Post-October 7: How to start the mental healing?

By Carl Zebrowski
“We’re here to start the mental healing process.” That was Stuart Horowitz’s opening for “Post-October 7: From Trauma to Hope to Resilience—An Introduction to the Intergenerational Approach to Healing,” the presentation for the Maimonides Society Brunch and Learn on January 28, the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s Super Sunday. 
Horowitz, head of the clinical committee of the event’s cosponsor, Jewish Family Service, explained to the Maimonides healthcare professionals and others in the large audience how trauma affects people as individuals and as a community. He talked about the rise of antisemitism that began well before the October 7 Hamas attacks and has only gotten worse. “We know about oppression,” he said.     Horowitz said the Jewish community feels threatened these days. “At one time, I think we felt safe,” he said. “I don’t think we feel safe anymore.”
His co-presenter for the program, Dr. Nadine Bean, recently retired professor of social work at West Chester University, said hope is essential to the healing process. She said she could see it in the auditorium. “There is hope,” she told the crowd. “There is despair going on right now. But there is hope.”
Hope helps people move from hurting to healing. “We cannot erase traumatic memories,” Bean continued, “but just as the brain can be hurt, it can be healed, in however small ways.” 
People must first acknowledge wounding before healing, Horowitz said, then they can start putting the wounds behind them. “We put it in a closet and we know it’s there, but we are not going to obsess over it,” he said. “Every once in a while we can open that closet and take a look.”   Then we move on again. 
Trauma chips away at physical, mental, and emotional well-being, said Bean. It could be a single event or a series of events. It can be war, an accident, historical or racial, or intergenerational. 
Intergenerational trauma impacts entire communities and cultures over time. African American enslavement is one example. Centuries of Jewish oppression and the Holocaust 
are another. “Intergeneraltional traumas can have a tremendous impact on long-term health,” said Horowitz.
The accumulation of traumatic experiences of all kinds can lead to negative health outcomes. And since discrimination is one of the traumatic experiences that affects entire groups, it is one of the greatest health crises in the United States. 
A person can experience actual trauma just by hearing about the experience of another. “It’s caused by hurting for others and feeling helpless about how to help,” Bean explained. “After a while it wears on you.”
She told the audience that trauma makes physical marks on the brain. “MRIs of the brain actually show changes in the brain structure,” she said. “Survivors of trauma like the Holocaust may pass on those little brain changes.” 
Children, then, can inherit a level of fear about their environment. “They grow up thinking people will hurt me,” Bean said. “I am not safe.” This leads to its own long-term negative health outcomes.
Children can also carry all sorts of unhealthy effects from their youngest years into adulthood. Incidents known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are common. “Most of us in this room have experienced one or more of these,” Bean said. “Post 10/7, probably everyone in this room has experienced reopening of those traumatic experiences, and they accumulate.”
Fortunately, helping to counteract ACEs during younger years are Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). The main key to childhood resilience, said Bean, is having even just one person who’s on the child’s side unconditionally, “someone who’s irrationally crazy about you.”
Next it was time to focus fully on healing. “This is the hopeful part of the presentation,” said Horowitz. “Hope is knowing that we’ve experienced trauma and toxic stress but we still have the potential to experience well- being. We can move on.”
Horowitz brought up resilience. “It truly means that we can process these experiences and continue living our lives to the best of our ability despite the struggles we endure,” he explained. 
Self-care was critical to this, he said. Going on vacation is one example. Embracing healthy thoughts is another. “Learn from the past and move on,” he said. “We can learn from the lies of antisemitism. We can learn from October 7.”
He elaborated on “narrative development,” one of the main steps on the path from trauma to healing. It refers to talking about traumatic issues. Bean explained, “We need to look the problem in the face. This is real.”
Horowitz closed the presentation by leading the audience in a breathing exercise. After several slow breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, he led a sing-along of a Hebrew hymn. “Prayer and music connect us,” he said. “Now sit in the silence a moment.” 
The next Maimonides Society Brunch and Learn will be Sunday, March 10, at 10 a.m. in the JCC Kline Auditorium. Dr. Sam Bub will make a presentation on the topic “Psychedelics,” covering the history of their use in medicine and their current use in the treatment of psychiatric illnesses.