Awe and psychiatry: what is the connection for you?
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
I have been writing and talking about awe in recent months for Psychiatric Times, including my column this week about an awesome arts festival and seminar. That event took place in the middle of the Jewish 10 Days of Awe, as they are often called, starting with the New Year of Rosh Hashanah and ending Monday with Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. It would be hard not to sense some awe during the period, especially if one attends synagogue, given the focus on hopefully being put into the “Book of Life,” as well as asking for and receiving forgiveness. The Torah, our holy book, is paraded around, sermons by Rabbis, and the singing of my wife in the choir receive the most attention they will usually get over the year. In fact, my regular and welcome experiences of serendipity and synchronicity began 5 years ago during Rosh Hashanah, with the result being religious insights overlapping those of psychiatry.
Most religions have a similar history of experiences of awe in their founding and special days. There are awe-inspiring revelations in the founding of the religion and in the developmental stories of great significance.
Awe has been receiving more psychological research study in recent years. Characterized usually as profoundly expansive emotional experiences, the awe is usually felt to be positive, but occasionally negative and frightening. Perhaps psychotic hallucinations can at times produce fluctuating negative and positive awe, while psychedelics have the potential positive awe of cosmic connections. Openness to such experiences as dramatic sunrises or sunsets seem the most common and can even be sought out. Artificial intelligence seems to have the potential for both great positive as well as negative awe. The Buddhist practice of resting the mind for 3 minutes or so can prime increased awareness, including that of awe.1
Monday, on the last day of Yom Kippur, I had 2 such psychologically-related experiences of awe. One of them, occurred on the way out of a synagogue service after everybody else had seemed to leave. Suddenly, surprisingly, and seemingly out of the blue, I ran into someone for whom I had provided advice and recommendations for treatment some months prior. The person and their partner had experienced life-treating trauma and significant physical injuries from their own pet. Violence was involved in the genesis of the trauma and its resolution over a short period of time. We shook hands and I was thanked for the referral. They told me they were continuing treatment for recovery of mind and body. The partner, waiting nearby, came over to us and asked who I was. The person shared with their partner what I had done to help. I was quickly tearfully hugged for minutes and minutes, by far the longest in all my psychiatric career. I was shaken with awe.
Later that day on a study session panel, I presented my positive psychiatric view to cognitively reframe the story of the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, who was about to sacrifice his son at the reported request of God. Although the Oedipal conflict reflects that at times a father may want to kill his son, this is a troubling story of awe for many. Reviewing the story once again, I concluded that it was actually a positive story of awe. Isaac lived and went out on his own. As if to apologize, Abraham found him a beautiful and strong wife, and then their progeny continued to develop the religion. Eventually, the Abrahamic religions came to include at least Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though other religions, atheism, and agnosticism can all connect with experiences of awe.
It strikes me that we probably underestimate and underreport our experiences of awe. Recognizing these more may even provide some antidote to burnout. We might even have a model in hostage negotiation law enforcement officers. Probably only second to physicians in our epidemic rate of burnout are police officers.2 A study brought to my attention by a colleague yesterday indicated how a small group of negotiators were reminded of many experiences of awe which they had not realized they had—of their own courage, the help of colleagues, and saving lives. Sounds somewhat like psychiatry, does it not?
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry, and is now in retirement and refirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.
1. Rinpoche YM. Realize Your True Nature. Lion’s Roar. April 28, 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023. https://www.lionsroar.com/realize-your-true-nature/
2. Thompson J, Jensen E. Hostage negotiator resilience: a phenomenological study of awe. Front Psychol. 2023;1122447.