunities; but not all opportunities are opportunities you say, “Yes,” to. Sometimes, you’ve got to say, “You know what? I’m not going to be able to say, ‘Yes’; because when I say, ‘Yes,’ to this, I’m inadvertently saying, ‘No,’ to time with my family, to my own personal mental health, to my own marriage and investing in my marriage.” Realizing that there is power in that word; it’s not an anti-Christian word and neither is self-care. [Laughter]
Debra: A lot of times, people think self-care is an anti-Christian word; but Jesus Himself knew what it looked like to get away; to say, “No”; to spend time with the Father so that He could be filled up; to sleep: I love the passage when Jesus gets on the boat and is like, “I’m going to go take a nap.” [Laughter]
Ann: And the storm doesn’t even wake Him up.
Debra: He modeled what it looked like to take care of Himself, allow the Father to pour into Him; so that, He could pour into others. What a beautiful example for us.
Ann: I want to end, Debra, talking about—maybe, you’ve done this too—I’ve talked to so many women, who feel like their kids are shut down emotionally or their husband has shut down emotionally. They see: “Oh, I see the greatness in my husband; if he would just look at this area…”; but their husband or their kids are saying, “No, I’m okay; I’m fine.”
As a spouse, or a parent, or grandparent, coach us: “Do we just pray?” “Do we talk?” “What’s the best steps for us to take?”
Debra: You know, it’s really hard when it’s somebody that is not in your control—your child,—
Dave: Don’t you hate that?! [Laughter]
Debra: —your spouse.
Dave: That’s the worst thing: you can’t control them!
Debra: It is very difficult.
I think there are two steps. Number one: Model it yourself, so begin to share. Use that vocabulary with my children: “This is how I’m feeling…” “This is what I’m going through…” :This is what I’m stressed out about…” “This is what I’m overwhelmed with…” Start modeling those words.
Ann: You even do that with your kids?
Debra: I do. I do an activity with the kids, where I sit them down, and have them color the feelings in their body; so we can begin to talk about them. I lay that all out in Are You Really OK?—what that activity looks like and how to apply it to your family.
But with grown-ups/with adults, you want to begin to even model that language in your marriage/begin opening up in your marriage. I think that vulnerability begins to take the walls down; it’s like, “Oh, you’re being vulnerable. Maybe, I can be vulnerable too.” Modeling it is really important.
Then learning to ask the right questions—I think sometimes, we ask accusing questions—
Debra: —rather than inviting questions.
Ann: Give us an example of both.
Debra: You know, for example, say [speaking forcefully], “You seem like you are just so stressed out these days. Tell me what’s going on! Is there something going on with you that I don’t know about?”—versus—[softer tone] “You know what, honey? I’d love to pray for you. What is something that you feel is causing stress right now in your life that I can be praying for you about?”
This takes practice; this doesn’t just happen overnight. Like I said earlier, this type of practice is something you have to learn and to check in with each other. What that can do—to be on the same page with one another/to help each other—you have a built-in partner; sometimes, it starts with modeling that—
Ann: That’s good.
Debra: —and asking those questions.
Dave: Man, I think/here is what I want to put into practice.
Ann: Oh good! Are we agreeing to do something?
Dave: I’m saying this out loud; I’m hoping some listeners will go, “You know what? I’m with you.”
Over the last several sessions, talking to you about this, number 1 is a journal, where I would write down: “What emotions am I feeling?” and “What lies am I hearing?” and replacing that with truth. Literally, write those down; that would be interesting.
And what you just said—the Sunday night check-in—I’m thinking 9 o’clock for a couple to, at least, once a week, check in and talk about emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health together—
Ann: And coming in without accusing one another.
Dave: —that could transform a marriage, just that conversation. I think—I don’t know it like you do—but you are so right. It would be so awkward at first; it’s like a new workout:—
Dave: —“I don’t know how to do this.” Well, guess what?—you get in there; you learn; you keep doing it; and pretty soon, you’re going to get pretty good at it.
Bob: I think we’d all have to admit the last/almost two years now have taken a toll on our emotional health/our mental health; all of us are weary. The extent to which our mental health has been affected by the events of the pandemic and by the turbulence in our culture—that’s going to vary from person to person—but we’ve all been impacted.
And to help us get a grip on our own mental, and emotional, and spiritual health, Debra has written a book called Are You Really OK? The subtitle is: Getting Real About Who You Are, How You Are Doing, and Why It Matters. Her book is a good first step in self-diagnosis and in providing some steps we can each take to become healthier people. We’ve got Debra’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can request your copy from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get your copy. Again, the title of the book is Are You Really OK? by Debra Fileta. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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And we hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when Pastor Stephen Viars is going to be here to talk with us about how important it is for us to deal with lingering bitterness in our heart. This can come up during the holiday season; right? How do we uproot bitterness and come to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation? That’s our topic Monday. I hope you can be with us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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