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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Tag: anxiety

14 Feb

What is trauma?

Education 14 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

bookonbeach When many of us think of trauma, the images conjured in our minds consist of men in fatigues carrying their wounded brother in their arms or the child victims of a devastating earthquake begging for food.

This is why it’s not usually very useful for medical professionals to ask patients, “Have you experienced trauma?” Usually, patients will deny trauma because they haven’t been a victim of obvious physical abuse, natural disaster, or combat.

But when I ask my own patients whether they’ve ever felt extremely unsafe, felt violated, or been made to feel overwhelmed and powerless, the answers often change. When they learn that the painful experiences that they have faced, the ones that have often haunted them in small and large ways for years, they often feel relief and hope.

Like these patients, many of us fail to recognize the sometimes subtle face of trauma. We’ve learned to associate the word with devastating once-in-a-lifetime incidents that leave us with nightmares and panic attacks.

But trauma often takes dresses in more understated attire. A traumatic experience is any one that leaves a person feeling in extreme distress and that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. The individual often feels powerless and vulnerable.

Taken in this way, many experiences fall under the category of traumatic: losing a job, discovering a parent’s drug use, being bitten by an animal, being coerced into sex, the loss of a sibling, dealing with a disease, being cheated on in a relationship, facing harassment or discrimination, and many more. While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the prevalence of trauma to be 50-60% of the population, I suspect the numbers are even higher.

What is okay for one might not be for another

Traumatic experiences are not universal. Each of us has our own level of what psychologists call resilience that can influence how the level of impact that an event might have on us. Factors related to resilience include having positive relationships, healthy self-esteem, and strong communication and emotion management skills. For individuals who may be lacking in these areas, through no fault of their own, events may be perceived as even more devastating and have longer-lasting impacts. If a person’s system is already stressed, it makes sense that he or she would then not have as many resources to be able to cope with a new trauma.

Effects of trauma

We now fortunately have the technology to better understand the impact of trauma on the brain. Any trauma, but especially chronic ones such as repeated abuse or neglect, can actually change the structure and functioning of the brain. Our response system can be significantly altered, resulting in various emotional and physical symptoms that can leave us feeling dysregulated. Some of these include mood swings, nightmares, trembling, confusion, withdrawing from other people, difficulty sleeping, heart racing, and many more.

What psychologists and other researchers are learning is that traumatic experiences in youth can have truly profound long-term consequences if not addressed. Kids who have been traumatized display increased cognitive issues and work problems, show higher levels of social difficulties and disabilities, take poorer care of their health, and even have earlier death on average.

Trauma and body image

Our body image is comprised of a host of complex, interrelated factors. For individuals who have been the victims of trauma, the body can literally and figuratively carry the weight of the psychic pain endured by the individual. Contrary to what mainstream medicine would have us believe, our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked. When an individual suffers trauma, particularly sexual trauma, their sense of the value, function, and dangerousness of his or her body often shifts. This is particularly true for women, according to research. The shame, guilt, betrayal and myriad of other feelings that can result from trauma puts individuals at high risk for body image disorders and eating disorders. Some experts estimate that up to 80% of those with eating disorders have suffered some form of trauma.

Treating trauma

The effects of trauma are serious, and even potentially deadly at times, and speak to the importance of getting treatment if one should endure a trauma. Fortunately, treatment does exist and can have incredibly positive effects on a person’s quality of life. While lots of treatment options are available, most include a few key components: education about trauma and the development of symptoms, examination of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings around the experience, the teaching of coping skills. Treatment might involve medication, individual therapy, group therapy, self-help exercises, or other components.

For articles, books, and other trauma resources, check out the American Psychological Association’s trauma page or David Baldwin’s comprehensive Trauma Information Pages.


