Watch a new commercial for the Child Psychiatry division at Mount Sinai Health System that features the work of my Center.Read More
I received this plaque of appreciation while giving a keynote for a conference on runaway and homeless youth for the NYC Department of Youth & Community Development. It's more valuable to me than my diplomas. Those mark the development of my tools. This is what I've done with my tools: helping my dear city take care of its own staff and in turn take care of our children and families. What a blessing!
I kinda helped open up a new mental health clinic in Flushing, NY. It's run by Korean Community Services of NY. I was brought onto the board to help them create it. We had our ribbon ceremony on Monday. The ceremony was covered by NY1 and The Korea Times. The new clinic is on the 2nd floor of this building in the picture. It's not the Head 2 Toe Spa, though it makes me think: that's not a bad business idea... therapy and pedicure all at once.
I was invited to lead a community discussion about how to heal from the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the police. We reviewed how social traumas like the on-going stories about police shootings can impact our way of thinking and lead to self-protective yet reactive grief and rage and how the only chance we have of turning this into a positive is to remember what we value and want in our society--what Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, called, "protesting with a purpose." She attended the event by the way (she's cool).
More than 60 community leaders, members and police officers attended the event. One of the highlights for me was when we were discussing how to affect change and all of the suggestions were for large sweeping policy changes, and I suggested that we start small and focus on overcoming the loss of dignified humanity that is happening between police and black communities by maybe starting with the vision of young black men introducing themselves to community officers saying something like, "hi, I'm, so and so. I go to high school. I want to be a XX. Thank you for committing your life to serving and protecting our community." And of course, community officers could do something similar in return. The community police in the crowd were nodding vigorously. After the event, one of the leaders at Richmond University Medical Center said he loved the idea and was going to host a series of such events throughout Staten Island. Let's hope and pray that it happens and it works, even just a little bit.
NY1 covered the event (see video).
I was invited to be the guest speaker on this half-hour radio talk show to discuss how trauma can impact children and parents. The show is part of You Gotta Believe!, a program that finds homes for transition age youth (older teens and pre-teens).
You can listen to the show by clicking here.
Or visit the radio show's webpage.
The BI-SLR HEARTS Program, which I developed and have directed since 2009, has been newly-appointed a Center of Excellence within the newly formed Mount Sinai Health System. The new name for the program is the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This appointment is a recognition of all of the great work the program does to advance the science and treatment of child traumatic stress and should help us build new collaborations and opportunities within the health system. I'll post a link to the new webpage within the health system when it's up and running. Thanks to my staff without whom this recognition would not be possible.
The Sewol Ferry boat accident is one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters. With the advent of international Korean television and 24-hour news coverage, Koreans living all over the world are as devastated as their counterparts in Korea. TV stations canceled comedies and dedicated all airtime to somber coverage of the tragedy. Koreans grieved collectively and honored the dead and their families by doing nothing except think about the tragedy. People wore yellow ribbons in commemoration, but no one knew when to take them off without appearing heartless.
As a Korean American psychologist studying and treating traumatic stress, I believe that understanding how we all react to traumatic stress can help us cope with the tragedy effectively and reasonably.
First, every one of us has a stress response system that many trauma experts simply call the “body’s alarm.” The alarm is designed to keep us safe. It sits in a primitive part of the brain called the limbic system and screens all incoming sensory information for threat. Threat can be directed towards ourselves or someone we love. Threat can also be real or imagined. That’s why parents can be even more traumatized by this tragedy. They cannot help but imagine their own children on that boat, sinking, screaming, and dying in the goriest detail their alarms can imagine.
Once the alarm is triggered, it does two things. First, it immediately prepares the body to either fight or flee. We feel a rush of energy as adrenaline enters the blood stream. Our hands get sweaty, our heart races, breathing quickens, and blood and energy get diverted away from our gut, leaving us feeling a little queasy. Second, the alarm alerts the neocortex, the higher part of the brain, to pay attention and make sense of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Our attention orients to the biggest threat. We all turn to watch. We have to.
In the wild, when an animal is threatened by a predator, its alarm goes off and it fights or flees. When the threat has ended, the animal shudders off the remaining adrenaline, catalogs the experience and the threat, and returns to grazing, wandering, living life. Unfortunately, tragedies often do not provide us a natural outlet for alarm energy. The alarm energy stews in our bodies, driving our neocortex to keep looking for the enemy, to keep fighting or running away.
In this state, the alarm can hijack the brain. Every time it sees another video of the children drowning, it creates more alarm energy, spurring us to rescue them. The mind is driven mad with rage and looks to find who is to blame. We cry “murder!” and rabidly blame everyone we can, from the ship’s captain to the Korean president. The hijacked brain no longer thinks complexly, but only in the simplest terms—safe or dangerous, good or bad. The enemy becomes dehumanized, demonized.
