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Social Ecological Model and Relationships to Food

Guest post by Nicole O'Brien, LCSW

Trauma is an experience that overwhelms the body, mind and spirit. It can have the power to change how we view the world and our role in it. It has the power to impact our relationships to others and ourselves.

Whether we're talking about our relationship to food, ourselves or our bodies; it can be complicated by so many factors. In some cases, it can be overwhelming to think about. When we start to think about these relationships, we soon discover messages that have been handed down through family, culture, society, advertisement, etc. Sometimes it's helpful to have a professional guiding us and supporting us in making change. This often involves unlearning years of conditioned messages and helping us to foster a better relationship with ourselves.

It is when we start to entertain positive, healthy messages about ourselves that change becomes more sustainable to implement and longer lasting.

Another way of looking at the individual is through the lens of the social ecological model, essentially this approach looks at various levels of influence and connection. It starts with a small circle that represents you, surrounded by a somewhat larger circle, your social network. Followed by yet another one, your environment, then your community and lastly the largest circle represents public policy and laws. Now imagine this visual as a way to understand our relationship with food. It is informed by our own choices, likes, etc., informed by our families and friends within our community, to finally the larger social, cultural and policy influences. Thinking about yourself in this way, may offer clues into various influences and help us understand their relationship to each other.

Take Thanksgiving for example, the food holiday of all holidays. Think back to a table set with many different foods. Your individual plate may look different from your Aunt Gretta's plate. Then think of the foods on the table that are influenced by your family traditions. What types of food you have access to is influenced by your community and your financial standing within it. Is the turkey local or from an industrial farm? Is that important to your family? Do you have the economic means and access to healthy foods? Is healthy food being subsidized through federal or local laws?

When we think about these questions, we recognize the influence on ourselves within a larger system. It gives us an inroad, an understanding of how we exist and what choices we make and how they are informed. Understanding how our own experiences influence our choices within the larger context, helps us find a way back to our own needs and body wisdom which is part of this journey.

Equipped with this knowledge we can go out and make conscious choices about how to nourish ourselves, our families and how to create new traditions or continue or tweak old traditions.


Author: Nicole O'Brien, LCSW

Nicole O’Brien received her master’s degree in Social Work from the University of New England and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

Her experiences have included working with groups, individuals and families from diverse backgrounds in settings including education, nonprofit organizations and mental health agencies. As a graduate student, Nicole trained at the Center for Grieving Children and Spurwink Services which exposed her to work in areas of bereavement, culturally and trauma-informed practices, social justice and numerous community services.

Nicole incorporates multiple lenses to explore individuals’ past experiences in a safe, supportive and holistic way. She works from a variety of treatment modalities including Deep Brain Reorienting, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Trauma-focused Therapy, Supportive Therapy, Psychodynamic, Solution Focused and Somatic Awareness.

Nicole currently has a waitlist for new clients with MaineCare and private pay.

To contact her directly, please email or call at (207) 405-1504.


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