Recipes & allostatic load or death by a thousand paper cuts (Edited: 3/10/2021)
A few posts back I wrote about schemata and beliefs we hold around our sense of worth, life and the world at large. One area of beliefs, which I did not refer to are all the conscious and unconscious views and feelings around food and eating we all carry, many of which we internalise early on within our family settings, and later on, through sociocultural messaging. Eating is as important as breathing in keeping us alive and it is a process many of us engage in several times each day, every day, for as long as we remain on this planet. Food is linked to our growth and health, and lack of it through poverty or eating disorders impacts our development and overall well being. Our beliefs around eating and food reflect our outlook on life more broadly. As I mentioned eating and food are deeply interwoven with our early and later attachment experiences, but also, cultural and religious practices and messaging. Bearing all this in mind I recently bought a recipe book, something I hadn’t done for over a decade. Actually, I had given away many of the ones I already had. This particular cook book has elements of a memoir and a travel book along with the recipes. The recipes also have a little personal narrative attached to them. In the book the link between food and childhood experiences, as well as, the influence of the sociocultural contexts we find ourselves in becomes apparent. As I read through it I found that some of the writer’s experiences resonated with my own experiences of village life and food when I arrived in Greece in early adolescence, and also, later on in adulthood.
The title of the book is Η Ελένη Ψυχούλη μαγειρεύει του καλού καιρού. Τhe titles of the memoir type chapters in the book are quite interesting: My village, The (kitchen) garden , The snack, Mrs Morfia’s basement, The snake, Doxa’s fish, Stathis wife’s cheese, The kitchenettes, Zoe’s house, The city goes on vacation to the village, The fresh egg, The sunbed, What do they eat in the village?, What did you cook today? St Fanouris’ pie (St Fanouris is the saint that reveals to you what you have lost once you offer him this special pie, which is actually a cake), Recycling, Friends, My own beach, The pine cones, The food of God, The wild boar woke me up, Oregano, The colicians (white sea anemones), When nature provides the recipe, The recipe and Siesta (I could really relate to the theme in this chapter since I don’t think my mother ever succeeded in putting me to sleep in the middle of the day. Most I could do was stay put in my bed and read).
The book centers around the house and village she used to spend her summer holidays as a child, and which she still cherishes and often returns to, and it has a note of nostalgia, humor and tenderness for days gone by, but also, a critical look at that past through the lens of the adult perhaps. Through her descriptions and photos her village in Pilio becomes familiar even if we have never been there. The extracts below from the book give us snippets from her childhood summer vacations and insights into sociocultural themes of the time.
“When we were young we did not have a shop in the village. Every morning, our grandmother would put a little change in our hand and send us to the orchards to buy the vegetables (for the day)…. A painful chore. Not only because it interrupted us from playing, but because this transaction mortally wounded the sense of culture I had in me then about the world, as I had experienced it during the first decade of my life in the city. … ..They wore woolen shirts with holes in the summer, their nails were black like badness /evil…. and as if all this were not enough, they would invite you in some dark sunless basement to weigh your veggies – as my grandmother used to say – on some rusty, old scales with chains. In the basements with the compacted wet soil floor summer never entered, it smelled of mold, winter and a menacing dim light. In contact with the money I tried to avoid the touch of their hands and I panicked when I had to close the grimy change in my palm as I thought. But there was a worse scenario than the change: “Sweetheart, I don’t have any tomatoes. Come again in the afternoon.” In this case, my grandmother’s stress over tomatoes could send you two or three times a day to the hell chamber that was called basement.”
