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How to navigate collective grief & trauma as crises arise

Oct 16, 2023

We welcome Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes back to The Style That Binds Us Podcast. Dr. Karen is a leading Psychologist with a private practice in New York City. She provides individual as well as marital, family, and group psychotherapy.

In addition, Dr. Binder-Brynes is a leading expert in the field of post-traumatic stress. She has worked with front-line COVID-19 first responders, firefighters after 9/11, survivors of The Holocaust, and she counseled the Episcopal priests in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and more.

She has contributed to The New Yorker, Tracy Anderson, Bustle, Vogue, Goop, and CNN among others. She is the mother of two daughters, and she now has three grandchildren as well. Today, we are discussing how to navigate collective grief & trauma as crises arise.

Find links to previous episodes with Dr. Karen Binder Brynes here:

Today, we have a very solemn but important topic discussing the current crisis in the Middle East. Thank you, Dr. Karen, for being here.

Thank you very much for having me again. It’s always good to talk to the two of you.

It’s always wonderful to talk to you. I mentioned it a little bit, but will you start by telling us about your experience with trauma?

I look at myself now as being sort of on the trauma evolution in the field because starting in 1980, post-traumatic stress became an accepted diagnosis in the American Psychiatric, we call it the DSM, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). At that time, I was writing a doctoral dissertation on the long-term effects of sexual abuse on women.

As the field began to embrace the notion that there is a constellation of issues that severe trauma brings, I went along that ride. Right after my doctorate in the late eighties, I became involved at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I was the clinical director of a program that treated and studied Holocaust survivors, and the European Holocaust and their families.

Unfortunately, there have been so many other traumatic moments in recent history, including 9/11, I worked with firefighters after Hurricane Katrina, and I got involved with the Episcopal clergy down there. Not only did I work with them, but I also worked with the black clergy, because there was tremendous traumatization after Katrina about how the residents, particularly the black residents, had been treated, so there was a lot of collective sadness and trauma there.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been involved after mass shootings – Newtown in Virginia Tech, helping mostly with the first responders and clergy. I had a contract with the Episcopal Church. I counseled all clergy returning from the Afghani war zone. Even though they don’t carry weapons, clergy do go outside the line, they do get involved in battles, and so often are traumatized.

I’ve studied trauma theoretically, I’ve worked with a lot of traumatized people and I’ve also been on the ground just as some of our reporters right after a trauma. Unfortunately, here we are again. Not that there hasn’t been trauma going on in Ukraine, Russia, Sudan. There’s more than one trauma zone right now in the world, unfortunately.

But this particular week, I think has changed things. Because we have seen brutality and evil, upfront, close, and in the present time. It’s one thing to see imagery in newspapers or hear about things.

It’s another thing with social media, particularly to be witnessing atrocities as they’re going on—the whole new level, I think, of what I’m calling now, Collective trauma.

It’s remarkable. When you see the families interviewed too, that could be any of us. When you see the reporters in real-time, you think they might get shot while we’re watching them. It’s just so beyond, that you don’t have the words to describe it.

The last time we talked to you about trauma was the collective trauma that we were going through in the entire world about COVID, which was pretty dramatic too. But now, here we are again, and I’m curious about what you think about how we can collectively grieve and support each other through this time.

Let me just say, that this is something that I always talked about with trauma. There’s a big difference in our souls between trauma that’s nature-induced such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and even Covid. Then when the trauma is done with human sadism involved.

Yes, Covid was a very scary, traumatic, and uncertain time. But I think it also was a very uniting time on some levels because the whole world experienced lockdown. That wasn’t one country, it wasn’t one religion or culture – it was everybody.

This current situation has a lot to do with human sadism, evil, and brutality and I think that leads to what I was calling yesterday when I did another podcast to more soul trauma. I think our souls have been traumatized this week in a way that you probably haven’t seen. Well, there have been Holocausts.

One of the best antidotes to feeling bad is to help somebody else – to do service somewhere & to put yourself out there.

I don’t want to negate what went on in Rwanda and Bosnia, but I think this level is similar to when World War II ended. The military – American and Russian military entered the concentration camps and for the first time, I thought, “What was going on?” Upfront and close, and I think this is another one of those moments where we are so up close. The level of brutality is almost beyond comprehension.

