If you are a survivor, please consult your counselor before reading. This information could trigger traumatic memory.
The focus of this article will be the part of the brain called the amygdala (level two) which is fully running when we are infants and will continue to function throughout life. It is limited in its diversity of opinions and is rather primitive in its decision-making ability. This part of the brain cares about deciding only three issues: Is what I am experiencing good, bad, or scary? If it is bad or scary, this part of the brain will step into overdrive with high anxiety until the scary thing stops being scary. This part of the brain is not concerned with relationship. Even a counselor who is trying to help make the situation better could end up as road-kill while the fearful person is trying to escape the perceived problem of terror.
In previous articles, we examined higher functioning levels of the brain’s control center, levels of the brain which are very involved with relationship. If everything has gone well in the developmental growth process, the individual is able to develop these higher levels of brain functioning and will override the primitive responses from the amygdala. In contrast, if everything hasn’t gone well in the growth process (such as the trauma of neglect and/or abuse), these higher levels of the brain will not have an opportunity to develop very well and this will leave the individual coping with life primarily through the amygdala which has very few good options. In layman’s terms, an individual who is functioning at the amygdala level will be very fearful about most things including people and situations. He/She will be self-involved, non-relational and limited in trying new things because of fear. Someone with higher brain functioning will connect with people and even readily seek out relationships to help them resolve distressing emotions, whereas an individual stuck at this primitive level in the brain will only want to do whatever it takes to avoid the terror, which usually means isolating from people.
The terror experienced at level two in the brain can be real or imagined, but it will evoke the same flight/fight response that gives the appearance of a runaway train out of control with no brakes to stop the destructive motion. Someone stuck in level two might initially enjoy your company because nothing has triggered a fear reaction thus far. But what happens when you start to form a bond with this fear-based person and they perceive you as getting too close for comfort? Let’s say, for example, this person was sexually abused by a parent in childhood. You could be the most consistent, well-intentioned, caring person on the planet and your fear-based friend will respond with fear and suspicion your motivation when you start to become invested in the relationship. Because the amygdala is functioning so primitively and is designed by God to manage life in the earliest stages, it is below conscious awareness. Your fearful friend will not necessarily know why she is afraid of you when you start to care about her but as you try to get to know her, an unconscious trigger will ignite in the brain by the amygdala. She will feel increasing anxiety when you encourage emotional closeness. The unconscious warning will resound in her mind that something bad happens when people are close. Whether she has conscious awareness of the memories of her abuse or not, the amygdala will not be able to determine if someone being close now is any different than in the past when there were bad feelings with the parent who was emotionally and physically close in an abusive way. This phenomenon is called “leaky mind-sight”, which means that one’s past is leaking onto the present situation.
It is not uncommon that defenses employed by the fear-based individual will involve demonic strongholds. Fear itself is a demonic stronghold that gives ground to the enemy. I have had people tell me that they see the face of their abusive parent projected over mine. They might also tell me that they had a memory of abuse and my face was the face they saw projected over the face of someone from their past. They are suddenly afraid of me when previously they had no experiences with me that caused fear. It becomes very confusing for them and difficult for the person trying to help.
You might be thinking that this sounds very discouraging. How can someone who functions at this level be helped? Actually, we have had considerable success at moving people from this fear-based reality, but it is hard work and not everyone receives the help that is offered. It is not a task for those who are lacking in maturity or in the fruits of the Spirit, or are lacking in the Thrive skills themselves. Jesus said in Matt. 10:25, “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!” (NKJV) When working with a fear-based population, you can expect demonic attacks, including painful accusations of being like the perpetrators of their past when you have done nothing to warrant such accusations except care about them. This work does not only mature the survivor but it also matures the helper. With God it is always a win/win situation, since His sole purpose in any ministry is to make all of us into the likeness of His Son. What greater identification can we have as Christians than to learn to suffer well as He did – even unto death? There are many challenges to die to self, including death of ambition, death of being understood, death of reputation, and death of getting revenge. The character of Christ never returns evil for evil but knows that evil will be overcome with good. If we, as helpers, model Christ’s character to someone who is afraid and is accusing us and we do not respond with fear, defensiveness, anger or revenge we will have an opportunity in that moment to demonstrate something different than their perpetrators of the past. In the consistent modeling of a different character, over time, a new experience and a new opinion will begin to form in the minds of those who will receive it: “Not everyone is out to get me and I can begin to trust that some people actually are trustworthy and want to help me”.
