<span class="vcard">Camille M. Quamina MSc, Clinical Psychologist</span>
Camille M. Quamina MSc, Clinical Psychologist
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Food and Psychology

Food is broken down into chemicals that can help or harm the physiology of the physical body. Similarly, food can directly and indirectly affect the psychology of our emotional body or our mental health. The chemicals from food can alter our feelings and moods, and impact the development of genetic inclinations, thus affecting our ability to manage or process difficult or uncomfortable emotions that may arise from our physical internal and external environments. Food can therefore play a notable role in the exacerbation or improvement of symptoms associated with mental distress or stress.  

  1. Food, Genes and Our Mental Health 

Our mental health is partly determined by our genes, and nutrients from food help to determine what genes are expressed or activated in a person’s body. Some mental and physical illnesses are passed genetically through the generations of a family.  The body’s internal environment plays a key role in determining the genes that are activated. For example, if there is a history of a heart condition in your family, there is an increased probability that you are genetically predisposed to the same condition.  Keeping the environment in your body adverse to the expression or activation of that gene can help delay or even prevent the gene expression.  So, for example, if you were to have junk food three times a day, every day of your life, the environment in your body may become conducive for the activation of the ‘heart condition gene’.  Whereas eating a healthy balanced diet may delay or suppress the gene.  Mental health works in this same way. Psychological research has shown that some types of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse all possess a genetic component.

2. Prenatal Nutrition

A mere few days into our parents’ pregnancy the quality of our mental health begins to take form. The brain is one of the first things that develops while we are in the womb and is where the chemicals that contribute to a healthy emotional body can be found. Prenatal nutrition directly influences early brain development. It can also impact the development of physical disability and determine intellectual capabilities. 

3. Food and Pre-Existing Disorders

For persons with existing mental health disorders, the type of food consumed can directly impact the severity of the symptoms experienced. It is important to understand the specific chemicals that our food breaks down into and the potential effects of these chemicals prior to your consumption. For example, usually, after a hard workweek, some people look forward to an alcoholic drink as a “pick-me up.” However, alcohol actually acts as a depressant once chemically broken down. Additionally, studies have shown a link between a diet of processed and fatty foods and depression and anxiety. For those with anxiety, foods with caffeine and sugar can make symptoms worsen. In some instances, the physiological effect of some foods can trigger psychological symptoms. For example, salt can increase the blood pressure in the body, which makes the heart need to pump harder. When this happens the body releases the stress hormone adrenaline, which can then trigger additional anxiety symptoms. 

4. Food as a Coping Mechanism

Sometimes we can use food as an unhealthy coping mechanism to manage overwhelming or difficult emotions. Eating too much or too little can give us a sense of control during the times that we are overwhelmed. At other times snacking or binge eating can take our minds off of difficult emotions. Remember food is for sustenance and good health and not a tool to avoid processing our emotions.

In conclusion, our mental health and food are involved in a dynamic relationship that starts a few days into pregnancy. Brain development, gene activation, healthy coping mechanisms and current symptoms experienced are all important aspects to your mental health that is impacted or determined by the food we eat. We should therefore be mindful of our diet, need for nutrition, and food choices. It is important to consult with your physician and mental health expert on the best diet to support you achieving your best physical and mental health. 

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Your Mental Health and Covid-19

The sudden and drastic change in our everyday lives as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a surreal experience for many. Simultaneously, it has also been a uniting experience, as there is some solace in knowing that we are all experiencing this pandemic together, though each in our own way. 

I thought it might be useful to discuss a few of the common issues that persons have shared with me during this time along with some suggestions that may help in making this period more manageable. 

Issues that may be amplified by COVID-19

  1. Low tolerance for Uncertainty

Covid-19 represents uncertainty. We have no clear idea of when things will return to ‘normal’ because we don’t completely understand this virus that has brought us all to a screeching halt. Some of us usually function best when we have a clear plan or a ‘To-Do’ list of some sort, so it may feel chaotic and overwhelming now that Covid-19 has shaken up all well-laid plans.  Those of us with a low tolerance for uncertainty or an aversion to unpredictability may be experiencing a tough time right now where very few things seem certain.

  1. Pre-existing Mental Struggles

Many of us may be already treating with mental struggles such as depression and anxiety in varying degrees. This can make this time even more stressful and difficult to cope with. For someone that considers his or her mind and thoughts to be hostile and unpleasant, the thought of isolation may be quite daunting and may become overwhelming. 