Realtime, as you said, it was the military that saw before. This is everyone, anywhere in the world right now can see this happening in real-time. It’s like watching a train heading towards a major wreck and you can’t do anything about it but watch, it’s terrible.

Yes, and you have mentioned before the biology. One of the things that I’ve also studied besides the psychic wounds of trauma is The Biology of Trauma. That began with the work, believe it or not, with Vietnam veterans, who allowed themselves to be studied in veterans hospitals.

One of my former colleagues was at the forefront of that, very well-known in the field. Her name is Dr. Rachel Yehuda, she and researchers at Yale, began to look at stress hormone levels in returning veterans and found that when people have been severely traumatized, there’s a very high chance that their bodies are going to dysregulate in what we call, the “Limbic system.”

This is the reptilian part of our brains, the part of our brains that are programmed for survival. That’s where we get that flight response because we have to be able to recognize danger instantaneously. Whoever created us through evolution, our brains have developed to instantly recognize danger, and send out stress hormones, some of which are cortisol, and adrenaline.

Those stress hormones put us on a very high alert, and therefore we react very quickly. So, if you were walking down a street in New York City, and a yellow cab careened through a red light towards you, you would instantaneously be in a state of high alert, and you’d either freeze or flee. This is not thinking, this happens in a nanosecond.

That’s one incident, let’s say, hopefully, you make it to the side of the curb and you don’t get hit by the cab. What we are experiencing now is more chronic levels of high alertness where every time we’re looking at the news, every time we’re looking at our phones, every time we’re talking to somebody, this is all we’re seeing, this is all we’re thinking about. We are being bombarded.

As a result, I would say that for most of us, our brains are right now on high alert. As a result, we have extra stress hormones coursing. One of the things I’ve been thinking about because there’s so much anger out there, you can see that two clashes between different groups.

When we’re on that level of high alert, we also tend to get much more irritable, much more angry, and much more reactive. I think part of some of the outcry that we’re seeing now is not just psychological horror, but I think people are also very stressed.

That’s interesting. I feel like we already were on high alert a little bit before this even happened. There was Covid, then there was Ukraine, and now there are all these natural disasters. We haven’t had time to calm down.

Not to mention the state of the government in the United States, which is probably the most unstable state I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. To have these outside horrific events happening, when we’re not even that secure with the government right now, is only making things even scarier.

We have to be aware of that, I’m sure anybody listening to this agrees that their levels these past weeks of stress have been higher. Then, the question is, “How do we deal with that individually and collectively?” It’s to recognize that we are on high alert, we are scared, and we are constantly scanning for information. One of the reasons that we’re constantly scanning for information is that this is not true, but it’s an illusion that the more information we have, the more in control we are. 

That’s mom’s number one problem.

Yes, she knows. Every morning, I think that I should check and see. I might see something that I can’t unsee, so maybe I shouldn’t look. It’s like we’re just waiting to see what horrible thing is coming next.

It’s important to find a balance. We don’t. It’s interesting, I went to get some bread this morning at a local. I’m in a small town right now. The same guy I see every week, I said, “What a world!” and he looked at me like, “What do you mean?”, and he looked at me and said, “I don’t watch the news.” I was shocked and he said, “You shouldn’t either.” That was shocking to me.

It’s very important even in the darkest of times, to find things to celebrate, to find things that give us light.

The balance is. Of course, you want to know what’s going on. Of course, you want to have some preparedness to understand what’s happening. But it’s also extremely important to look away, take breaks, and not be scrolling all day long listening to the news all day long. Your brain needs a break.

They have to feel not guilty about that.

To feel not guilty because we don’t know how long this conflict is going to last. We don’t know what’s coming down the pipe. We’re gonna have to be in this level of uncertainty for a while, and what you don’t want is for your stress hormones to be so activated that you get sick. You can’t function, you can’t sleep, you can’t do your work because there is a tipping point with stress hormones. We can handle a lot of stress but it does have a toll on our bodies after a while.

