Our dietary choices have a direct effect on cognition, as well as on how we feel and behave. Growing research on the exciting new field of Nutrition Psychology has exposed the intrinsic relationship between nutrition and mental illness. Nutrition has been found to be not only a contributing factor to the development of mental illnesses, but also an important aid for its prevention and even management.
In her book “This is your brain on food”, Dr Naidoo, a Nutritional Psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, lists baked goods, candy, soda, or anything sweetened with sugar or high fructose syrup, white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta and anything made from refined flour, aspartame, French fries, fried chicken, fried seafood or anything else deep-fried in oil, as well as margarine, bacon, salami, sausage and other cured meats, as foods that make us unhappy and anxious. Those who are fighting depression and anxiety should eat high-fibre and aged, fermented, and cultured foods for their positive and calming effects on mood.
What you eat also interferes with the quality of your sleep. While caffeine and alcohol make it worse, foods that contain melatonin, such as eggs, fish, milk, rice, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables such as asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, and cucumber are said to help promote better sleep.
To fight fatigue, Dr Naidoo (2020) recommends eating foods rich in omega 3s, magnesium, zinc, vitamins B (1, 6, 9 and 12,), C, D and E, as well as colourful vegetables and spices, such as turmeric and black cumin.
Both Dr Naidoo and the clinical psychologist and researcher Julia Rucklidge (2017) agree that the Western Diet has a damaging effect on mental health. As a diet rich in bad fats, high-GI carbs and gluten, it is strongly connected to the expression of a variety of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and even schizophrenia, as well as weakened memory and decreased libido.
The mind gut connection can no longer be ignored by anyone concerned with their physical and mental/emotional wellbeing. For those who would like to improve their mental health but struggle to change their eating habits, having both psychological and nutritional counselling could help them address their goals from a more holistic and effective approach.
Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R. et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y
Our ability to deal and overcome the losses we experience relies greatly on our willingness to tolerate and accept grief. As most of us were raised in a culture of emotional neglect, grief tends to be ignored, repressed or even strongly dismissed depending on the context from which arises. As grieving is a biological healing process with might result from any type of loss, the deeper our understanding of what is meant by “loss”, the better our awareness of our need to grieve. To help you expand your knowledge on the meaning of loss and connect with your grief in a healthier way, here are 17 types loss that can cause grief beyond the stereotype:
Moving to a new house/flat, city or country
Losing body parts, be it due to accident or surgery for health reasons
End of loving relationships of any kind
End of friendships
Death of family members, loved ones, pets, colleagues, neighbours and/or acquaintances
Loss of material goods which have impact on quality of life
Loss of power to make decisions or sense of empowerment and autonomy
Change in professional situation, such as promotion, demotion or retirement
Being fired or made redundant
Realisation of lack or even inexistent sources of emotional, financial and/or social support
Loss of self-esteem, be it through traumatic events (abuse, neglect) or significant change in life circumstances (academic, professional and/or social/relational)
Loss of identity, be it through psychological, emotional and/or physical changes
Cutting contact with family members or significant others
Radical change in life routine, such as the ones experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic
Change in health, as through chronic illness diagnoses, for instance
Because true healing from losses such as the ones mentioned above tend not to materialise without conscious and healthy grieving, changing the way you view and experience grief is a key element to processing it fully and wholeheartedly. Even when those around you are not able to understand your need to grieve, grant yourself the right to grieve. Trust your body as your wisest guide to connect with painful feelings such as anger, shame, guilt and sadness and embrace them autonomously and without judgement.
At times of social isolation, it remains pertinent not to neglect the extreme negative effects it has on our mental/emotional health. Despite the current focus being on physical health as the only threat to wellbeing, it remains crucial to raise awareness of how isolation may have an even stronger impact on our psyches and quality of life in the longer term. In order to understand the link between loneliness and emotional vulnerability, here are 3 signs/feelings/mood states that indicate how you may be negatively affected by a lack of social contact:
Sadness and melancholy: as we have been wired for connection and intimacy, being with others and enjoying their company makes us feel more human and alive. Even if you are an introvert, a certain level of social interaction is required to promote a sense of identity and belonging. As the human presence, voice and touch are also soothing, a friend, colleague, relative or spouse, for instance, can be a source of emotional support. When we lack that and feel lonely, however, moments of sadness tend to last longer. As the days go by and loneliness lingers, we may become hopeless, melancholic and even depressed.
Shame and frustration: persistent loneliness is often followed by feelings of rejection, abandonment and low-self-esteem. Despite being, at times, a consequence of our own lifestyle choices and rigid beliefs about relationships, loneliness can make us feel “not good enough”, “inferior” or “less than”. Not feeling worthy of the company and love of others brings about resentment, anger and even hatred, which are felt on a deep level and are often not fully registered by the conscious mind.
