As a trauma counselor, Karin Jordan spends most of her time listening. Here she shares a few of her insights — perspectives gained from volunteering at some of the worst largescale disasters in recent history. Working toward the goal of emotional healing, Jordan listens as survivors share their stories — and she assures them it’s OK to struggle.
George Fox Journal: What is your primary goal when counseling trauma victims?
Karin Jordan: To give people the opportunity to share what they’re ready to share, and to process things if they are ready. Sometimes they just have to tell their story. As a mental health professional, it’s important to create a safe environment for trauma survivors, as well as to be nonjudgmental and to educate.
GFJ: Why is it important for people to tell their stories?
KJ: We know early intervention can reduce long-term problems. If people are able to process what they’ve experienced early on, it allows them to normalize their experience. A traumatic event such as the tsunami is an abnormal event, and most people have not developed the coping skills to deal with it. It’s helpful for trauma victims to hear that they can be affected in many different ways — from feeling numb, angry, and confused, to feeling shaken in their core beliefs about the world, others, themselves, and their faith values.
GFJ: Some detractors say trauma counseling can be harmful. How do you respond?
KJ: There’s some pretty big controversy going on right now. One criticism is of “critical incident stress debriefing.” It’s a technique that has worked for many, but has often been used improperly. The other controversy concerns counselors encouraging trauma victims to tell their story over and over. Research shows that if victims do this, they create permanent neurological pathways. So the minute they think about the trauma, they’re right back to the fight, flight, or freeze response, and the technique that is supposed to be helpful becomes harmful. When doing trauma counseling, it’s important to be well-trained, and to keep up with the research.
GFJ: Are there similarities in how people from different cultures respond to trauma?
KJ: Yes, the initial reactions — sadness, flashbacks, fear, worry, nightmares, startled responses, difficulty concentrating — you find in other cultures like Russia or Sri Lanka, even when their religious and cultural values are very different. Some of these reactions are physiological responses, so it would make sense.
The long-term effects of traumatic events — what you do with those experiences — are uniquely different. Not just because of cultural and religious differences, but also because of each person’s own unique background. Was there a history of trauma? Is there family or community support? Other factors include age, gender, and resiliency, to name just a few.
GFJ: Is there a difference in how people respond to natural disasters and human-made disasters?
KJ: There are differences for Western cultures because of the value systems we hold. Human-made disasters hit us at a very deep core. There is a shattered assumption theory which is rooted in our belief that we can keep ourselves safe, humans are generally good, and the world is a relatively safe place. If we have Christian faith values, we believe we can lean on God in times of crisis. Natural disasters can be equally destructive, yet they often are perceived as less personal in Western cultures.
However, when you’re dealing with some Buddhist and Muslim countries, their religious philosophy is that you will endure pain. That’s part of your life’s journey. So their perceptions of human-made and natural disasters are generally quite different. There is a belief, which is not yet well-tested, that in some non-Western countries people generally don’t go through the same level of devastation to their core value system from human-made disasters.
GFJ: When trauma victims share stories of human cruelty, do you feel angry?
KJ: When I spend time and process it, I do wrestle with that. But when you’re directly working with trauma victims, you focus on the person, their pain and hurt, and not your own. I’m often amazed at the resiliency of people in these situations, and am reminded regularly that God is in control and is present in even the worst situations. Following 9/11, Jordan helped create the Mental Health Trauma Certificate program. /soe/counseling/programs/trauma.html
Jordan served as a mental health volunteer in (clockwise from top) Beslan, Russia, following the hostage taking at a middle school; Colorado during the trial that followed the Oklahoma City bombing; Colorado after Columbine High School shootings; New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.