Taking breaks, taking good care of yourself, eating well, getting exercise, moving, getting outside if you can, and certainly talking to people, getting support from friends and family, feeling connected to the people that you love, not isolating. Those are some of the things that we need to be mindful of, to sustain ourselves through this.

Also, that would have something to do with the fact that we want to control everything but what we need to control is our response and also our behavior. If you’re so upset and on edge, you might do a lot of things that later you think, “I wish I hadn’t done that. I wish I hadn’t said that.”

One of the things I said yesterday when I was speaking is, “One of the best antidotes to feeling bad, is to help somebody else – to do service somewhere & to put yourself out there.” That doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be towards a Jewish or a Palestinian cause.

It could be that you just say, “I’m going to go and work in a soup kitchen today.” Or, “I’m going to call a relative I haven’t spoken to for a while and check in”, or “I’m going to bake something and bring it to a doorman”, or anything you can do that gives you a sense of doing something positive. It’s an amazing antidote to depression and fear.

That sounds very wise.

The three of us have talked earlier about the fact that this is a very one-sided kind of conflict. So, one of the problems is people don’t know what to say. There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of hatred. People feel they have to pick one camp or another, whether they’re supporting Israel and the Jewish people, or whether they’re supporting the Palestinians. It’s so polarizing, and it’s taken the lid off a lot of anger and rage on all sides. It’s pretty scary to see.

It is scary. It’s not just like, “Oh, I might offend someone if I say the wrong thing.” You could get someone giving you death threats, it’s so serious. 

It’s true. Even being out here on social media, talking, trying to be helpful. There’s a lot for people. What I’ve been trying to say is, that we must keep our humanity, our collective humanity upfront, we must remember that we’re all human beings.

We all love our children, we all love our families, we all love to break bread with our friends. Beneath all of this divisiveness, we’re basically all human. We have to keep remembering that because one of the things that happened in the Holocaust. It happened in many Holocausts in history, where one side stopped seeing the other side as human.

So that when there’s torture, when there’s rape, when there’s killing, when there’s bombing, when there’s all the horrendous things we see, we can’t wrap our heads around how one human being can be so evil to another. But what’s missing is that people stop seeing each other as humans.

I was worried about that, too. I was thinking, after a week or so of watching all of this, will it become not less disturbing? But I’m saying we just see so much of it – that backfires.

Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, probably one of the more famous people after the Holocaust because of the books that he wrote about it. I once saw him speak, and he said something that I never forgot, which is that, “Sometimes silence is even more powerful than constantly talking” Because of the very reason you just brought up Alison, which is that, we don’t want to become satiated.

We don’t want to become conditioned and ignore what we’re seeing. Sometimes, another reason to not constantly be drowning in all the information and social media is probably very healthy, so that you don’t develop numbness. We are still talking about stages of trauma, we’re still all collectively in a great deal of shock.

This happened a week and a day ago, we were horrified. We still can’t believe it, it’s still almost unimaginable, and there are still incredibly horrible images coming out on both sides. Now, slowly the shock starts wearing off and the reaction to real reality starts setting in. Where it’s no longer, “Oh, this looks like something I’ve seen on the show Fauda.” I don’t know if you’ve heard of that show.

Watch the trailer of “Fauda” here

Fauda has a series on Netflix that is about an elite Israeli anti-terrorist group that goes in and takes terrorists out. But when you watch that on TV, even though it was written and directed by an actual person who had retired from that service, it’s still TV, it still looks like a video game.

Now we’re watching it, and I found myself the first day or two having to say, “This is real. This is not a video game, this is not Fauda. This is not Homeland.” (The series, “Homeland”). This is real, and as the days go on, we know how real it is. Of course, now we’re still seeing carnage, death, children being hurt, and families being torn apart. We said we don’t know where this is going to end.

What about the hostages?

That’s the other thing. I think we can all identify with people who have family members, friends, and loved ones who are hostages right now. I think one of the most terrific, most painful interviews that I saw this week was of a father, who found out that his daughter was indeed not a hostage but had been killed.

He was relieved, and the fact that a father could be relieved that his daughter had died and wasn’t a hostage being tortured was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. Because as a parent myself, the thought that would be a better alternative is just mind-blowing. That’s where we’re at right now. The reality of what we’re experiencing. So what do we do?

