What’s the difference between “trauma” and regular sadness? Where does trauma truly reside? What are the open questions surrounding trauma? And what scientific and religious tools can we use to help us deal with trauma?
As part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum focusing on “When Religion Heals, When Science Heals,” Sinai and Synapses Fellows John Sianghio and Rabbi Arielle Hanien explore these questions through the lens of their experiences in pastoral work, religious philosophy, somatic healing and even deployment in Afghanistan.View Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Welcome everyone. My name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I’m the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, which is an organization that looks at interesting and important questions from both a religious perspective and a scientific perspective.
And currently we’re looking at a variety of different subjects and topics, looking specifically right now at the question of “When religion heals and when science heals.” Many of us, particularly after this election, are looking for some way to be able to heal. Whether that’s personally, whether that’s within our group, whether that’s talking with people that we disagree with, how can we find a sense of healing and wholeness in what has become a very fractured country, and looking to be able to come back together in some capacity?
And so I’m thrilled to be sitting here this afternoon with two of our Sinai and Synapses fellows, who have tremendous expertise from both a religious and scientific perspective, who are going to share a little bit about their work and what they found both in their personal experience and in their research.
So sitting with me here are John Sianghio, who is a doctoral student in religious ethics, a former professor of political science, and [who] has actually been deployed in Afghanistan. And so John, it’s wonderful to be able to talk with you.
And also sitting here is it Rabbi Arielle Hanien, who is not just a rabbi, but is also a doctoral student in clinical psychology and in Jewish education. And she’s trained in somatic-based trauma therapy, and she works in that field both for interpersonal work and for the wider societal sense of healing. So John, Arielle, wonderful to be able to be with you here this afternoon.
John Sianghio: Wonderful to be here.
Geoff Mitelman: So I want to start with this question of trauma, because that’s a word that we use a lot, and it’s a word that some of us have been hearing for the last 15 months, 16 months, that from whichever political persuasion you’re looking at, that we’re trying to be able to overcome. What America had been, what America could be – it’s a word that’s being used a lot, for some people, particularly after the election.
But I wonder, what’s the difference between trauma and regular sadness, and do we potentially even use that word “trauma” too much? Does that actually, then, lessen its power? And do we need different tools, different resources, to be able to grapple with the big traumatic experiences that we go through, versus just dealing with regular sadness here. So John, I’d love to start with you.
John Sianghio: You know, in terms of this question of defining trauma, I think it is an elusive concept, in many ways, from my research. And I’m not an expert in biological triggers of trauma or the biological signs of trauma – but certainly from a scientific perspective, I know that there are there has been research on, you know, what the physiological responses are to what we would consider traumatic events.
And so in many ways, there is a scientific quantification of what trauma is, but in many ways, that quantification, when we look at what’s commonly held to be trauma, is not always adequate for encompassing the full gamut of what we talk about when we commonly refer to trauma.
For instance, I do a lot of work with veterans, I do a lot of work with research in war studies, and one of the big phenomena that is becoming apparent, especially in relation to the Afghan and Iraq wars that the U.S. has recently fought in, is the concept of moral injury – which is a trauma. And this is something that is distinct, for instance, from post-traumatic stress disorder. Physiologically, the responses are different. It’s not a fear response, it doesn’t have, sort of, this fight-or-flight trigger in the human body, but at the same time, there is some sort of both social and emotional response to something that is morally injurious, that causes things like disconnect, that causes the subject to really question the meaning of life, and can often spiral into depression and other things.
So, you know, even if it doesn’t fit, necessarily, the scientific definition of what, like, somebody who is researching post-traumatic stress disorder would quantify as trauma, in terms of what we see on its face, socially, when we interact with it, with somebody who might be going through something like moral injury, there is certainly something about it that fits the definition of what we would understand as trauma. So in that case, I think that trauma is something that is both objective and scientific and also subjective, and that there really necessitates a conversation between, you know, common social and intersubjective ideas of what trauma is and also scientific perspectives.
Geoff Mitelman: Interesting, yes. Ariel, I mean, I know you’re doing a lot of work in this space also, both religiously and scientifically.