  1. Inability to Practice Coping Mechanisms

We are all going through one of the most stressful times in our collective history and are unable to use our usual coping mechanisms to help get us through. Whether it was going for a run, going for a drink or going to catch a movie, the activities that served to help us cope with a stressful day/event/person are no longer viable options.

  1.   Fear

Fear is understandably the emotion that most persons describe as their dominant emotion during this pandemic. Most commonly, the fears articulated all surrounded catching this virus, losing loved ones to the virus, the state of the economy, job loss, and loss of housing. The one thing all of these fears have in common is that they are about the unknown. They are based on events that may or may not happen at some point in the future.  Fear relies on the unknown to grow and Covid-19 represents uncertainty. 

  1. Unique Challenges for Essential and Healthcare Workers

This pandemic presents some very unique and tough challenges for our essential and healthcare workers. Most would not have anticipated the extent to which they would have been putting their own lives and those of their loved ones at risk during the normal course of their job.  Persons are advised to stay at home for their own safety but for every day that the pandemic continues, these workers leave their homes and risk coming face to face with this invisible enemy. The emotional toll that this may take on them and their families is not to be underestimated.  

Some workers may also be facing feelings such as guilt, frustration and anger if they are unwilling to face their job with the glamourized bravado that society expects.  These feelings may be driven by fear or other personal factors such as a greater sense of duty to their families.  It is expected that not everyone would want the opportunity to play the hero role and this may stir-up some really complex and scary emotions.  

Recommendations for Protecting your Mental Health

  1. Introspection or Reflection 

One thing to keep in mind is that the way that we each experience the world and its events comes from within us. Essentially, the way that each of us experiences this pandemic is based on our individual value and belief systems. These systems drive our thoughts and feelings and we use it to define our worth, the worth of others, and they directly influence us (mostly subconsciously) at all given moments. This period of uncertainty is a good time to do a little reflection or introspection to get to know you. Peace can come when we remember that tough emotions are a result of the story (narrative) that we tell ourselves about events as they happen. We need only to be brave and to explore on a deeper level the reason that we choose the stories. Know that we most definitely can change these stories, which will effectively change the way that we experience things.

  1. New Coping Mechanisms

Now is the perfect time to explore new coping mechanisms to replace those that may be difficult to do during this pandemic. Activities such as deep breathing, adult colouring and reframing thoughts are great healthy coping mechanisms that can be very efficient at this time. You can also enjoy the process of finding new ways to make usual coping mechanisms doable under these new social distancing conditions. Basically, let flexibility be your friend. 

  1. Establish New Routines 

For some, the sudden break from their usual routines has been jolting since routines provide a sense of structure and safety for many.  This is especially the case for children. Remember that we are not tied to our old routines and we are free to create new ones.  The predictability of your newly implemented routines may be a reminder that a lot more is under your control and power than it may have felt like initially.

  1. Get Reliable Information

Panic usually occurs where there is a lack of information. I would recommend that if you feel panicked, try to take a little time to figure out what it is that you are afraid of then get more information about ‘it’. Please remember to obtain information from reliable sources only.  Accurate information will help you to challenge and correct any panic-inducing misconceptions and may even help you to develop a plan of action, which may also provide comfort. 

  1. Confront and Challenge Fears

Our fears are our worst-case scenarios and are usually based on things that we BELIEVE we cannot overcome. Fears are usually based on 2% reality and 98% ‘what if’.  It is important to remember that everything that you previously thought would break you did not. Yes, it may have been painful and yes, it may have taken a long time to heal but YOU ARE STILL HERE and you have had happy moments since then. Also, a lot of times what we fear and spend time worrying about never even happens. So a lot of time and energy is spent spiraling into the deep dark world of negativity, stress and worry unnecessarily. It may be helpful to introspect; that is, explore your beliefs and values that make your fears real to you and challenge yourself to see things more objectively. 