In practical terms, when someone is afraid, the most helpful thing to do is not to become afraid also. Remember, the amygdala only cares that the scary thing stops. If you, the helper, are perceived as the scary thing, then it is helpful to begin to focus on what might bring immediate help to the situation, including using your own physical space (offering to distance some) and using a calm and soft voice tone or even modeling sitting quietly and resting until the person can reduce some of the level of terror. Rest is not something perpetrators allow their victims; instead, the victim is continually overwhelmed until the emotions are submerged as well as the memory of the experience (dissociation).
Remember, the amygdala is below conscious awareness, and what you say will not be as important as how you say things or even that you don’t speak. You cannot fix fear at this level with some clever cliché or Bible verse although Biblical actions rather than preaching will be very important to demonstrate. Change will happen slowly as fear reduces with each practice time when the survivor feels the terror and learns she can recover from it. If she begins to experience the helper as part of the help in getting through the terror, the experience of having someone with her when she feels terror will no longer be seen as the source of the terror. The mind will no longer automatically attribute the terror to whoever is physically present when it feels terror (the mind-sight will have been corrected). The brain will have the experience of returning to joy, which might only be experienced as being able to rest, in the beginning of the work. The survivor will eventually expand to feeling a bond with the helper as the joy strength builds and higher brain function increases. Helping the person describe what their body is feeling and sensing will bridge the gap between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (highest level of brain functioning). When the individual has recovered enough from terror to begin observing what the body is experiencing, the shift has been made to the prefrontal cortex, as this is a function performed only at this higher level of the brain. The person will begin to calm down and return to a relational state.
Community has been a tremendous help in this work. Those community members who are more advanced in their own work have been an invaluable help to those who are fear-based and at the beginning of their work. I will often call on the more advanced to share their experiences of terror which are very similar to the beginner’s experiences. Seasoned community members can give examples of the ways they got through their fears and give practical examples of change. This provides hope that one can recover from terror.
In one example of redemption from a fear-based reality, the worst happened in that one community member falsely accused another, and the best occurred as the accused community member was able to remain Christ-like and forgive the other. This is God’s win/win plan of redemption where even the worst becomes what God turns into the best if we allow Him to lead us and look for His redemptive work in all things. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (NKJV) Before there was resolution, the fearful accuser spread her accusation to others as though these statements were true. She had accused this community member of sending demonic curses to her. (The image of her perpetrator would come and attack her at night.) Accusations (which are a function of the enemy) and spreading those accusations (gossip) are a quick way to divide a community. Although it was not her heart to hurt this person or the community, her fear-based thinking took over and she defended herself by lashing back with accusations and gossip as a way to make the problem stop. The fearful accuser realized through other seasoned members’ experiences that the demonic often work to divide the body of Christ this way and do not tell the truth. There was a way to deal with fear and the truth about what she had feared by praying about it and having the person who had been accused also pray about it for accuracy.
Leadership prayed for the truth and supported both to talk it out. The fearful accuser chose to face her fear, humbly repented and asked for forgiveness when she realized she had believed lies. She expected that this community would act like her perpetrators and humiliate her. Instead, she experienced affirmation for facing her fears, forgiveness and the opportunity to restore trust and begin rebuilding the relationships that had been damaged. It was not easy for her to hear how her behavior had hurt others and it was not easy for the accused to forgive but both were able to become more like Christ through this experience. The fearful accuser is less fearful and is now cautious of acting on fear-based conclusions. She has grown tremendously from the experience and I am now one of her biggest fans.