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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: brain

01 May

Assumptions, Assumptions…

Ideas to Consider 2 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

{image credit :: less cake and more frosting}

I was in the darkened parking garage the other morning after running an early morning errand. I was getting ready to back out of the spot where I was tucked away, when I suddenly noticed in my rearview mirror a man walking incredibly slowly behind me. He looked to be in his forties, short with dark brown hair. Impatient and running late to work, I sense myself getting irritated with this man. Soon, I was downright angry. How long can it take to walk to your car, buddy, I fumed. I think you’re just doing this to piss me off.

Once the man had laboriously made his way to his car and out of my path, I pulled my car out and looked over at the man trying to get into the driver’s seat. Illuminated by my headlights, I could see that the man had only one leg. The other was a prosthetic, and he walked with a cane, hobbling along and apparently exerting great effort

I felt like a complete jerk.

You know that phrase, “You know what you get when you assume? You make an ass out of u and me,” I always chuckle at that. Until I’m the ass.

My heart sank both for the struggle that he had to endure in doing something as simple as walking across the garage and that I could be so insensitive.

As I was driving home – still feeling relatively crappy – I started to think about all of the assumptions that we make about people. For the man in the garage, the situation was a bit more extreme than the usual encounter: I assumed he could walk normally, and in fact he couldn’t. I also assumed that he was trying to make me late for work, and in fact he was simply trying to make his way past an impatient driver.

But I started to think of all the ways in which we make assumptions about those around us, and don’t have the fortune to be corrected. We might assume that our friend who just bailed on dinner had something better come along and didn’t even care about our feelings and why are we even friends with her anyway since she always does this kind of thing… Humph! Or we assume that our boss overlooked us for the promotion because she’s just always been jealous of us and probably is just threatened by how good we are at our job and really needs to work on her insecurity anyway.

It’s amazing the way that our minds fill in the blanks. Our brains don’t particularly like uncertainty, so it’s like we have to make that go away by creating the truth for ourselves. Assumptions are propositions that are, to some degree, taken for granted. We make an assumption so that we might be able to make a decision, usually.

If the guy at the next table at the restaurant is looking at us, we can assume that a.) we have marinara sauce on our shirt, b.) he really likes the look of our chocolate torte, or c.) he finds us attractive. Our assumption here will make guide us in making a decision; namely, running to the bathroom for cold water or smiling back at him.

With all of these assumptions and decisions that we make, you would think that we would be develop some pretty stellar mind-reading skills. In fact, though, we often fail to account for all of the factors involved. Our perceptions of what others are thinking, doing, or feeling, is so heavily veiled by our own thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that it’s hard to make accurate assessments.

I find this important to remember in moments of high intensity, particularly when I’m feeling angry, frustrated, or hurt by someone. I recognize that I rarely know the full story, and that the only way to know the truth is to… you guessed it – ask them!

In the meantime, or when asking is not an option, I try to stay as open minded as possible. And from now on I’ll try to practice patience in parking lots as well.

What kind of assumptions do you find yourself making about others?

23 Apr

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger… Or Does It?

Ideas to Consider 14 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

strong {image source :: iheartgifs.com}

For inspiration for this post, I have Kelly Clarkson’s anthem blaring in the background. I have to admit, it’s both catchy and empowering – a lethal combination in my musical book.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone

Rock on, sister…

What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over cause you’re gone

 

What makes this song so powerful, in my estimation, is that it utilizes a pretty pervasive cultural ideal and makes it pop. It’s adds a bit more life to the idea since it was originally stated by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

My own experience has been that people will use this phrase as a means of consolation. As a society, we’re fairly uncomfortable with other people’s pain, or our own for that matter (see here and here for elaboration). So, we say things like “it’ll all be okay in the end” or “everything happens for a reason,” or “what doesn’t kill you…” to try to both ease the heartache of another person and obscure the idea that pain could exist just because it exists.

Sometimes it’s something that we tell ourselves. We want to believe that our pain serves a greater function, that some good can arise from the ashes of our suffering. I’ll admit that I’ve reminded myself of this idea many times after a tragedy or hardship rocked me. And to be honest, it’s helped to bolster my sense of potency and self-esteem. In fact, I often look back on the difficult moments on my life collectively and think that these junctures shaped me as a strong and independent person.

Could it be, though, that I would be strong and independent without enduring these struggles? That’s a chicken and egg question that I’ll never be able to answer definitively for myself. However, there are researchers looking at what happens when people suffer trauma and hardship.