But, the hijacked brain suffers more when the enemy is within. Korea is torn between shame over its own negligent corruption and a desire to criminalize and punish everyone involved.
I think this is why tragedies caused by acts of terror are easy for a nation. Look at the United State’s response to 9/11 or the Boston Marathon Bombing. The enemy was known and already identified as different. The nation united together and resumed living as soon as it could, rallying around the notion that it would not let terror win. Our TV shows started with a moment of silence, then we laughed and lived with renewed vigor and determination.
Koreans must not let alarm energy divide us. We must remember that we are all imperfect, capable of frail, selfish acts, and more importantly, realize that these acts also most often stem from minds hijacked by alarm.
Some parents ask me “But, how can I guide my children to obey authority figures any more?!” To these parents, I first invite them to recognize that maddening alarm energy is what drives the despair underlying this question. And, I remind them of what Obama said after the Newtown shooting:
This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another.
Then, I remind them that the world is as it always has been—filled with beauty and horror, the magical and the mundane. This was an extremely rare accident in a world that is generally safe though still requires us to be reasonably cautious and careful. Children should still assume that adults care for them and protect them, while still exercising caution and good judgment. Then, I ask them to remember what they really care about for their children, which is to teach them to love and live with dignity and virtue.
We cannot despair. We need to recognize how much our alarms have hijacked our rational thinking and expend alarm energy by first allowing ourselves to feel overwhelming grief, sadness, helplessness, fear and rage. We must take time to experience our feelings fully without immediately converting them into action. We must understand that feelings are like the weather that comes with every season. Though some may be unpleasant, it always passes and even rain and snow nourishes this life on this earth.
Then, we can reclaim more of our minds by doing what our higher minds do best—remember the people we love and the values that define us. It produces feelings of calm, confidence, compassion, forgiveness and responsibility. These feelings need to co-exist with our grief and rage, so we can most effectively honor our alarm’s need to protect our children but also insure that we create a world that teaches them how to love and live with virtue. This is truly the only way that we can weed out the corruption, greed and other human frailties our alarms are begging us to destroy.
I was recently a guest expert on trauma for Arise News, an international news channel for New York, London, and Johannesburg. I was asked to provide tips on how the nation can recover from this recent tragedy during the Boston Marathon.
Below is an elaboration of my thoughts from this appearance.
The nature of our stress response
On a more cognitive level, our belief in the world may be challenged or shaken. I overhear people saying, "What is this world coming to?" r "We're going to hell in a hand basket!" On the most basic level, we all need to feel that the world is generally more safe than dangerous and that people are more helpful than hurtful. Without this assumption, our capacity to love and grow becomes significantly hampered, and we become more vulnerable to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even anger. Any traumatic event challenges these fundamental assumptions we need to make about the world. It is our job to remember that the world is generally a safe place, particularly for those of us fortunate enough to live in these great United States. Like I said on the news program, this tragedy was but one moment in our lives. We are supposed to respond with horror and grief. But, when that moment passes, we have to allow it to pass and realize that there have been and will be millions of moments when nothing bad happens and in fact "pockets of beauty" quoting Nietzsche emerge.
Right now, we are all mostly responding like we should. We are all a little more hyper-vigilant, ore alert, more jittery and tense. Our sleep may be disrupted and we may feel less hungry or queasy. This is our body's natural way of keeping us protected from perceived threat. We need to thank our bodies for keeping us alert for danger, but when the danger has passed, we need to help our body expend that energy (through physical exercise, crying, relaxation practices, etc) and remind our bodies that we are safe again.
A word of caution: be careful of "othering"
One other thing that our stress response does when it is on high alert, is that it looks to identify the source of threat. It needs to find the enemy. Simultaneously, this state of alarm narrows our thinking, making us think in simplified, black-and-white erms. In another parallel process, we feel horrified by exposure to evil and want to move ourselves as far away from that as possible. We all hold within us a mix of good and evil parts. But, when something extremely evil happens, we want to simplify the world, distance ourselves from such evil, and compensate by thinking of ourselves as more good. This is what I think of when I hear interviews of people who knew this young men and can't make sense of these evil acts and the good kids they used to know.
These processes leaves us highly vulnerable for wanting to find a singular source of danger and label that danger as purely evil. In this moment, particularly when commingled with grief, which leaves us wanting retaliation as a safer, less vulnerable and helpless, state of being, we are at great risk of planting seeds of hatred, discrimination, racism, and oppression. We want to say that all Chechen or all Muslims are bad people because it makes us feel safer to just assume so and leave it at that or know who to blame and hurt for what has happened.
The key to protecting ourselves from such an outcome is to stand naked in our inability to comprehend how such evil acts exists, allow these events to wash through us in waves of fear, anger, despair, and grief, then allow them to pass, realizing that the moment is temporary and soon enough new moments will arise free from this one.