Many of us have felt a wide range of emotions since the Hamas massacre on October 7th and the ensuing war. I know I have felt a lot of despair and fear, with some moments of inspiration and uplift. I have asked existential questions: What does all of this violence say about human nature and the potential for good? Will there ever be peace? In November, three synagogue communities here in Jerusalem came together to focus on the psychological aspects of the current situation and to hear from a psychologist who has experience dealing with trauma, Dr. Alex Mondrow.
It was comforting hearing from an expert who gave a mix of scientific information that was new for me along with advice that seemed full of common sense. The definition he gave for trauma is the body and brain’s reaction to a crisis. Extensive research has been conducted with veterans to explore these phenomena. In crisis, the human body and the brain mostly seek three things: (1) security, (2) stability and (3) survival. Therefore, the main questions we ask ourselves are: is it safe? Where is the danger, and is it over? Because the crisis which began on October 7th is not yet over, many of us are trying to cope with trauma while still being in the midst of a crisis.
In our communal event we wondered if we can try to avoid being traumatized by this prolonged state of crisis. Due to the tiny size of Israel and therefore the actual proximity to all that occurred and is occurring, we likely cannot avoid trauma entirely. However, Alex suggested that for those of us who have not been directly personally affected, despite feeling connected to those who have been, we can take steps to reduce our trauma—take it down from, say, a level-10 sense of trauma, to a level 5. I liked this idea of working on my mental state. Like other aspects of life, although we can never control what goes on around us, we can develop methods of managing. We can show up for ourselves, for others, and especially for those who are dependent on us. We can learn about helping ourselves and those around us cope in these challenging times.
Alex shared information about what happens in a state of trauma. The brain’s resources get diverted to focus on survival: we begin to practice hypervigilance – the state of “always being on.” He explained that trauma often registers in the body before it hits the conscious mind, so we feel tense in specific parts of our bodies, shortness of breath, or other physical symptoms. He emphasized that these defense mechanisms take a toll, and gave us some suggestions of what we can do. First of all, we should not judge ourselves or others in terms of responses to this crisis. Second, we should learn to notice how trauma is felt in our body, pay attention, and recognize these feelings, as they are important. Then we need to give our brain the message that we are not personally in danger at the moment. He said that this may be the single most important thing we can do to reduce trauma.
He suggested looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a heuristic to help us understand a three-step process that can assist us in this work of mitigating our own trauma. The first need is to put out the fire. This step could be assisted by disconnecting from the news to a certain degree—not bombarding our brains and our hearts with the abundance of information on the crisis. This corresponds to the first two levels of physiological and safety needs in the pyramid. We need to check that we are not overwhelming ourselves with too much news. Most of us do not need to know every detail of the war, and it is not always beneficial for our mental health. It’s a delicate balance learning what is the right amount for ourselves, and it is an important issue to focus on. As basic as this piece of advice sounds, it is not always an easy one to follow. We want to honor the memory of those who were killed by learning about them, and reading the news sometimes makes us feel like we are doing something productive. However, it may well not always be necessary or helpful.
After we have established a certain degree of stability, then we can move on to the second step of how we can treat the wounds: how can I help myself and others around me? This includes engaging in enjoyable activities, such as appreciating art or enjoying nature. It can also include showing up for others in small ways—being a listening ear, and normalizing any and all emotional responses in those around us. A key to this step is not to be alone, to reach out, connect to, and share with people who are good to us and for us. Articulating what we are feeling helps us shift the activity of the brain from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex. Alex quoted a saying of Mr. Rogers that I had not heard before but quite liked: “If you can mention it, you can manage it.”
The third and final step of the process is how we can make meaning from our experiences (the final peak of the pyramid: self-actualization). For some, this could relate to artistic expression—drawing, painting, playing music, dancing or writing. For others, religious activities can play an important role, in terms of study, prayer or practicing good deeds. A key here is moving from passive to active roles, choosing activities we can engage in that are meaningful to us and perhaps also helpful to others.
This final phase has taken a very central place in Israeli society over the past three months. I remember a small dinner our congregation made for evacuees from the south of the country staying in our Jerusalem neighborhood early on in November. So many members of our congregation were so desperate to give. People cooked special dishes, set tables and cleaned up afterwards with such devotion because they were so eager to help. A band offered their music performance for free; a make-up artist came and painted kids’ (and adults’) faces for free; someone else brought soccer balls and shirts to give out. Others brought cell phones, clothes and other supplies because they heard they could be of use. And some people came to talk, dance and connect with evacuees, asking to hear their stories. This night was just one tiny drop in the bucket of activities so many have been engaging in, but as small and as limited as it was, it gave those of us who got to attend some moments of reprieve.
Alex reminded us, though, that it is important to remember not to jump to step three without having worked on stages one and two first. We need to acknowledge and be in the emotions we are feeling—without feeling pressured to judge or even fully process them at first. We also need to set reasonable expectations and understand that we are not going to function at the optimal level while we are going through this crisis. Hopefully we will all find those moments of connection, but some will find more than others. Many Israelis have gotten much meaning from volunteering on farms that need extra help, organizing social events and benefits for those who are displaced, working on awareness campaigns to help free those who are still being held hostage, as well as from visiting those who have lost family and friends – but these experiences are usually punctuated, and most of us still have times when we are experiencing pain and anxiety as well. May we see better days soon, and may we help ourselves and those around us until we do.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Dr. Alex Mondrow, who spoke at Congregation Shir Hadash in Jerusalem, maintains a private psychology practice in Jerusalem and Teaneck, and also serves as the mental health advisor at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and as head psychologist for NCSY Teen Summer Trips. Shir Hadasah, as well as co-sponsoring congregations Migdal HaShoshanim and Ohel Nechama, would like to extend an additional thanks to Jay Solomon organizing the event.)