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Sunday, December 10, 2023 - 27 Kislev 5784
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The Trauma of Exile

The amygdala is an area of the brain that links experience with emotion. In people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the amygdala is in overdrive. For the most part, when people experience trauma the fears and nightmares diminish after a while. But sufferers of PTSD relive the traumatic event over and over again, until life becomes unbearable. Each time the memory of the traumatic event is triggered (which can happen multiple times during the day), they re-experience the event with its full intensity, which never weakens over time. Psychotherapy and medication have only a modest effect on PTSD.

In an effort to alleviate the suffering of American veterans returning from battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, attempts are being made to weaken the signals coming from the amygdala, by implanting tiny electrodes into the brain of patients with PTSD. The electrodes provide gentle electrical stimulation to the area to neutralize the overactive portion of the brain.

Preliminary studies with animals showed that brain stimulation to reduce anxiety and hyper-vigilance was more effective than anti-depressants. The brain naturally works through electrical signals. When something goes wrong in one of these electrical pathways—either under- or over-stimulation—the result is mental and psychiatric pathology.

The suffering of people with PTSD and other psychiatric illnesses demonstrates that we live inside our brain. Although the veterans have been off the field of battle for a long time, in their minds they are still there, reliving the horrible events over and over. Knowing that they are safe at home does not prevent them from feeling the symptoms. The same is true of psychological pain. Even when we know that what frightens or hurts us is trivial, we cannot prevent the emotion from happening.

To a certain extent we all live within the self-imposed constraints of moods and perceptions that may be false or at least exaggerated. As we mature we realize that to a great degree, our thoughts and experiences may not be based on reality. Since our thoughts create our reality, the best response to any situation is to see it in a positive light—to see how we can best grow or learn from that experience.

This approach is summed up by the chassidic saying, “Think good and it will be good.” This is not as easy as it sounds. It requires a great deal of hard work and study and most of all, guidance. We need help from above, not just to believe that it will be good but to actually experience the good in a direct way. Through positive thinking we reset the pathways in the brain and bring about a redemption on a personal level, which leads to redemption on a communal and global level.


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