Working Through Trauma and PTSD

Trauma can be experienced in a number of ways, whether it is from an abusive relationship, experiences in combat, or from unprecedented experiences such as an attack, an accident, or a natural disaster.  According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 1 out of 11 adults in the US develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition in which the feelings associated with the traumatic event stay present in a person’s life after it is over. Long term effects of PTSD can be debilitating, and those affected with it experience symptoms such as flashbacks, distorted and unpredictable emotions, and avoidant tendencies. Because of the mental anguish it causes, PTSD is a tough subject to tackle for those who have experienced it.

Last Monday, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City hosted an event as part of their Brainwave series that tried to do just that. The talk, Trauma and the Power of Resilience, featured Oscar and Golden Globe nominated actress Rosie Perez and trauma specialist and psychotherapist Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D. During the talk, Perez and Heller delved into the ways in which trauma can be unraveled and reckoned with.

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Rosie Perez (L) speaking with psychotherapist Diane Poole Heller (R). Photo credit: Asya Gorovits 

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Challenging the Perception of Early Achievers

Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard is a self-professed late bloomer. At 26 years old, he was a graduate of Stanford University (which he says he got into on a fluke) working as a security guard, with little direction in life. It wasn’t until soon after, when he was given an opportunity to be a technical writer, that he “felt a cognitive renaissance in that path.”

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Kevin Ochsner. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

At last week’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, Karlgaard sat down with neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, whose lab studies emotion and self-control at Columbia University, for a conversation about late bloomers. What started as an exchange about their personal experiences soon became a discussion over the pros and cons of early focus versus finding one’s path later in life.

Both guests criticized the pressure placed on children by schools and oftentimes parents to be high achievers at early ages when critical capabilities are still evolving. Kaarlgard cited research by Harvard’s Laura Germine and colleagues, who reported that different capabilities peak in different stages of our lives. For example, raw speed in processing information seemed to peak around age 18 or 19, while the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states did not peak until the 40s or 50s.

Ochsner warned of defining achievement too narrowly, as standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE, often do, without taking into account other forms of intelligence, especially emotional intelligence. Historically, passion and reason were treated as distinct, “as one rises, the other falls,” he said. But that model does not match the research. Gut feelings and insight are largely driven by systems associated with emotion, he said.

Ochsner told the audience that when interviewing Ph.D. candidates at Columbia, he won’t consider applicants who don’t show interests beyond academics. These students have proven they’re very good at being students, in a set structure, he said, but being a Ph.D. student is like being an entrepreneur of your own company. They need to be able to handle criticism and choose their areas of study, he explained. Demonstrated characteristics like maturity and resilience score high during his application evaluations.

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Rich Karlgaard. Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Passion as a driving force to success was a theme revisited throughout the night’s discussion; early achievers often seem to know what they want to do from a young age and receive validation for it, while late bloomers may want to explore options before settling down in one area, Karlgaard posited. Being a late bloomer is “the perfect intersection of our deepest passions and talents,” he said.

Both speakers had ideas on how to nurture curiosity and exploration in a data-driven world. Karlgaard proposed a skilled trades track in school (what used to be called “shop”), gap years in between high school and college (but not just a long vacation), and mandatory service, whether military or community service.

Ochsner circled back to the importance of nurturing emotional or social intelligence so that you can “learn how to get out of your own way and access your own potential.” He pointed to the work being done at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where they have designed curriculum for schools that supports the development of emotional intelligence.

Ochsner also called out what he saw as trends in education that have not proven to work. Assigning homework at early grade levels and over-planning kids’ afterschool activities have not been proven to help them succeed, he said. Taking away recess is a “huge mistake.”

With that food for thought, Tim McHenry, director of programs and engagement at the Rubin Museum, closed the night’s discussion by tying it back to the museum’s Himalayan roots, noting the increase in meditation in classrooms and the growing scientific validation for it, as a way to achieve a sense of balance.

Brainwave events are planned through September. To see the remaining events and to purchase tickets, visit the Rubin Museum website.

– Ann L. Whitman

Coping is Not Created Equal: A Woman’s Military Experience

Human beings have always been resilient creatures. Whether we realize it or not, we possess the ability to adapt to various situations and survive them, often without even noticing how we managed it. Unfortunately, that does not always mean that the ways we adapt and what our coping mechanisms are can be healthy or particularly beneficial to us, whether in a short-term situation or in the long run. Avoidant coping mechanisms (or ones that involve the person basically withdrawing into themselves) can be especially harmful for various reasons, so figuring out why some may choose them is important.

How to cope with personal trauma was the theme of “Finding Resilience and Making Change in the Military,” a recent Brainwave series program at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.

The program paired Anuradha Bhagwati, an Ivy League educated Marine Corps veteran, with Jennifer Chan, Ph.D., a pharmacologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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Bhagwati (left) and Chan (right). Photo: Rubin Museum

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Two Addiction Stories at the Rubin

Addiction, at its most ravenous, wreaks devastation in the brain when searching for dopamine, a chemical that plays a role in reward-motivated behavior.  For some, this means expulsion from several schools, unraveling relationships with family and friends, and struggling amidst homelessness. After ten years of insatiably chasing the next high, this series of events was the reality for a woman just beginning treatment for a substance abuse problem that began when she was a 13-year-old. In rehab, the revelation that addiction is a disease compelled her to consider the existence of a cure—one merely needed to search for it. This search proved to be the fuel in her becoming a behavioral neuroscientist studying the root causes of drug addiction.

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Judith Grisel, Ph.D.

The woman, now an accomplished scientist, is Judith Grisel, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Bucknell University and author of a new book, Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction (Doubleday, 2019). Grisel shared her compelling story, that of her 25 years of research and as a current recovering addict, was part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave: Power series, a program featuring discussions between “neuroscientists and notable personalities.”

At “The Power of Addiction,” Grisel spoke candidly with actor Zachary Quinto, known for his role as Spock in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise and more recently on Broadway as Harold in Boys in the Band. The duo shared intimate details of their embroilments with addiction (Quinto is also a recovering addict) and what the healing process entailed for them. Continue reading

Two Speakers Examine Mental Health

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Flying University is a speakeasy-style lecture series featuring storytellers, experts, professors, and comedians shining a light on ideas, people, science, and moments in history that have been erased or overlooked. On Tuesday night, the series presented “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” an intimate look at the people and mechanisms behind mental health diagnoses.

The program was held in conjunction with Brain Awareness Week at Caveat in Manhattan.  Suzanne Garrison, a licensed therapist and art therapist, explained how she evaluates patients, one of whom was the host, Chinisha S. The therapist explained that she analyzes a patient to find the healthy, well-functioning part of that person. She then nurtures that part, which leads to a better understanding of their repressed feelings and motivations. Garrison compared the mind to an iceberg: the small part above water is the part of our consciousness, but the larger chunk under water is the part of our subconscious. But the latter is what drives the whole iceberg. Like the two parts of the iceberg, her goal is to make the unconscious conscious and to help clients better know their feelings and free themselves from feelings of shame or guilt. Continue reading

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