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Rituals and Reintegration

For many reasons, and on many levels of human experience, ritual is an important tool in recovery from substance use disorders, post-deployment stress effects, and other conditions related to challenges to the human stress and survival system.  Ritual is certainly a strong element in the cultures of addiction and recovery (White, 1996), with a variety of rituals prominent in the many mutual-help recovery options.  Clinicians can choose clinical practices that include elements of ritual (e.g., Mindfulness training, visualization, somatosensory practices) and recommend positive rituals (e.g., faith traditions, Mindfulness, yoga) in recovery and self-care.  They can also can work with veterans, empowering them to establish healing rituals within their lives, families, support networks, and communities.

Ritual and the Brain:  Elsewhere in these pages (see Overview of the Human Stress and Survival System), several brain structures have revealed themselves as particularly important to the balance of our stress and survival systems.  Positive ritual can have strong positive effects on the functioning of many of these structures, particularly the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate gyrus (Siegal, 2007).

The amygdala is an essentially concrete structure, storing and retrieving bites of sound, scent, images, and raw emotions.  It does not understand concepts, but badly needs evidence of basic safety before it will stop throwing out frightening fragments of memory and triggering powerful surges of stress chemicals.  Ritual is made up of concrete, symbolic words, silences, sounds, scents, stories, gestures, movement, artifacts, etc.  Ritual talks to the amygdala in a language it can understand.  And positive rituals speak of safety and comfort (Scaer et al., 2008).

Ritual also reaches the all-important prefrontal cortex (PFC), whose GABA fibers can descend to the amygdala and provide comfort and soothing.  Some rituals (e.g., Mindfulness) have been shown both to focus the prefrontal cortex and to promote cell growth in both the PFC and the anterior cingulate gyrus (Siegal, 2007).

Finding Rituals:  For the individual veteran, therapist Eduardo Duran recommends a simple approach:  “Find a place in your home or yard, and designate it as a sacred space.  Give your offerings to the earth or whatever you believe in, trying to correct what has been done.”  According to Duran, rituals and ceremonies are everywhere, but the challenge is to replace the “dysfunctional” ceremonies—like those used in addiction—with healthy ones.  

Storytelling can be an important ritual, particularly among people with shared experiences, like groups of veterans.  In War and the Soul, Edward Tick wrote that “When we tell our own stories and listen to those of others, we come in touch with all three:  life, divinity, and soul.  Telling our story is a way of preserving our individual history and at the same time defining our place in the larger flow of events.  It reveals patterns and meaning that we might otherwise miss as we go about the mundane activities of living;  it invites us to see the universe working through us.  Storytelling also knits the community together.  It records or re-creates the collective history and transforms actor and listeners alike into communal witnesses” (Tick, 2005, p. 217).

Rituals in Community:  Bonding and affiliation are important components of:

  • Resilience to stress and trauma
  • Recovery from post-deployment effects, substance use disorders, and other common aftereffects of war.

As strong as the bonding within the Unit might have been, the sense of alienation and isolation back home can be equally strong (Armstrong, Best, and Domenici, 2006).

One of the civilian clinician’s challenges is to find ways to encourage veterans to find positive rituals in the family and the community—and to encourage families, communities, and communities of faith to form positive rituals for welcoming veterans home.  “We must witness for and initiate each other,” wrote Edward Tick.  “Our transformations are not completed in solitude;  they are honored in public and integrated into the culture as its shared history” (Tick, 2005, p. 217).

According to veteran and trainer-of-veterans Steve Robinson, the importance of ritual in trauma recovery is something ancient cultures understood, but contemporary American society has largely missed.  “We have no traditions in 21st-century culture to deal with traumatic experiences, so we all end up having to deal with them on our own, because we have no cultural ritual.  There needs to be a call to action.  We as a society need to develop a ritual for negotiating life’s intense experiences that is understood by all.  Each culture may do it differently, but it provides a place to go when these things happen.”

Native American Reintegration Rituals:  Many who work with traumatized veterans have studied and admired traditional Native American rituals for welcoming and reintegrating warriors back into the tribe.  These healing ceremonies generally addressed both body and mind, reflecting a tendency not to make any sharp distinctions between the two (Silver and Wilson, 1996).  Although these rituals would not be accessible to veterans of non-Native cultures, they illustrate some ways in which ritual can be used to address the effects of war.

“The wisdom of such rituals lies in their ability to decondition the intense emotions produced and learned in combat.  Ritual purification, embedded in cultural meaning, begins the process of transformation in identity and role expectation.  Moreover, ceremonies and rituals for both preparing warriors for battle and reintegrating them into the tribe not only acknowledge combat reactions but also rely heavily on the participation of the family, clan, and tribe” (Silver and Wilson, 1996, p. 303).  

Reintegration within the tribe does not mean returning to one's previous state as if nothing had happened, but rather the taking on of a new role that often includes self-discipline, leadership, and generativity (passing knowledge and wisdom on to the next generation).  This improvement in the warrior's status reflects this new wisdom, reframes what would otherwise be seen as a negative experience, and addresses survivor's guilt by providing opportunities to make atonement through service and contribution to the tribe (Silver and Wilson, 1996).

Next: Meaning, Purpose, and Traumatic Growth


The material on all of the Clinical Pages is taken directly from the draft version of Finding Balance After the War Zone:  Considerations in the Treatment of Post-Deployment Stress Effects, a manual under development for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Human Priorities.  This draft is copyright © 2008, Pamela Woll.  Reprint permission is universally granted, but attribution is requested.
Click here for References and Other Resources.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the current version of the clinician’s manual draft.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the accompanying booklet for veterans.

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