What the researchers have found is that difficult situations do enhance individuals’ ability to cope with future life stressors, at least to a point. In classic Goldilocks fashion, researchers note that those with the best ability to cope are individuals who have experienced some turmoil, while those who have experienced none or a lot are at a disadvantage.

So it looks like adversity is beneficial in the right amounts. If you skate through most of life with minimal obstacles, you never learn how navigate around or through the ones that inevitably crop up. This might explain why we see so many children who completely melt down when asked to share a toy. They’ve never learned how to regulate and manage difficult emotions that arise with things like frustration and disappointment. On the other hand, a person who’s dealt a heavy hand of tragedy might have their resources completely tapped. Their system is literally overwhelmed by the stress of what they endure and stops functioning properly. They might become immobilized when more stress emerges.

So what we know is that this issue is complex. We have not really defined the “optimal” amount of stress, and I think that varies greatly depending on individual factors, like personality, temperament, and resilience. It also depends heavily on the amount of social support a person has when in the grip of something difficult.

What we do know is that trying to make meaning out of suffering helps us to create coherent narratives of our lives, and this leads to us feeling more fulfilled, content, and healthy. So if you want to say that whatever kills you makes you stronger, be my guest. You could even sing it!

08 Feb

“But my symptoms are real!” :: Tourette’s syndrome outbreak sheds light on conversion disorder

Current Events 6 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

If you’ve been following the apparent outbreak of a tic disorder in a New York high school, you know that investigators there have ruled out environmental causes linked to the school itself. Parents, outraged by the Tourette’s sydrome-like symptoms that have plagued twelve teenage girls in the past several month, are demanding answers. Unsatisfied by the lack of results from school investigators, public health officials, and the victim’s own doctors, they recently brought in the Erin Brokovich team to explore the test the ground water and more.

Health officials are now calling the illnesses with which the young women are presenting conversion disorders. Conversion disorders are psychiatric illnesses in which a person experiences physical symptoms without a physical cause. People with conversion disorder can demonstrate things like blindness, lack of muscle function, paralysis, or seizures.

Parents are reportedly not satisfied with this explanation for their daughters’ and community members’ illnesses. Indeed, watching video of the young women unable to talk, write, or function normally is disturbing, and it’s easy to see how the Le Roy High School community would be frustrated.

As I watched the Today Show’s interview with a few of the young women and their mother’s, you could see the visible vehemence when Dr. Nancy Snyderman suggested that the root of these issues could be psychological. The parents and teenagers quickly denied that this was possible, their justification that they weren’t under any stress and that their symptoms were real.

The thing is, the symptoms in a conversion disorder are real too. The person truly is experiencing tics, or muscle weakness, or difficulty walking. They really do seize – anyone can watch. These individuals are not making up their symptoms (that happens when someone malingers), and their development is not in the person’s conscious awareness.

This last piece is the rub, of course. If it’s not under conscious control, the person isn’t aware that there’s a psychological cause, and so there’s no way for them to deny or disprove it. Patients sometimes say things like, “But I just know something’s really wrong. I just know!” And the thing is, they’re right. There’s something wrong, really wrong. The only difference between the symptoms of conversion disorder and the symptoms of a physical illness is in the treatment. Conversion disorder symptoms are not going to respond, at least not long term, without psychological help.

I admittedly have no idea about the origin of the symptoms among these New York teenagers, and I would never purport to know. But what I am very aware of is the cultural backlash against the idea that our minds can produce physical symptoms.

It’s actually a bit dismaying to see how negatively people react to this idea, and how vehemently they deny it. I want to ask these individuals where they think all physical issues originate – in our brains! Why is it so unimaginable to think that psychological stress could create physical symptoms?

Our brains regulate our hormones and every function of our body, and yet we tend to see our minds as distinct from our bodies. The effects of this disconnect are far-reaching. I think that this contributes to everything from fertility issues to the flu to problems with our sexuality to distorted relationships with food. This is not to say that that all of these things have only psychological bases – certainly, that’s not the case. But we often fail to see how our psychological functioning influences these processes, and in doing so miss out on a real chance of improving our health.

My hope is that, regardless of what is determined to be the cause of these Tourette’s sydrome symptoms in New York, the parents will encourage their children to seek psychological treatment. Even if the cause is environmental, these young women could likely benefit from support around the trauma of the past several months.