“One day, a mouse fell into the big cask of oil. With awe we all hurried to climb the wind ladder to gorge on the unusual spectacle, to certify the event that shook the quiet waters of our day. Holding onto the edge of the cask I watched the slow orbit of the dead mouse in a sea of olive oil…. as if sleeping the happiest death. In my mind flashed the joy of the mouse when it saw in front of it the oily sea that would satisfy its hunger…… Bad to be greedy. What you crave the most can kill you. ”
There’s a chapter about fresh goat’s milk, which sort of transported me back in time. When we came to Greece from Australia we kids were taken to visit our many relatives, and in one aunt’s homestead I was delighted to pat her friendly mama goat and play with the kids frolicking around, but I hadn’t anticipated the milk. My aunt brought me a glass of fresh warm milk that smelled of animal. I remember my father sternly nudging me to accept it because that was the polite thing to do and because it was healthier than the Choco milk drinks I preferred, while my mother, who was sort of selective when it came to food and adamant about boiling milk before consumption, through eye contact encouraged me as I shyly, but quite stubbornly tried to wiggle my way out of drinking it. Helen Psychouli writes: “The goat lay behind our greatest martyrdom. Mrs Morfia left her milk at our door every afternoon, with that particular, tangible, living warmth from the animal’s body… the worst thing was that we had to drink that milk, like hemlock and as punishment, twice a day… .. then between my brother’s legs and through the stones of the step, a snake slipped through. And it drank the milk ……. My panicked grandmother hurried to have the step cemented. In the past parents used to know how to cement every prospect of pleasure, everything that did not contain the recipe of squeezing, obligations, obedience, duties and a Deux ex machina”.
“Every afternoon the games and the running stopped in a momentary truce with hunger. The moms would come out on their doorstep and call the kids, to give them their snack. Slices of sourdough wet bread sprinkled with sugar or bread with homemade tomato paste for the local kids, white bread with margarine and chocolate spread, along with milk sucked from its box for us, the vacationers from the city. … ..And while until a moment ago all of us children were an indivisible and like-minded company immersed in the thrill of playing chase, that snack arrived to set the boundaries, to erect between us the walls of a class society….”
In her chapter Friends she writes (and I’ve been there myself): “During the passionate love phase of first moving into your house you want to invite them all… .. in those first two summers you transition into the hostess-servant who was my mom / like your mom, you lose your sleep and any trace of a Zen mood, divided between the role of the cook, the servant, the cleaner, the tour guide, the entertainer, the film director, the psychologist-psychiatrist, the mood balancer, the crazy person you have become “.
Finally, she ends her chapter My Βeach with the following lines: “You can’t describe this beach. You can’t recommend it. You can’t borrow it. Like you would be ashamed to lend a stranger your oversized, faded T-shirt of a distant past “.
In this second part of this post I’d like to share links below** to part one and part two of the Wellbeing podcast series related to misconceptions about therapy, growth work and the self help world because they contain things I’ve been thinking about for a long time and things that I’ve come across since I first embarked on psychology studies and my own journey of self exploration and desire for change. Often these misconceptions can become barriers or walls that actually prevent growth and healing. Some of the misconceptions Rick and Forrest Hanson discuss in the first part are attitudes and beliefs that suggest that personal growth is self-indulgent; therapy suggests that people must be highly messed up or it’s only about individual effort, which de-contextualizes experience and suggests that people are separate entities floating about in a world that has no impact on the individual or that we have total control of our outer environment and all the things that humans experience or that our desires through personal effort will definitely materialize. They also refer to the use of the word trauma and how what might be considered traumatic in one context might be a minor challenge in another. For instance, loss of a job for a young, wealthy person might not be as stressful (and could actually become an opportunity for rest and a regrouping) as it could be for the person, who relies on their monthly paycheck for food and shelter. Being a refugee or immigrant in a country where one speaks the language may not be the same as not being able to even read the street signs. In the second podcast they discuss beliefs that suggest that people can’t really change; beliefs that endorse the idea that without suffering we cannot grow or learn or that it is easy to heal alone. Then they discuss the fact that often therapy needs to be more than a top-down, cognitive approach or gaining of insight. Talking our way through our symptoms and traumas without feeling emotions and sensations and without letting go at that deeper level does not seem adequate since we hold our traumas in our body, and also, our physiology and health are impacted by our traumas.