  1. Incorporate Mindfulness Practices

I know that mindfulness is a word that gets used a lot but I promise you that it is well deserving of this. In the simplest of terms, Mindfulness = Presence. So mindfulness asks that you allow yourself to be truly present in every moment. Regret, guilt, grievances, sadness, bitterness and non-forgiveness are signs that you are defining yourself by your past.  Please remember you are not your mistakes and they definitely do not define you. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry and all forms of fear are signs that you are living too much in the future – and that you believe the worst is possible.  Mindfulness helps you to live in the present.  Some mindfulness exercises that we can all do are deep breathing, adult colouring and progressive muscle relaxation.  

  1. Trust the process

There are some processes that we are able to trust quite easily. Trusting that your eyes will continue to move as you read this is a good example of this absent-minded kind of trust. It is only difficult to trust the process when we feel that we need to control events and we only feel this need to control events when we have forgotten that we control our experience of these events. 

It can be a bit difficult to implement these strategies but this is where the therapeutic process can be quite helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me for one on one work or to any other qualified professional with whom you are comfortable.

I can be contacted via telephone: 868-495-6285; email: camillemquamina@gmail.com or social media on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @camillemquamina

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Sticks and Stones.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

After reading the daily news for just one week one may be forgiven for concluding that we live in an explosive society where rage seems to be the order of the day. Fighting in schools, road rage, senseless murders, forceful taking of others’ property and person and rampant addictions of varied type plague our headlines daily. These are all external, illegal and unhealthy mechanisms to cope with internal mental dis-ease or distress. I was mulling over when exactly do we learn to externalize our hurt instead of treating with it internally and the nursery rhyme “Sticks and Stones” popped into my head. 

I can’t even try to recall this nursery rhyme without automatically breaking into a chant; a clear indication of the thousands of times I must have chanted it as a child. It was taught to most English-speaking kids as a response to verbal bullying. There can be some harm in taking this nursery rhyme literally because words do hurt. In those moments when they do, it may make us feel weak or that something is wrong with us. Worst of all, it can lead to us ignoring the hurt in order to be “normal”. The thing is emotional distress can be swept under the rug for only so long before it becomes a huge pile of stuff that you will someday inevitably trip over and can no longer pretend isn’t there. It is okay for us to acknowledge that sometimes the worst type of pain can come from words. 

While words can hurt, it is not a hopeless case; there is a way to take back your power.  The first thing to do is to figure out what made these words hurt? I can hear all of my clients’ usual indignant responses when I ask them this as I type it now. They usually sound something like, “Obviously, because the words were hurtful!” or “Who thinks to say that to someone?” or the ever popular “Are you saying it’s okay for her/him/they to tell me this?” My usual response to this is to remind my clients that the person who has said the hurtful thing is not someone that we agree with all the time. In fact, that person has done or said things that we can very easily say was nonsense or just dismiss without a second thought. So, what makes us believe that one thing they said that one time?

What makes being directly or indirectly called this or that so bad to us? What makes the answer to that so bad? Nothing really, other than you just believe it to be so. You can change that belief by recognizing it comes from you and thus is changeable by you. I can say with 100% surety that there is no one in the world who can convince me that I am neurosurgeon no matter how many times they tell me, simply because I am not one and I am sure of this! We all have to look within ourselves and see what makes us believe those words that hurt. 

Usually it is something we have determined in childhood. This is where all our rigidly held beliefs that define who we think we are, what we think of the world and how we relate to the world are formed. These beliefs stem from biological factors and also the type of environment we were raised in, Basically, they determine whether we recognize our own worth and whether we think the world out there is safe for us. This is why we are all able to experience similar situations but walk away with different interpretations and emotions triggered. You create the setting in which your story takes place and you have the power to change it anytime you want. Otherwise, people need to be exactly who you need them to be in order for you to be okay. So naturally, this means that when they interact with another person they must change yet again to accommodate that person and so on. Seems unrealistic huh? Yes, it is. We are all free to be whomever we choose to be, including that person whose words hurt and we are allowed to put our boundaries down and move on peacefully.

So my final word is this, teach the kids the rhyme for tradition sake only; but be sure to include that words can hurt and teach them how to be free from this through introspection.  Of course this is not an easy task, and sometimes we may need extra help, so please call and make an appointment if needed. Peace is attainable. 

It can be a bit difficult to implement these strategies but this is where the therapeutic process can be quite helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me for one on one work or to any other qualified professional with whom you are comfortable. 

I can be contacted via telephone: 868-495-6285email: camillemquamina@gmail.com or social media on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @camillemquamina