 

 

you might be as outraged as the community.

26 Jan

You are not a fraud. No, really. You’re not.

Ideas to Consider 3 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

notsogoodphotography {image credit :: notsogoodphotography}

 

When the time had finally come for the exam, I suddenly understood fully the idea of one’s stomach doing summersaults. I had always thought this was an expression, and now I was quite certain that this organ was competing with Shawn Johnson for best all-around gymnastics performance.

As my body started signaling fight or flight – and I soon recognized that fleeing or throwing punches at my professors was not an option – my mind raced with all the ways in which I was about to royally screw this up. I was facing my clinical competency exam, a multi-part test that assesses one’s knowledge and acumen in the field of psychology – and a requirement of graduating. The scariest part involved sitting in front of two of the professors I had revered for years and stammering, I mean discussing, my rationale for huge reports I had written.

My mind told me that this was it. The moment that it would be all over. There was no more hiding. They’d soon know the truth.

I. Am. A. Fraud. Period.

But you got into graduate school! Don’t you remember? [That’s my rational, not so informed mind speaking.]

Yes, but that must have been a mistake! The numbers of applicants were low. Or they mixed me up with someone else and then didn’t have the heart to kick me out. Or, worse yet, they felt sorry for me.

But you’ve thrived here so far! You get good grades. Professors and supervisors like you. C’mon…

You c’mon! Sure I can schmooze. But when it comes time to buckle down and show ‘em what I’m made of… well, the proof is in the pudding. And my pudding ain’t crap.

Oh sure it is. You’re smart. You’re insightful. You’re responsible. You’re even a good therapist.

Where the heck do you get your information, missy?

… So you can see where this is going. More bantering until I was finally called in to show my stuff. You can figure out the ending (I passed – Yippee!), but the sad irony was that my fraud mind could justify even this. (“Oh, well, just wait until you try to defend your dissertation. You think you know research? Who are you fooling? No one soon…”)

Sad, huh?

Sadder still is just how many of us suffer from this conviction that we are actually a fraudulent version of ourselves. Psychologists actually have a name for this (this is actually how we spend our time – coming up with clever names for interesting phenomena!). We call it the imposter syndrome.

This happens when we can’t seem to internalize our accomplishments – when we’re convinced that no matter what fantastic things we achieve, it reflects a deception we have created rather than just how freaking talented we actually are.

This phenomenon runs rampant among women, particularly successful women (that’s not just my anecdotal evidence there – there’s data to support this).

For many high-achieving women, acknowledging that their success might actually reflect internal skills, knowledge, and talents is incredibly difficult. It’s kind of like what I was discussing when I told you about hiding my academic prowess in fifth grade.

This is sometimes considered a remnant of (or evidence of ongoing) sex stereotypes, in which, due to years of gendered socialization, it’s hard to wrap our minds around woman as powerhouse. For the sake of our not rocking the proverbial boat (which hasn’t even stopped to ask for directions), our sex roles stay firmly, albeit subtly, in place.

Another potential reason for the imposter phenomenon was explored back in the day by Clance and Imez. They suggested that women’s roles in their families contributed to this version of self as an imposter. Some of these women, they argued, were told that their sibling was the truly gifted one, and they never felt that any of their accomplishments really stood for anything. The other subset is full of women whom were told that they were so awesome (and smart and wonderful), that they felt they could never live up to the expectations established for them. They were always working so hard to live up this superhero version of themselves that others created, they came to believe it was just that – fictional.

Lending support to this idea, psychologist Carol Dweck found that when faced with novel and challenging tasks, the girls with the highest IQs were the quickest to give up. Bright boys, on the other hand, doubled their efforts when faced with the challenge. Could it be that it’s these stories, these perceived expectations of perfection and achievement, that rob girls and women of their sense of being capable?

However it’s defined and explained, the imposter syndrome is alive and well in classrooms, boardrooms, and even the blogosphere. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m not a real runner,”? Or, “If they really new me, they’d realize that I’m a total fake. I always use a calculator.” Or, “One of these days the world will figure out I can’t really write. I’ve just been getting by on people’s kindness.”

If these thoughts plague you, know that you’re not alone. You are also not really a fraud. It’s just your mind’s way of trying to hide you from your greatness – that sneaky little devil trying to slyly sabotage you. Lucky for you, you have a choice to make — buy into that thought or let it pass by you like a leaf on a stream. I choose the latter. And that’s 100% the real deal.

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