Arielle Hanien: Yeah, so I would say – here’s a therapeutic kind of perspective that comes from the neuroscience that is informing new forms of therapy, where we are dealing with what’s happened in the nervous system when a traumatic experience happens.
The perspective is that human beings, like other animals, have an innate capacity to heal. We are self-regulating organisms. So we know this is true when we get a paper cut or a broken bone. Sometimes we need additional support, but essentially, the body knows how to mobilize and take a fracture, an injury, and heal it, and restore regulation of all of the normal functioning that happens in our body.
We’re thrown off all the time by our experiences. From day to day, someone will say something that catches us off guard, or we’ll fall down and need to get up. And our body heals, in general, from these experiences, but a trauma is an experience we have that overwhelms our capacity to self-regulate. So what happens to someone as a traumatic experience will depend on their own inherent capacity to regulate after they’re disregulated, or they’re thrown off by something. That will be different for a four-year-old than it is for a 24-year-old.
But also, it’ll depend not just on where someone is developmentally, sort in the broad scheme of things, but also on their personal system, and their experiences, and the extent to which their resilience has been developed and their capacity for experience has been developed. And also it’ll depend on the circumstances of the moment.
So in that sense, I would agree with what John said about there being a way to objectively describe trauma, but also an understanding that it’s very subjective and very context-dependent. So, you asked if we overuse the word. And I actually encounter something different around trauma, which is that the word has a certain stigma to it. In fact, it took us a long time, as a scientific community, to even give Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a name. And veterans were one of the communities, as it were, one of the demographics, that suffered most, because the communities that they were coming back to didn’t understand what was wrong. And we called it shellshock, or we called it battle fatigue, but our essential question was “Why can’t they just get over it?” or “Why are they startled?”, and “what exactly is wrong?”.
And now we know there are experiences that often were – John, you know this better than I, for more experience with veterans, and as, you know, one who has been deployed – that are tremendously activating to the nervous system, where really, the body-mind is aware that it’s under threat and has experienced real danger. And it’s disregulated at a very high level of activation. And the ability to come back and regulate that system, to an extent, depends on our understanding of that, and our ability to support it. But there are other kinds of traumatic experiences that we have in daily life, and we often don’t entitle ourselves to recognize how much they’ve rattled us.
And it would be helpful to be able to honor when people are, for example, triggered, and it brings up something that overwhelmed their capacity to deal with it when it happened to them as a child, or because of the circumstances in which it happened. It would be helpful for us to be able to honor that something genuinely is happening in their nervous system, and there are real resources, that we know about from science now, and that in many cases resemble ancient spiritual practices, to help them regulate.
So I would say there’s big trauma that we’re finally grappling with and beginning to understand and honor and support, but there’s also trauma-with-a- lowercase-t that happens all the time. And I would be reluctant to tell people to just name it something else, rather than opening up our understanding that it’s kind of a fact of life, and the better we understand it, and the less we feel a need to put it at a distance or in a box, the more helpful we can be at regulating ourselves individually and then collectively.
John Sianghio: And I think Arielle’s definition that she gave, of trauma being something that is, you know, an injury or a pain that is impossible, or at least very very difficult, for the individual to self-regulate – I think is a really good one, because it draws, then, on the facets of why trauma, in so many ways, and healing of trauma, is social. Why, for instance, it’s beneficial to have a therapist like Arielle to walk through this with you. And in fact, I would say probably necessary, because if there is this impossibility of self-regulation, it might be possible with some sort of assistance. But also that this phenomenon is in so many ways social, and that’s why we can have sort of a national trauma, or trauma of individual groups. And that the healing of those kinds of injuries is not something that we can just say “hey, you know, pull yourself up from your own bootstraps.” But there’s both scientific and social and spiritual evidence, then, for the fact that, you know, a group, a collective, a social healing, is in fact necessary to heal trauma.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, it’s interesting. I’m thinking a lot about Jonathan Haidt’s work, who’s a psychologist from from N.Y.U. who talks about morality. And John, you were talking about moral injury. That morality both binds and blinds, and a community – we need a community, and Arielle, your point, of the idea that we should be able to just overcome it and do it by ourselves, is actually deeply counterproductive. We need a community that we’re together with.
