Emotional Health

Dr. Moffett on Emotional Health: Trauma, Spirituality, and Healing

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Jane Moffett is a doctorate-level clinical social worker with advanced certifications in trauma. She works in New York City as a psychotherapist and Area Director for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, as well as Clinical Director for the Integrative Trauma Clinic at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies. She has long had an interest in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality and in mind-body practices. We are calling on her 28 years’ experience as a psychotherapist to speak to women in the second half of life who hope to find meaning in adversity and to develop practices for serenity. —Ed.

On a recent Friday night I attended Love Letters, a play by A.R. Gurney. Two wonderfully talented actors brought the audience into the complex and enduring friendship of Andrew and Melissa as it evolved over 50 years. As an audience, we shared Andy and Melissa’s awkward childhood passages, their hopeful journeys into marriages, and their maturation into very different adulthoods.

Thinking about the play later, I reflected on my many years as a psychotherapist listening to similar stories. In telling their stories, my patients often want many things: to free themselves of a painful past, to make sense out of shameful memories, and to make a cohesive narrative out of fragments of happiness, fear, hope, anger, and loss.

Occasionally, patients have said—or have had said to them—“God gives only as much as we can handle.”  I don’t agree. Some of us are given much too much to bear. Perhaps Melissa was given too many burdens—as have my patients who have suffered shock trauma more than once: the sudden death of someone close because of a violent crime; a tragic accident; a serious health crisis; war; torture; family dysfunction and abuse. There is no silver lining in the events they have been through, and too often they have been given far too many hardships. It takes time to heal.

Part of the therapist’s job is to work with patients to help them create a life that is larger than their pain and loss, so that eventually what has happened to them takes up far less space. The memories may never completely go away, but they can lose their power. To this end, the somatic and psychological trauma must first be addressed.

There are newer therapies that enhance traditional therapies by drawing on research in brain neurology, human bonding and attachment, and the physiology of trauma; therapies such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Somatic Experiencing, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.  Using these methods, along with insight therapy, moves the healing process along.

Eventually, as the most challenging scenarios are resolved or worked through, different questions emerge: Is there some meaning that comes out of the suffering? How does one come to terms with the lost time? If there is remaining anger, how is that best resolved? Some ask themselves if, through the healing process, they have learned something of value that might help others. Many patients resolve these questions from a purely secular point of view, while others experience some difficult struggles around faith, belief, and spirituality.

For those who are contending with the “God issue” or with questions of meaning and spirituality, it is a time of reflection, of questioning whether or not there is a divine  presence in their lives. Some conclude that the “rules” of their faith were of little or no help in protecting them from life-changing events or the actions of others.

What does this look like in therapy?

Some years ago, a young woman came to me suffering from trauma. Idealistic and talented, she had taken her first job out of college with a faith-based international humanitarian agency. Her supervisor, a charismatic and powerful figure in the organization, mentored her through many difficult situations. Unbeknownst to her, the stress of the job was getting to him, and he relapsed into alcoholism. While he was able to hide his decline from the larger organization, she became the target of his abuse, on many levels. Scared into silence because of his threats, far from home, and struggling to keep hold of her career dreams, she felt helpless as the situation spiraled out of control.

In the first stage of our work together, our focus was on understanding what it meant to have her dreams of service result in suffering and betrayal.  No longer certain of her life path, she felt cut off from the beliefs and the religion that had directed her life. She came to me because she knew I was a therapist who would be respectful of her faith and not judge her for doubting or for wondering how the God she had believed in could have allowed her to be so abused. Like others on the staff of the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, I make every effort to study and understand the diverse and rich spiritual practices that are part of the communities the Institute serves.

In working with this young woman, I did not introduce my own practices or beliefs: I did not want to tip the focus toward me in a way that might restrict her explorations. She would need to find her own answers and insights about what she had been through. More important, I wanted to create a sense of spaciousness around her questions of faith and spirituality. What had she believed in that she no longer believed? Could she accept that some of faith is a mystery?  What in her life still offered a sense of transcendence? What did it mean to her now to be of service? What sustained her now?

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  • Diane Dettmann March 12, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Dr. Moffett, thank you so much for sharing this insightful and meaningful story on emotional health and healing. In 2000 the sudden death of my husband threw me into a down hill spiral of grief. You’re so right, we can’t undo the past and time doesn’t heal the wounds. I found that the steps we take within that time can bring meaning back and help us move forward into a renewed life. What you do for others is truly a gift.