The Chasidic Approach to Dealing with PTSD
Essays 2017 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
We all experience trauma, that is an unfortunate fact of life. Most often we try to forget and move on. In some cases however, people find themselves unable to move passed their horrific experiences. They develop intense feelings of fear and paranoia even after the threat has passed. They find themselves reliving the trauma again and again. They become isolated and withdraw from people. Chemicals in their brains change, becoming imbalanced. The stress hormone cortisol skyrockets. They become depressed and life seems to lose all meaning. This is a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder or shell shock. Common causes include sexual and physical abuse, accidents and agonizing loss. Methods for treating PTSD are usually a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants. Core concepts in chassidut can provide a powerful tool for treating PTSD. Specifically the concepts of Ein Od Milvado (there exists nothing but G-Dliness) ,Teva Hatov Lehaitive (G-D is inherently good in everything he does) and Kosis Lamaor(suffering produces the greatest spiritual growth). These concepts hold the potential to radically change the standard of practice for treating PTSD and help ease the recovery process.
The prominent sociologist Sebastian Junger explains that people develop PTSD after trauma because they don’t feel connected and understood by those around them. The actual negative experience isn’t as detrimental as the feelings of isolation and pain that follow. After trauma, people try to process what has happened to them. They try to reconcile their vision of the world as it should be while still holding onto their painful experiences. Often they cannot make sense of this contradiction and so they cut themselves off from humanity seeking refuge. They feel as though no one will understand their now fractured view of the world. The tragedy is that the more they withdraw the more alone they feel, which intensifies the depression resulting in further withdrawal. This leads to the lack of one of the most primal of human needs, the feeling of connection. They lack connection to their experiences, to meaning, but most of all to other people. What is truly hurting them is now not only the tragedy, but also their inability to talk and to share their pain.
Standard methods of treatment include cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants. While they are effective, both are incomplete solutions at best. CBT tries replacing the patients’ distressing thoughts with less disturbing ones, rewiring their brains to focus on more positive thoughts. All that changes however, is the area of focus, the event itself is still viewed as negative. They are not truly dealing with the actual issue, rather they are applying a temporary band aid solution to the problem. Experiences however painful, should be learned from, and be a catalyst for growth. This applies even more so to the use of antidepressants. Recent research at Johns Hopkins University has proven to be the most effective. Researchers injected patients suffering from PTSD with psilocybin, resulting in immediate relief. They felt “connected to the universe” as though they were surrounded by love and light. As great as this sounds however, it is important to remember that the patients are merely having an artificially induced experience of connection to replace the one they feel they have lost. They have not made any real headway in resulting the inner turmoil that haunts them. The relief is only experienced when they have the drug. We, therefore, must find a superior method that allows those who suffer to fully be themselves, not reliant on external fixes.
The Alter Rebbe in Tanya explains that G-d created the universe and imbued it with his energy to give it life. This was not a onetime event however, his energy is a constant flow that continually animates the world. If that energy would cease for even a moment, the universe would fall into non being. After all, only His energy keeps the world from returning to original form of pure potential. The ramifications of this concept is that G-d is intimately involved with the world, not only on a cosmic level, but on a deeply personal one as well. Nothing can happen in the world without G-d’s expressed will. Everything that happens is part of the Divine plan. This is the concept of Ein Od Milvado.
The Zohar explains that G-d is the source of all good. What we define as good is all based on our experiences in relation to G-d. We copy this attribute and define them as “good”. Now, since G-d is intimately connected to the minutiae of everyday existence and is the source of all good, it stands to reason that everything that happens to us must be for the ultimate good. This is the concept of Hateva Hatov Leheitiv. Most often however, we don’t see the good in the situation, all we see is distraction and pain, yet the divinity is still there, working just beyond our awareness. The Rebbe gives the example of a simpleton being brought into an operating room. He is appalled by what he sees, until the purpose of the surgery is explained to him. Often we, like the simpleton in the story only see the negative elements of a given situation. What we fail to grasp is that hardship serves a purpose. Just as oil can only be extracted from olives that have been crushed, the human spirit yields some of the most remarkable qualities when put under pressure. Only when we are tested do we find out what positive attributes we really possess. This is the idea of Kosis Lamaor. We cannot justify tragedy but it comes from a merciful G-d who has our best interest at heart.
The knowledge that one is not facing trauma alone, must come as a great comfort to those who have only ever suffered in isolation. Being shown that all existence is G-d means that trauma can never take priority over our lives, because in fact the trauma too is part of G-d’s will. It is therefore important for an individual to know that G-d is with them, since He is goodness in the absolute. Being alive means that we are inseparable from him and so we and all our experiences are inseparable from the source of goodness itself. With this knowledge, trauma becomes impossible, because instead of being isolated we are all ultimately connected to everything that is, and everything that is good. When events are seen in solidarity, they often appear bad to the one looking. Suffering that crushes us serves to elevate us to G-d, to the source of all good. Just as olives are crushed to make oil, so are we crushed to reveal our essence. If people with PTSD internalize these ideas, it is my hope and belief that their healing process would be greatly enhanced.
In conclusion, PTSD is caused by feeling of extreme isolation and an inability to reconcile oneself with perceived evil. Some practical steps they can take are:
-to recognize that they are never really truly alone and are connected to a powerful G-d.
-to realize that everything that happens to them is all part of the Divine plan and for the good.
-realize that what we perceive as evil is actually there to help us grow.
With these ideas in mind, it is my hope that the fog of depression will lift. The patient will understand that they are not in this what they once thought was an insurmountable struggle alone. There is a G-d on this earth that is powerful but most importantly truly loves them. He wants nothing more for them then to have complete peace and serenity. That should translate to the patient’s mental, physical, and spiritual state of mind. He is not alone. He can move forward to a new and happy life.
Tribe by Sebastian Junger
Maamar Vaatah tetzaveh
Maamar mayim rabim
Tanya chapters 20,26,
About the Author
Avromi Karp lives in Monsey, New York. He is currently studying in Wilkes Barre, PA to obtain smicha – rabbinical ordination.