The challenge, though, becomes what happens when that community becomes exclusive and says “we are all traumatized together, but those other people, they don’t deserve that same level of respect or support.” And we’re seeing this a lot in our country right now, on both sides, where it’s “I’m traumatized,” which then sometimes negates someone else’s story, when in fact they can both be true at the same time, and they have to be able to find support systems. The challenge is – how do you cross that bridge, how do you go and find a community with somebody that you may disagree with, if my trauma is different than your trauma?
Arielle Hanien: So that’s a great question, Geoff, and one thing I would offer in reflection back is that there’s a difference between “misery loves company” – and so one disregulated system loves to be with others that are resonating with the pain. And what I think John and I are saying about trauma being an experience, of one’s capacity for the experience being overwhelming. And when there are other people to hold the experience, then the capacity expands in the collective.
So if you think, for example, about spiritual traditions where a community or a village assembles around a home where a loved one has died – because the grief can be overwhelming, it can even take over to such an extent that cognitive processing is compromised. And people can’t remember to turn the stove off or even to eat, because there are so many levels at which the loss of a loved one has affected them. And the community is aware of this, and the emotions can even be overwhelming, so the community assembles – not just for the practical, you know, measures of basic life support, you know – bringing food so that person doesn’t have to either go through the trouble of preparing it, or remembering to eat it – but also keeping that person from feeling alone in what can feel like an abyss, that is, a bottomless sort of spiral of “if only I had said in time” and “what are all of my guilts and my regrets and the things that I’ll miss and the never-agains.”
And they can hold pieces of memory, and they can hold permission to laugh, and give that as needed. And the nervous system of that one person who would be overwhelmed is now supported by this kind of larger collective nervous system, or by these others.
According to Jewish tradition, when a person visits someone who is suffering from an illness, and the suffering isn’t just, you know, the chafed nose from the tissues and the achiness, but suffering it – missing out on participating in life in the outside world, and who knows what else, loneliness – there’s a notion that the visitor is helping the person who is ill, but they also are helping by carrying away 1/60th of that pain. And the 1/60th we might describe today as the sort of mirror neuron effect. That, when I show up to your nervous system that is really in overwhelm, my empathy is really helpful. And it’s very natural. We have these neurons in our bodies that effectively reflect and literally resonate and generate a similar experience in my nervous system to the one in your nervous system. Except that your experience is yours, and I’m not having it as strongly. And that’s not even the goal.
Arielle Hanien: So you come together and be helpful without it being about intensifying the bad experience, and forming a collective that creates an identity that keeps others out. It can be about creating regulation–
Geoff Mitelman: And it can meet you where you are psychologically, emotionally. But I’m making it as a conscious decision to be with you and where you are and then to help lift you out a little bit. Because if I’m way up here and you’re way down there, there’s a disconnect, but if I’m able to start up here and go where you are, then together, we can start to rise up a little bit more.
Arielle Hanien: Yeah, but that’s a good point too, because there are a lot of people today – you mention, I just want to make this very quick, and then here, John – that are feeling a similar kind of trauma. It’s not as though one person suffered a loss and everybody else is gathering around them. There are a lot of people feeling like they experienced the same loss. All around, all political parties, there are a lot of people feeling really bad. And so it’s invaluable, when those people come together, to feel the resonance, and know that they don’t have to carry all of the hardship, because all of us, in whatever collective, are carrying it to an extent.
It’s really, really valuable for someone to hold, in their very being, a vision and a sense, and a sense of possibility for, the healing that can be, which can include the entire country. It can include the entire planet, right, all of humanity. So when that is present, there are mirror neuron effects too, that resonate with that healing that’s even larger than just getting through the tough part. So that may be one thing that religion models, and science verifies now, that we can take into our thoughts as a country about how we will move beyond just getting through this.
Geoff Mitelman: John, would love to your hear your thoughts as we come towards the end of our conversation here.
John Sianghio: Sure – I mean, I want to address specifically what you said about sort of the fractiousness that people experience, and the fact that people tend to, in some ways, look towards their own trauma and use that, then, to invalidate other people’s trauma, or to say that, you know, certain traumas are not as intense, or not as worthy of consideration.
