Prayer and Ritual — A Remedy for Depression and Anxiety

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Editor’s Note: This is one person’s experience. Each individual is different and this is not meant to be a reality for everyone. We gratefully appreciate Scott Kushner’s willingness to share this experience with JSA and our followers.

Can prayer and ritual cure depression and anxiety? Can it be a recipe for mentally thriving in our lives?

Thirty-nine years ago, at age 26, I was flown by ambulance jet to Cooper Medical Hospital in Camden NJ. It was Christmas Eve, 1983. While on work assignment inspecting a power plant in St. Thomas, I experienced what would later be described as a psychotic break from reality. I was subsequently diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Type one (Manic / Depressive).

This resulted in an in-patient hospitalization at Cooper Medical Hospital’s psychiatric unit and eventually a longer-term admission in a locked ward at the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital in West Philadelphia. A year and a half later I was released with a regimen of medicine for depression and anxiety, repackaged for ‘standard American success.’ Throughout the years, my medication regimen followed the growth and predominance of psychopharmaceuticals, with everything from Lithium and MAO Inhibitors to Wellbutrin, and many in between. I would dutifully take them for the next 25 years, except for the occasional cold turkey, much to the chagrin of my psychiatrist, to see what I felt like without them. Each time, within a 1–2-week period of stopping meds, I would again feel a cloud of depression descend upon me, and then restart the medications.

Along with these meds, I was counselled to follow the ‘standard American success’ program (to work hard on a career, marry, have 2.1 kids, a dog, and a house in the suburbs). But there was one problem with this formula. It wasn’t making me happy. Nor was the innovative improvements of this long list of medications I had tried and continued to take.

What I found was that the medicine did keep me from any debilitating depression and anxiety, but it also seemed to cut me off from half of myself. It would be much later that I realized the value of feeling and grappling with depressive and anxious thoughts. How doing that would give me the opportunity to experience soul-changing insights, and develop strategies to help me change and grow, ultimately leading me to new ways of thinking and framing life.

As Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, and a founder of Positive Psychology, described it in his 2004 TED talk on the state of psychology, the profession was very good at diagnosing pathologies, reasonably good at addressing symptoms, but not so good at promoting thriving. I wanted to thrive, not just survive.

As chance would have it, or possibly divine grace as I would later choose to believe in, in 2007, I met a woman of great faith while rebuilding homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Of little means, and living within all that devastation, she had a sanguine zest for life that was inexplicable to me. She was thriving despite her circumstances. I began to explore a spiritually based approach to living, diving much deeper into my Judaic heritage, initially with various kabbalah groups, and then with Chabad and Jewish Renewal. Fortunately, in our synagogue at M’kor Shalom, we had a spiritually inclined practitioner whom I enlisted in 2010 to help me navigate this path from medicine to spirituality. As I wrote to him in my 2010 email titled “Spiritually Oriented Therapist”,

“I was referred to you by members at M’kor Shalom. I am looking for a therapist that could help me with depressive and anxious feelings but in the context of an evolving spiritual journey and connection to God….

…. For the last year, I have been trying to deal with depressive feelings using a more cognitive and meditative approach, without the use of pharmacology. This change was prompted from a spiritual journey I began about 3 years ago which is causing me to reevaluate my view of Judaism, spirituality, and most of life. I have been studying Chassidus, kabbalah and a little of eastern philosophies. Since most of that study involves personal transformation, on one level it is greatly supporting my effort to deal with depression, but on another level, it has left me a little unsettled in how to integrate my spiritual journey with therapeutic efforts. My therapist of 25 years, while a good psychiatrist, has a pharmacological and agnostic life approach, and is not able to support me in this endeavor. Others have spoken very highly of you as well as your spiritual approach to dealing with life.”  

This skilled and experienced psychologist’s diagnosis of me at the time was “Dysthymic Disorder,” also known as “Persistent depressive disorder.” If you look up the diagnosis and treatments, you will typically only see two categories for treatment – Talk Therapy and medications. If you happen to find a site that includes self-care you may see physical exercise. The mainstream profession would not have directed me down the path I took, nor expressed it as an option. With his help, I was able to create a new regimen of Judaic prayer-based gratitude work, meditation, and regular affirmations. I would later learn that Positive Psychology had woken up to this realization, while watching an online course on it, taught by Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard. It was rated as the most popular course in Harvard history. Numerous times in that lecture series, Tal Ben-Shahar would reference principles and sayings from Judaic teachings.

It’s been 13 years since I stopped taking medications and began using prayer and ritual to rewire my brain. While not always perfect, I can attest to an overall thriving, to truly experiencing life as a gift and adventure, and I lay that success at the feet of our long-standing Judaic traditions. I see it as an ancient cognitive behavioral system of historic proportions.

It’s a fascinating question whether prayer and ritual can replace psychopharmacology as a healing modality. While controversial, in my opinion, many could benefit from, at a minimum, using it in conjunction with their medicine. To those spiritually inclined in their belief systems, it would seem at least worthy of a dialog with their provider.

If you would like to learn more about this journey, please feel free to reach out to me.

Refences and additional information

  1. Mayo Clinic – Persistent depressive disorder. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/persistent-depressive-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20350929
  2. Martin Seligman – Ted talk, State of psychology, 2004. https://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_the_new_era_of_positive_psychology?language=en
  3. “Handbook of The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality“, Paloutzian & Park, 2013.
  4. “Positive Psychology 1504: Harvard’s Groundbreaking Course”, Tal Ben-Shahar, 2015. https://positivepsychology.com/harvards-1504-positive-psychology-course/
  5. “The Psychological Benefits of Western Spiritual Beliefs”, 2021, Scott Kushner. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leZDHC31TZo

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