Before I go on I’d like to say that one of the reasons I’m referring to these two particular podcasts is that they contain a lot of information and research references (especially in their Patreon notes) and whether one agrees with all the points made here or not, there is still is a lot of food for thought within these two talks. One of the topics they touch upon in the first podcast is how generosity and gratitude can become important resources for greater personal and collective wellbeing. Research supports that generosity, for instance, has a positive impact on cardiovascular health, levels of happiness and intimate relationships. Another important theme is that caring for oneself and desiring growth are not self indulgent, but a radical political act of self preservation because the goal of oppressive structures and contexts is to exhaust the oppressed. As mentioned in the podcast “a dispirited person is one who is unable to resist. And that’s the goal, period, of systems of oppression – the ability to remove your ability to resist….. ….” Furthermore, the more we resource ourselves the more we can recover our agency, be there for other people, and also, as each person changes there are rippling effects in their environment.
Rick and Forrest Hanson also talk about survivorship bias, which is the cognitive error of focusing on the things that prove a point, while overlooking all the facts that disprove it. In the podcast it is suggested that one way to think of survivorship bias is as a form of results oriented thinking, which practically means that if something worked, it must have been the right choice, and even more, it is the right choice for everyone at all times. They say: “the problem with taking people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg as examples of why people should drop out of college to pursue their cool start-up idea is that the history books don’t bother tracking all of the people who walked that path and didn’t get where they wanted to go. For every one of them there are probably many thousands of people who regret that choice. This isn’t necessarily an argument for staying in school, but it is one for not over-generalizing from extreme examples.”
They also, refer to the fundamental attribution error which is the tendency to over-estimate dispositional or personality-based explanations for behaviour and underestimate situational ones. So, we tend to assume that what someone else does is based on what kind of person they are rather than the situation they find themselves in, but research has shown over and over that situational forces and constraints exert a larger influence on our behavior than individual personality. But when it comes to our evaluation of our own experience we tend do the opposite. At this point I will say that trauma and how societies approach it is political and we can’t truly talk about trauma or about growth and healing approaches and initiatives without having conversations about oppression, social justice, financial and social circumstances, nor can we ignore forces like racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, xenophobia, and so on, that have woven their way into systems and institutions. I’ll share a personal story here. During my first studies related to psychology the emphasis was always on a both and approach and on the importance of always considering situatedness. Everything is embedded. On the other hand, during a master’s programme I did after that the emphasis was on the individual, on our conscious experience and mostly the exploration of the surface layers of our experiencing without much consideration of context. These were two different narratives with different underlying political views around trauma, health interventions and what it is to be human, with different practical consequences in the world.
So, for instance, a more inclusive approach like a nature and nurture rather than a nature versus nurture lens is a less dualistic approach and it provides a more complex picture of reality and a more inclusive outlook. Concerning the importance of taking into consideration environmental stressors Rick and Forrest Hanson claim that malnutrition in childhood is heavily associated with cognitive and behavioural impairment during childhood and adolescence and epigenetics now tells us that even though our genes are mostly fixed, our life experiences influence how our genes work. So as a child grows, epigenetics help determine which function a cell will have, which genes will be turned on and which will be turned off. Our gene expression is impacted by our life experiences and life styles and chronic exposure to high levels of stress changes the expression of our genes. Research on individuals exposed to collective traumas like genocides and war suggests that PTSD symptomatology is passed down from one generation to the next.
I’ve written more about cognitive distortions, and also, the nature versus nurture debate in a previous post (6/3/2021) about The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Live, Think and Die by Keith Payne, α social psychology professor and researcher. Below is a paragraph from that post:
However, the character flaw versus impoverished environment theories are basically a version of the old nature (character flaws) versus nurture (environment) debate. Payne writes: “Like any nature versus nurture discussion, it misses the larger point: Nature and nurture always work together, because what we have inherited genetically as humans is not a rigid set of behaviors, like those that send fruit flies fluttering toward a light. They are, rather, tendencies to react to changes in the environment in particular ways. The goal should be to comprehend how human nature has prepared us to respond in resource-rich and resource-poor environments, and to high and low levels of inequality. Once we do, we will understand why an individual brought up in a wealthy family would think and act differently than she would if she had been brought up in a poor family, and why an individual living in a situation of great inequality would behave differently than one living in conditions of equality…….. But as anyone who has lived in both poverty and affluence can attest, people do think and act differently in those very different worlds. One difference is how they consider the future.