Fear and desperation: feeling alone, not seen and without access to emotional connection and support may trigger the fight or flight response. That is because we also need others to feel safe. As human beings are only able to survive and thrive in groups and with the help of other humans, complete isolation – even when seemingly coherent at times of a health crisis – may cause stress, hypervigilance and anxiety. When we are submitted to a climate of fear that seems endless, desperation sets in, which may, in turn, lead us to resort to dysfunctional, extreme and risky behaviours to regain a sense of safety and wellbeing.
As our emotional health continues to be neglected by governments, the medical community and other authorities of the health sector, it remains of the utmost importance to be creative and dedicate time and effort to personal care. If you feel lonely and emotionally vulnerable as a result of isolation, do what you can to feel connected, firstly with your inner self and then with others. There is still much you can do that respects the social distancing guidelines that will ameliorate your mood, you just need to search for what suits and complements the authentic you.
The imposed social isolation and focus on the negative news surrounding the COVID-19 virus spread may work as triggers for the fight or flight response. If you have a history of unresolved childhood trauma, you may feel even more vulnerable and experience the following effects of social isolation:
Fear: a nagging sense of collective fear may put your body in a state of hypervigilance, which, in turn, makes you more susceptible to feeling stuck in an excessive worrying and anxiety loop.
Abandonment feelings: not being allowed social contact could also work as a trigger for feelings of existential loneliness, rejection and abandonment. Even if these feelings do not make sense rationally, they do emotionally for those who have suffered abuse and/or neglect and, therefore, deal with the effects of their childhood trauma.
Anger: anger tends to follow abandonment feelings because it serves as to regulate them or give us back a sense of “self-esteem” and personal power. Being forced to isolate and cope with the negative emotions that arise from it without much emotional support can make you feel disappointed, resentful or even very angry for no apparent reason.
Lack of motivation: when the air is filled with negativity and there is little movement and fun in our lives, it becomes harder to find the energy to complete the simplest of tasks.
Lack of concentration: having your body on high alert for most of the time makes you limbic system or “emotional brain” hyperactive. As a result, our brain areas interconnected with the role of attention – as the pre-frontal cortex – do not get a chance to operate properly.
If you identify with the above to some degree, increasing self-awareness and keeping a very strict personal care routine could safeguard your emotional health during this challenging period. Practices that enable you to achieve that include nurturing the inner child via meditation and visualisations, daily exercise or physical activity, contacting friends and/or family and eating a healthy/low carb diet based on plants and whole foods. Reducing considerably or even avoiding the news while keeping an objective and positive outlook for the near future, as well as avoiding contact with pessimistic and fear driven people who refuse to see beyond an extremely biased and negative outlook may go a long way to making you feel more centred and calm. In addition, watching comedies, reading inspiring literature or watching uplifting talks and videos tend to put a smile on our faces and do wonders to improve our mood.
Traumatic events change our perception of ourselves, the world and others. Because our sense of safety and trust are shaken and sometimes even shattered by trauma, we “learn” from the pain we feel by changing our views and adapting, cognitively and emotionally, to our circumstances. In developmental trauma – a series of adverse experiences in childhood which affect one’s development – that change is quite dramatic and it tends to transcend time. Imagine an adult who, as a child, was repeatedly criticised and attacked verbally by an abusive mother and/or father. His rigid and negative beliefs, formed as a result of trauma, would probably prevent him from holding a coherent view of himself as a competent and lovable adult. These beliefs would also serve as to warn him of the dangers of love and intimacy that, supposedly and for him, would apply to all close relationships. Living in a world in where safety cannot be felt even in the family home, this trauma victim would feel empty and lost, as if his existential wound could never be healed.
As dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies, and those, in turn, to mental health and relationship problems, it is worth being conscious of how your thinking could be affecting your happiness. If you suspect to have suffered developmental trauma and would like to become more conscious of its effects, here are 3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause:
1- “I cannot trust others”
Developmental trauma victims struggle to believe in and rely on other people. That is because they had their trust broken very early in life and at a time of intense vulnerability. Since they were betrayed by those who were close to them – namely their primary caregiver(s), such as their mother and/or father – the damage caused by such loss is far greater. Their fear of rejection and abandonment, even when completely unjustified and unrelated to their current circumstances, often results in obsessive self-reliance. Their lack of faith in people’s good intentions and ability to become a positive influence on their lives make it impossible for them to ask and even accept help, when needed. That tendency gives rise to codependent behaviours and loneliness, as well as it increases their probability of becoming depressed, due to their need to isolate or neglect their own feelings when things get tough. A healthy, intimate relationship with oneself and others is seldom achieved without conscious effort and dedication.
2- “I am unlovable”
When a child does not have her feelings validated or is constantly attacked or ignored, he is not able to separate his parents’ anger and neglectful attitude from his own sense of self-worth. Because children do not have the intellectual sophistication of an adult, they immediately associate their parents’ attitude with something to do with themselves, as if they were intrinsically related (“If my mum is not interested in me/is angry at me, it is because I am boring/not good enough”). Naturally, that feeling of unworthiness is also frequently present in children who are physically and/or psychologically/emotionally abused. In order to deal with the torturing feeling of inadequateness that comes from believing that “There is something wrong with me”, these trauma victims work hard to be noticed and feel worthy of love and acceptance. Self-esteem is low and “built” from the outside in through conditional love. They become perfectionists, codependents, approval junkies and people pleasers, who find it hard to say no. All of which are driven by a powerful fear of rejection.