{Image Credit :: Wilson Fotografie}
13 Jun

A Banana a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away: The Mood-Food Connection

Education 21 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

Most of us know, at least on an abstract level, that what we put in our mouths can alter our minds. We’ve all experienced the post-Thanksgiving (or simply post-lunch) sluggishness and the Oops, I forgot to eat breakfast inability to focus. But beyond the amount and time of day that we eat, the actual foods that we choose can have a major impact on our mental health.

While there are many pathways by which our eating habits can influence the way we feel, physiologically it comes down to neurotransmitters. These are chemicals in our brains whose functions and levels produce shifts in our moods. For example, when our level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked closely with depression, drops, we are prone to lowered moods and increased anxiety.  And since we know that certain foods increase the production of serotonin (i.e. ones high in carbohydrates), logically we tend to feel better and less anxious when we eat them (and worse when we don’t). Have you ever been around someone on a low- or no-carb diet? Enough said.

Judith Wurton, Ph.D, only one of many researchers in the area of the food-mood connection, also points out that serotonin is linked to feelings of satiety and satisfaction, which are extremely important in the quest to avoid emotional or overeating. If our serotonin levels are low, our brains don’t get the message that we are satisfied and we reach for another slice of pizza. Now, Dr. Wurton isn’t suggesting eating nothing but pasta will turn us into a happy-go-lucky Richie Cunningham. But she does emphasize getting enough of the right foods (and at the right times) to keep us on an even keel.

Despite my apparent bias for serotonin, it’s not the only neurotransmitter affected by our diets (please note the use of the word “diet” here refers to typical eating pattern, not three weeks of eating raw foods). Dopamine and norepinephrine are important too, as they help keep us alert and focused and even increase our reaction times. So basically, eating the right foods can make you a better employee, a more involved partner, and a kick-butt video game player. Who can beat that?

Here are a few suggestions for incorporating some of these “good mood foods” into your diet:


No wonder the most intelligent of our animal relatives love this fruit – it’s packed full of brain-healthy nutrients. Bananas actually produce dopamine quinine, which is a form of dopamine that occurs naturally in the environment. And what’s more interesting is that those unsightly brown spots on the banana actually contain the highest levels! For people whose dopamine levels regularly drop in the evening (e.g. people taking ADHD medication), eating bananas can help curb the effects. Smoothie anyone?

Lean Beef

Bite into a juicy burger to boost your mood? Absolutely! Iron-rich foods, such as lean beef, lentils, pumpkin seeds, and cold cereals, assist in the creation of haemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen throughout the body. When iron levels are low, which they are for up to 80% of women, the result is feeling anxious, lethargic, and fatigued. This can lead to major problems in concentrating and getting what you need to accomplished.


Besides being packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants, this leafy green, like its cousins kale and chard, contains lots of magnesium, a mineral found to produce relaxation and calm. In addition, spinach has been found to stabilize blood sugar, which is good for all us in keeping our moods steady. Just remember that spinach loses almost half of its nutrients sitting in the refrigerator for a week, so eat it fast!


Salmon has become quite the hot ticket item in recent years, and for good reason. It is full of omega-3 fatty acids (yes, I said fatty – good fatty), which build serotonin in the brain and have mood-improving benefits. In fact, people who eat fish less than once a week have higher rates of depression than those who eat it more frequently. Not only that, but omega-3 helps your brain heal and has been linked to lower rates of dementia. And salmon is certainly not the only option. Tuna, mackerel, herring, and DHA-fortified products (like certain milk) are great sources as well.


How could I not mention chocolate?! Once again, chocolate derives its benefit by promoting serotonin production, which you know by now is important for maintaining a pleasant mood. It also includes endorphins and opoids, which contribute to feelings of relaxation. This one is tricky, however, as a recent study demonstrated that people who craved chocolate the most had a greater likelihood of being depressed (Rose, Koperski, & Golomb, 2010). They are likely craving the chocolate due to low levels of serotonin, and, unfortunately, not all of our serotonin issues can be solved through a Hershey bar. So, eat a few pieces of dark chocolate as a mood-booster, but if the feelings of depression persist, see a doctor.


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