I’m a firm believer that light helps mitigate darkness, and that love is the antidote to hate. I feel that wherever each one of us can find light, give light, feel, love, give love. Every little drop is like a ripple that occurs to counteract the hatred that we’re seeing, and the rage that we’re seeing.

We have to do that and when I work with Holocaust survivors, many of whom had been in concentration camps. I would ask over and over again, “What kept you going?”, “How did you keep going?”, “How did you go on day after day?” The word that came up each time – was hope.

Hope, to me, is one of the most powerful-isms of our human existence, that hope keeps us going. Hope keeps us moving forward, hope brings light. We in the world don’t just need hope, we need what I call radical hope. Hope above hope that there can be some resolution to this conflict, which by the way, has gone on since the beginning of time.

Not just in the Israeli, and Palestinian world, it’s gone on all over the world where groups are fighting over religion, land, and history. This is not new to humanity, but what is new is our ability to witness this the way we’re witnessing it.

Know people who are directly involved.

I think one of the things we talked about is, “What do you say to people? What do you say to your Jewish friends? What do people say to their Palestinian friends and their children?” I think, number one, you have to know who your audience is so you have to feel someone’s response to you if you start talking to them.

I happen to be Jewish. I have Jewish friends, we don’t always agree on some of the geopolitical situations that have gone down. Even amongst ourselves, you must know who you’re talking to. I’m not comparing this to Covid, but I do remember in the darkest days of Covid, people didn’t always agree with how to conduct themselves – don’t go out, wear a mask, not wear a mask. You had to be careful who you were speaking to about things.

Again, I’m not comparing Covid to this. You have to show compassion to whoever you’re dealing with and if we lose compassion for the other side, no matter what side we’re on, we cease being humans. I hate to say it, but the devil’s work is greater.

About six years ago, I presented a paper at a National Center for Trauma Conference on evil and it was based on The Screwtape Letters that was written during World War II. If we’re bystanders, if we don’t speak up, if we don’t rail against evil, it continues.

Now, we have to fight against all evil no matter where it’s coming from. That’s what makes this so hard because when you start getting into the geo-political-religious argument, you’re really on a slippery slope. We have to be careful at the same time, we can’t be silent.

It’s really difficult to navigate and it’s really difficult to understand. You’d need a major history lesson to go through all the years, centuries, decades, and everything that came bubbling up like this.

Personally, one of the things I have found myself saying, and not just with this crisis. A couple of months ago, I went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. I said in that museum, “We are a very problematic species, as people.” Again, getting back to the soul level, how do we come to grips with the fact that since the beginning of time, humans have hurt other human beings so badly; wiped out populations?

Right, too many times it’s in the name of religion too. It’s just so difficult to understand.

One of the great writers in my field, her name is Sue Grand. She’s written a lot about evil, and one of the things that happens is that it’s so overwhelming, that after these genocides and after these horrible moments like we’re in now, there sort of becomes a collective amnesia.

Where it’s so unbearable, that we begin to forget. When we forget, we become complacent. When we are complacent, things start up again. Before we know it, we see what we’re seeing today, which is full-scale brutality on both sides. I mean, how do you look at children in hospitals who have been blown apart, or often on either side, without some incredible soul pain and compassion?

As you said, it’s not by nature, it’s some human being who did it. So what do you say to your kids? Do you have any advice even for people with college-age kids?

Yes. It’s interesting because all week in my practice, this was the question everybody was asking, “Who had kids of different ages?” Of course, the very little ones, you have to make sure that they’re not around when the TV is on, and when the radio is on, you kind of shield them, because they hear everything. They also pick up on their parents’ distress.

Hope is one of the most powerful of our human existence, that hope keeps us going. Hope keeps us moving forward, hope brings light.

So wherever possible, you try to keep your distress out of sight for them. Once your kids are older and they start asking questions, I’m a real believer as a psychologist in not lying to children, I think children know when you’re lying, and it makes them even more uncertain. Again, these are children who are maybe ten or eleven and older.

