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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: psychology

04 Feb

Learning to breathe again

Ideas to Consider 3 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

breath

{via pinterest}

I’m getting to the end my pregnancy and I have to be honest: I’ve had an easy go of it. My body seems to have adjusted to this new state fairly well, which is an example to me of just what amazing things our bodies can do if we aren’t busy manipulating them or obsessing about them.

I was blessed to be passed over by the nausea gods and while I felt a bit tired in the beginning, I didn’t succumb to that consuming exhaustion that many people describe. Like I said, I’ve had it fairly easy.

But (and you knew there’d be a but, right?), I’ve had one symptom in particular that plagued me since the very beginning: I’m regularly short of breath.

In the beginning of pregnancy, I was told that this was due to hormonal and blood volume changes. Now, the baby growing inside of me has taken up residence on top of my lungs (or so it seems), and is constricting me taking a full breath. Regardless of the cause, the feeling has been the same — it feels impossible to get enough air.

Have you ever been short of breath, whether from illness, exercise, or some other reason? Honestly, it’s a really uncomfortable feeling. I was thinking recently about what makes it so uncomfortable. It’s not painful, per se. But it is scary. And I think that’s what makes it feel so awful.

Breathing is obviously so central to us staying alive as human beings. When we can’t get enough air, for whatever reason, our brain registers distress. This is clearly advantageous in most cases in which we can’t breath. Our brains need alerted that we need to do something to change that!

But what about when we there’s nothing to be done? I can’t make this baby move out of my ribs (as much as I would like to) or change my hormonal balance. So the panic response becomes pretty useless. It’s also useless because, despite feeling very much like I’m drowning, I can actually breath. It feels like I can’t, like I’m about to fall over after running a race, but in reality I can. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be typing these words right now. If I can say the words to you, “I can’t breath,” I’m breathing!

So, you ask, what’s my point? You mean, other to get a chance to complain about my malady?

I was thinking recently how there are so many moments where we believe that we just cannot survive. We think we are drowning, we are going to die (literally or figuratively), and that we just can’t make it through. We feel hopeless and helpless. But in reality, if we can get enough perspective to take a single step back, we can see that there is a very alive “us” in there thinking that we’re not going to survive. In reality, the fact that we can think about how awful the situation is means we’re alive to think about it.

I realize with my breathing issue that the more I focus on thoughts like, “Oh my gooodness, I can’t breathe right now,” the worse the  experience becomes. Similarly, it’s in the believing that we cannot tolerate something uncomfortable (sadness or anger, for example) that we actually create pain. My difficulty breathing is not actually painful, really. It’s not comfortable. But the pain comes when I start getting panicked and frustrated and scared. My breathing shallows further and my body sends stress signals.

On the other hand, when I can remind myself that I am actually breathing and then focus on taking long, deep breaths in through my nose, my lungs suddenly fill further, my heart rate decreases, and I feel more at peace.

I think the same goes for any feeling or experience that we encounter. We have to take a step back, ground ourselves, and recognize that we can get through it – we are getting through it in each and every moment that we have the ability to think that we can’t, in fact. We just have to take it second by second, reminding ourselves that the pain only comes when we elevate the experience to something we believe we can’t handle. It’s amazing what can happen when we stop fighting against the experience.

Now, someone just remind me of this post when I go into labor.

18 Oct

Striving for greatness? What perseverance has to do with it.

Ideas to Consider 6 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

{image via pinterest}

Riding in the car with my in-laws on a recent visit home, my husband and I may or may not have been belting out Call Me, Maybe. We may or may not have been off key. Way off key. Regardless, our melodies were met by bemusement from my brother-in-law, who said assuredly, “Any kid you two have is not going to be a musician.”

In the moment, I laughed and agreed with him, noting that my own offspring are more likely to be pretty major nerds, if any of my genes compose their DNA. And then I started to think more about it. Was it really true that my future children wouldn’t be able to carry a tune in a bucket or bust a particularly graceful move on the dance floor?

I started to wonder how much of the talents that we admire actually come from some innate gifts, some genetic arrangement that predestines us to greatness in a given area. It didn’t sit well with me to think that my children wouldn’t have a chance at glory because I myself haven’t pursued a particular pursuit. But I wasn’t sure if I just didn’t want to acknowledge the truth of limitations.

So I went to the research. What I learned confirmed what our forefathers (and foremothers) told us for generations. We live in the land of opportunity, and hard work and perseverance are the makings of the dream.

Most researchers agree that the idea of “natural ability” is a myth — a myth that keeps us locked within a narrowed vision of our own possibilities, I might add. They confirm that while individuals can certainly be born with certain qualities that make them more likely to succeed in certain endeavors (like height as a basketball player, for example), even those qualities don’t guarantee success. And for those who don’t possess them, there is still hope. Much hope, in fact.

So what does make someone great in a particular field? Researchers say that’s it’s actually, consistently, the amount of practice that someone puts into said field. Take some famous examples –

Muhammad Ali was said to have the wrong body to be a fighter, initially. Critics pointed out that he wasn’t strong enough and his moves were all wrong. But he persisted. And now we look at his body as definition of a fighter’s physique.

Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of all time, was said to rehearse his speeches compulsively.

Michael Jordan was famously cut from his high school basketball team and wasn’t recruited for college. He was said to practice longer and harder than anyone in the NBA, and years later he’s seen as the epitome of talent.

As you might be picking up, not only did these famous figures practice long, hard, and deliberately, but they failed. A lot.  I don’t have a research study to support this notion, but I would surmise that their willingness to fail, to fail spectacularly even, was part of their eventual greatness.

A few other examples of huge failures include Albert Einstein’s expulsion from school, Walt Disney being fired and told he “lacked imagination,” and J.K. Rowling going from welfare to millionaire in five years after years of no success. Would natural greats have so utterly failed at times? I think not. But if we take success as measure of dedication and hard work, then it makes sense. Perhaps the disappointments only strengthened their resolve to continue pressing on.

The point is that it’s easy to sell ourselves short — to think that because our parent can’t hit a baseball or because we’ve never been able to color in the lines that we can’t be an athlete or artist. We have to start redefining what we mean by talent, because there’s really no such thing as a “natural.” There’s only the willingness to stick through the hard times and keep on keeping on.

Do you believe in natural talents? Have you ever felt limited by this idea?

 

 

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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