3- “The world is a dangerous place”
Living in fear creates a state of alertness that shapes the way the brain develops and processes information about the environment. A child that is raised by emotionally unstable, anxious, extremely inconsistent or unpredictable parents, sees the world as a dangerous place filled with threats to his well-being. Guided by the thinking that “something bad is about to happen” and “I am weak/helpless”, as well as the anxiety that follows, his behaviour becomes dictated by fear. The trauma victim’s biased negative thinking and low self-confidence turns everything into a challenge. Making changes, creating new habits, taking risks, standing up for oneself and meeting new people, as other similar behaviours that require self-confidence, are a source of unease, and, in some cases, even panic. Because high anxiety crushes motivation, it gets in the way of personal, academic and professional achievement. It also affects sleep and physical health. Relationships suffer as a result. Anxiety, as a powerful mood killer, makes a person seem inaccessible, indifferent, distant and even difficult, which are traits not usually seen as attractive for those who feel whole and are emotionally intelligent.
As depressing as all of the above may seem, those trauma beliefs that may be causing you so much pain can be restructured. If you identify with the above, start actively challenging negative thinking that is stopping you from trusting yourself and others. Be objective when you catch yourself catastrophizing and stop taking everything personally. Bear in mind that our subjective reality is built from background knowledge, which is organised and categorised through core beliefs. That knowledge – highly subjective and loaded with emotional significance – does not equate, necessarily, to fact.
Despite being extremely common, “trauma” often sounds too strong or scary a term to be included in our personal narrative. That is because trauma is largely associated with life-threatening experiences such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, accidents and war. It is, however, something that affects most of us and not only car accident victims or soldiers. In fact, trauma is so pervasive, that research has revealed it to affect the greatest majority of the population.
So if that is indeed the case, how do you know if you are one of millions of people who are suffering from trauma?
A traumatic event is any situation that is so deeply distressing to an individual that exceeds his or her ability to cope. Those negative experiences are not processed in the brain in the same way happy or “normal” memories are. Because those traumatic memories are not integrated into our memory network adaptively, they affect our psyches in a negative way. Trauma victims/survivors often struggle to let go of the past and manage their emotions effectively, as if they were still in the same vulnerable position they found themselves when the negative event/events took place.
As individuals, we experience life in unique ways. Pain itself is subjective. What can be traumatising to one person might not affect another as deeply. Overall, trauma shatters our blind views of ourselves as unbreakable, as well as our unconscious faith in the goodness of all people. It also vehemently challenges our idealised core beliefs surrounding safety, be it of ourselves in the world or in the presence of those who we know, love and that are supposed to love and protect us. In spite of our need to organise reality in a fixed and predictable manner, human experience is much more complex than our beliefs care to explain. When anything happens that strongly disturbs our foundations, there is a high probability that the whole self will suffer.
Bearing in mind all of the above, any upsetting event may be considered traumatic. We are particularly vulnerable as children to being traumatised by negative experiences that compromise our ability to keep an inner sense of safety. Since survival is primarily about finding protection against harm to the self and body, not feeling loved, seen, heard or acknowledged by parents, relatives or close friends can result in trauma. An unkind comment made by an angry parent, feeling humiliated by a teacher’s abusive remarks or being bullied by a troubled classmate also has the potential to unsettle a child’s or teenager’s sense of wholeness and inner goodness. If his or her pain is systematically ignored or not dealt with openly by an empathic, consistent and concerned caregiver, it may affect his or her own ability to cope with and overcome that pain.
Regardless of the frequency, intensity or characteristic of a stressful and traumatic event, its effects are very specific and real. When it comes to suffering from any type of trauma – be it “big” or “small”, of a psychological/emotional or physical nature, single or complex – what matters is how you feel as a result of what happened, and not necessarily what caused it. The list of trauma effects is extensive. If not recognised and dealt with proactively, they tend to impact one’s body, mind and relationships negatively for a long period of time. Unresolved trauma leads its victim towards an unhappy and dysfunctional path that tends to end in mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, addictions, depression, built-up anger, guilt and shame, amongst others.
So if wondering if you are suffering from trauma, I recommend not focusing on judging if what you went through “is bad enough” to be considered as such, but on how you are feeling. Have you struggled over the years to deal with intense emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, shame and anxiety effectively? Do you feel easily overwhelmed by them? Do you feel that life seems harder on you that it is on other people? Do you find it hard to know who you truly are? Do you struggle to build safe and stable relationships? Is it hard for you to talk about or even remember painful memories of your past? If you can identify with the points raised here and have answered yes to at least some of the above questions, there is a high probability that you are suffering from trauma and its effects.
Thankfully, they are treatable. If you would like information on how to heal from trauma and its effects, please contact me and learn how Attachment-Focused EMDR can help you regain control over yourself and improve quality of life.
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