Concerning environmental factors Dr Rick Hanson provides another example. He says: “And in a funny kind of way, acknowledging the impact of these impersonal factors, to which I want to really add the impact of environment every day – if you go out every day and you’re dealing with prejudice and discrimination, if you have to wear an extra bit of armor, let’s say as a woman maybe, to avoid being harassed just walking down the freakin’ street – if you have to encounter that, if you’re in a situation in which your family system, your in-laws, your neighbors, are criticizing you, or pooh poohing you, or doubting you, or continually messaging you that you’re second class, second tier, don’t really matter, don’t have a voice – boom! That is usually going to have an impact on you. If you feel like factually, because it’s true, you have to swim upstream every day while people are throwing rocks at you from the banks of the river, that’s going to really affect things as well.”
Another point discussed in the first podcast related to trauma is repetition compulsion, a term coined by Freud, which is the tendency we humans have to repeat the past through re-enacting an event or dynamics we may often have no conscious insight or memory of. This is one way of how trauma is passed on from generation to generation. Or we tend to put ourselves in situations where similar things are bound to happen again or we’re attracted to the same type of people. As we learn to move through denial, to acceptance, to feeling the pain in the present in the presence of a therapist or an attuned other, for instance, we can digest, make sense of and let go, to one extent or other, and this is what healing and liberation from old patterns can look like. The first podcast also covers ACEs and what research has shown about adverse childhood experiences and their impact on health, behaviour, addiction and longevity. Neurodiversity and cognitive differences in the population and how the accumulation of stress over time adds up as allostatic load are also touched upon.
Below is a bit about allostatic load, death by a thousand paper cuts, “From a talk by Craig Hassed, Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance (Monash University / Australia) from a previous post (20/10/2016):
A lot of changes happen to our body when we activate threat responses…..
“Our circulation becomes hyper dynamic, the blood gets thick and sticky and ready to clot fast, and metabolic rate goes up to help us to burn fuel faster than normal as a rapid release of sugars and fats into the bloodstream. We start to sweat because our metabolic rate’s gone up and we’re starting to feel hot, and the blood is diverted away from the skin and from the gut, so the gut shuts down, and all of that blood is being sent off to the muscles because they’re going to be doing a lot of work………..
So we would experience it as anxiety but it could be grinding away in a low level in pretty much throughout much of our day, and sometimes, we get really big spikes in this kind of reaction or response but it’s based on being unmindful, not being present, not discerning between imagination and reality. And if we do this a lot, then it produces a wear and tear on our system that it was not designed to take. It’s called allostatic load. But we get impaired immunity so we are more likely to get infections, or if we’ve got an inflammatory illness, it’ll be worse……..
We accelerate the hardening of the arteries so it leads to heart attacks and strokes, metabolic effects, high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high blood lipids, and so on. It also affects the ageing of the bones. It affects the ageing of the brain as well because these stress chemicals are neurotoxic so they damage brain cells over the long term, and actually lead to, a thinning of the grey matter. So we don’t just feel bad in the short term, it affects our health in the long term. And the areas that are most affected are the memory centre, hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, our working memory, executive functioning areas of the brain…..”.
Finally, people seek therapeutic interventions and other collaborative and co-constructive practices and contexts for many other reasons, apart from trauma, such as, liberating human potential, wanting to awaken to more reality, to become more competent in areas of life, to explore their human psychological depth and as Socrates claimed to know thou self better, to learn tools and practices that support well being, to deal with change or a crisis in their life, to deal with loss and grief or to navigate a particular developmental life stage, to break habits and addictions, and so on. During these processes old wounds might surface and traumas might get uncovered. In addition, some people are naturally more interested in psychology and exploring what it means to be human.
I will end this piece at this point and I’ll probably continue this thread on misconceptions and our right to seek growth and change through any modality that seems right for us without being apologetic about our choices, and also, what might consist good therapy and what re-traumatizing therapy or counseling might look like in the next post. I might also provide a recipe from the book above.