When they’re at that age, you have to be honest and explain to them that this has been a big problem historically, in this area of the world. What they’re seeing is horrible, you have to listen to their feelings. Again, young children, even that age should not be watching these images.

There’s been a lot of talk about how to turn off certain parts of social media. So that now with cell phones, children have such access to social media, you want to make sure that they are not watching certain imagery if you can. It’s very important with the older kids, the college-age kids, to allow them to talk about their feelings, to encourage them to talk to other people. Get help if they’re distressed.

One of the things that traumas like this do just like other traumas is, that if someone is a very depressed person, they get more depressed. If someone is very obsessive, they become more obsessive. So whatever we are, when we’re in these moments, usually those things get aggravated. If it gets to the point where people are having trouble functioning, they need to seek help.

But again, by talking to each other, and doing good. People are donating money, they’re donating clothes, they’re trying to do things to help – helping always helps. But it’s not easy.

No, gosh, it’s extremely challenging to navigate.

One more thing I’d like to add because this came up yesterday in a talk I gave, people are walking around feeling guilty that they’re living their lives. For instance, I’m going to an anniversary dinner tonight for somebody, or people are having planned events, or doing things they were supposed to do, and they feel guilty.

One of the things I learned when I worked with Holocaust survivors was that it’s very important even in the darkest darkest of times, to find things to celebrate, to find things that give us light. Even in the concentration camps, there were moments when they had weddings.

There were moments when they had bat mitzvahs. Quietly hidden, of course. But they found a way, they sometimes celebrated a birthday.

I read this somewhere yesterday, a Holocaust group of survivors that volunteer at the Holocaust Museum in DC put out a letter yesterday. In a letter, they said, “You have to go on living your life, because if you don’t, then the terrorists won on another level. If they wipe out our spirit, that’s even more trauma.”

That makes sense, that’s a great way to look at it.

We do have heavy hearts. Our souls are hurting right now, our spirits are hurting. But we still have to go on, live our lives, do the best that we can, and move towards the light. I’ve been saying this because we learned a lot after 9/11.

When 9/11 came, all the psychologists and helpers ran down to try to help everybody talk about their feelings. That wasn’t the time, the time that we’re going to need to do this again. Hopefully, when this conflict is over in a couple of months from now, where this all settles in our souls. We’re still at the beginning of this, we’re still in shock.

That’s interesting. Like what you said about being almost like putting it out of your mind, it’s hard to remember those beginning days of Covid before we knew if we were all gonna die. It’s hard to go back there, but you don’t want to negate it like you said.

It’s a balance. It’s knowing yourself, it’s taking care of yourself as best as you can, and helping your friend. I don’t know where this is going to end. None of us do, and that’s why we’re still in a lot of uncertainty right now. But we have to have hope.

Thank you so much for this, for the advice and encouragement.

Thank you, because doing this is helping me feel like I’m doing something. I’m modeling that for your followers who go out and do something that helps. Just even talking like this, I can sense the heaviness.

But like you said, at the very end this little glimmer of hope that the light will win.

Yes, and we cannot give that up. That’s why we have to keep moving toward that radical hope, okay? Thank you for having me.

Sounds like a plan.

Dr. Karen, you’re probably fully booked. But if someone did want to schedule a therapy appointment with you, is that something that you would be open to?

I am pretty busy right now, but I certainly would talk to anybody. If I couldn’t help them, I could try to help them find somebody that could.

Okay, thank you so much. Thank you for everyone tuning in and we are thinking about everyone during this traumatic time.

Take good care of yourselves.

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About The Guest

Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading Psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. Her practice consists of older adolescents and adults. She provides Individual as well as marital, family, and group psychotherapy. In addition, Dr. Binder-Brynes is a leading expert in the field of post-traumatic stress.

Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes has recently been contracted to the Episcopal Church to counsel and debrief returning Military Episcopal Clergy who have been deployed in Iraq. Recently, Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes has become a charter member of the Division of Trauma Psychology of the American Psychological Association and has been appointed to the Committee of Disaster Response. She is currently working on setting up remote video trauma relief counseling programs in conjunction with the Episcopal Church in the New Orleans area.

The Style That Binds Us




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