And I also want to address, a little bit, this idea of healing, because we talk about healing as if it’s almost always a good thing, right. And ultimately – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think it is. But especially in fractious climates, especially when there are real injuries and real pain and real suffering that are caused by events, or by certain people, or by, even, the negation of someone else’s trauma, there is an aspect of confrontation before healing, I think, that needs to come. And that, you know, I think that yes, many people are feeling traumatized in various ways, but that there are also priorities.
You know, I come from an immigrant community, I live on the South Side of Chicago in a 90% African-American neighborhood. And I think that in many ways, the traumas, for instance, just to give a selection, that my white liberal friends are feeling, versus these other communities that I travel in, are not as great a priority. I think that they’re equally traumas, but that in reality, there are greater and lesser effects to some of these traumas. And while that might not be very PC to say, it might not, you know, accomplish healing necessarily, that has to be addressed.
Because of the fact that, in so many ways, traumas that are more immediate, traumas that are greater, need to take precedence. Because, you know, communities will be devastated in ways that other communities suffering more minor traumas will not be. And that before we start to talk about healing from trauma, there has to be some address of, you know, what is the cause of this trauma? And if there is, you know, a certain community, or if there are certain practices that are causing this kind of suffering, that, you know, we don’t just say “oh, everybody’s equally traumatized, oh, let’s move towards healing,” because so often, healing, too, if imprecisely defined, can be a mask for hatred. It can be a mask for, you know, sort of sweeping problems under the rug. And that – letting trauma fester, then, that’s not, you know, what Arielle is talking about, in terms of mirror neurons. That’s not socially coming together to work out problems that address trauma. That is, again, a prioritization of one group’s trauma over another’s.
Geoff Mitelman: Go ahead – I’m going to wrap this up in a in a minute. Might I respond to what you’re saying, but–
John Sianghio: Sure, so in such cases, I think that we really need to be careful about what we define trauma as, but not in the sense that we want to limit it so much that we have a precise scientific definition, but that, you know, part of what we have to be attuned to is not simply, sort of, the physiological definitions of this. Like I said, [in] a moral injury, the physiological responses that we generally associate with trauma are not present in many of the people who,[like] many of the soldiers that I know, myself included, who are going through the experience of moral injury. But in some ways that’s still trauma.
So we want to have a precise enough definition that we can say “hey, look, this person is going through this” or “this community is through this, let’s gather around them and try to effect the healing that is necessary,” but not so precise that we sort of eliminate certain people from, you know, the needs, the resources that they might need. And also, you know, looking at trauma in a way that recognizes that there are degrees, and that there priorities, and that, you know, some traumas, you might be feeling pain, and you might be feeling hurt, and that there are other viewpoints about suffering, not just trauma, that have to be taken into account, before we start talking about some macro-perspective on it.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I think what’s interesting is thinking about the role of power, which I think is often not acknowledged there. And some of it is “I want you to feel better, mainly so that I can feel better.” And that’s actually not very healing, that’s a very self-centered way to be able to look at that.
So I think one of the real challenges is how do we understand our role, our dynamic, both of our own healing, and not to swoop in and solve someone else’s problem, but to be able to be with them and be present, and at least give the tools and the support. Because – there’s a line from the Talmud that says “no one is able to free themselves from their own prison.” And so if there is a power dynamic, and a power differential, certainly I think that people who have more power have more responsibility there as well. But there’s also, at least, an understanding and a recognition that people need to be able to have their story be shared, have their story be told. I believe it’s James Pennebaker who’s done a lot of work on the role of writing and telling a story, and reframing, and how that’s been very healing for a lot of people, even after trauma there.
And so, as we think about what’s the role of the community, what’s the role that religion plays, how much do we need a scientific definition of trauma, and how much do we not need that, how much do we need simply an emotional response there – we need to think through what is the role that religion plays when it comes to healing, and what’s the role that science plays when it comes to healing?
So thank you, John and Arielle, for a wonderful conversation, and I would encourage people – both John and Arielle wrote beautiful pieces on the Sinai and Synapses website immediately after the election – to be able to explore this kind of question a little bit more deeply. So thank you John, and thank you Arielle, and you can look at sinaiandsynapses.org for more conversations here.
Arielle Hanien: Thank you, Geoff.
John Sianghio: Thank you.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you.