If you have a problem with your shoulder, heart, or other body part, you probably seek medical care. Or at least know you could or should. But what if the problem is your body image, i.e. your relationship with your body? How do you know if body image therapy is right for you?
Body Image concerns of varying degrees are more often the norm than not, thanks to diet culture and unattainable beauty standards, both historically and cross culturally. Pressure to have a perfect body, as defined by societal standards, has no expiration date. The current equation is something like thinnish and tone body = attractive = worthy.
Especially for girls and women.
Because body image concerns are so common, how to know if body image therapy is right for you can be tricky.
How common are body image problems? By age 6, girls in particular begin to show concerns about their own weight, and 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.
Think about that. Girls worrying about their weight at age 6.
And it only gets more intense from there. So much for playing hopscotch without a care in the world.
As girls age, the statistics do not become more encouraging. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
Even for women in their 60s through 90s, body image is often the number one body concern. Women in their mid life and senior years feeling unhappy in their body is a callosal shame.
Body image concerns affect us all.
While all ages, genders, and cultures are equally at risk for body image issues, the triggers and pressures vary.
In Western culture, girls feel pressure from the societal appearance-ideal. (Remember, slim and tone = attractive = worthy.) Boys are more often faced with social pressures to be lean and muscular.
So body image issues are common. But still, how do you know if body image therapy is right for you? Even if asking for a friend? 🙂
See if you can related to any of these concrete examples of body image problems.
You look in a full length mirror, and your good mood disappears. Maybe you are naked after just having had a relaxing shower. Or fully clothed and doing a final check before heading out the door.
You automatically start attacking yourself in harsher terms than a bully ever would.
The harsh self talk may be so automatic that you don’t even recognize you are doing it.
Real life examples of critical thinking when looking at your own reflection in the mirror include: “My stomach is gross.” “If only I could lose ”x” number of pounds, I would be happy.” or even “I wish I could cut off these disgusting mounds of fat.”
Unfortunately, most women and girls can completely relate to negative body image thoughts.
Maybe you can relate too. Or perhaps you can relate so personally that poor body image seems like no big deal because of how normal it seems to think this way.
Negative body image is a big deal.
One way it is a big deal is the dislike of your body and/or features causes you to resort to extreme and/or chronic measures to ‘fix’ the problem. And you might not even know or care that the ‘fix- it’ attempts are risky. And often futile.
Intentional weight loss efforts are not effective in the medium or long term. Plastic surgery is not a magic bullet and carries many risks.
Both perpetuate ongoing patterns of futility for a lifetime. More often than not, they are ineffective. Especially in the medium to long term.
If you invest time, money, and who knows what else in an attempt to be comfortable in your body, you expect the method to work.
When the method does not work, you blame yourself and commit to trying again or stepping it up a notch. Wash, rinse, repeat. Days, weeks, years pass you by.
Another reason a terrible relationship with your body is a big deal is because it keeps your focus on trying day after day after day to improve on something (your body) that does not need improvement.
That energy of yours could be channeled toward soooooo many other pursuits. Or even in just being, self-compassionately, in the here and now, with what is.
Your body is not the problem.
What is the problem, if it is not your body? The actual problem is diet culture, healthism, weight stigma, and cultural standards of beauty.
We can’t change Diet Culture or societal standards overnight.
Instead, we can improve our relationship with our body, teach body respect to children, and over time cultural standards will change.
Body image therapy is part of the solution.
Back to the question of how to know if body image therapy is right for you?
Most people know what it is like to want to change something about their body. Maybe for example hair color (changeable). Or height (not changeable). The dislike does not cause significant anxiety and has little impact on your sense of who you are.
If you accept your body without dwelling on perceived flaws you generally have a positive body image. Body image therapy could be helpful for you to fine tune your body satisfaction. Or even to help spread the word through your own actions of the benefits of feeling neutral or positive in your own body. (Remember the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally? You could be the Meg Ryan character demonstrating the magic of positive body image. Onlookers will gasp, “I will have what she is having!” )
Because negative body image is more common than not, therapy for body image is even that much more impactful.
So, can you turn negative body image into positive body image?
The short answer: Yes!
The long answer: “Yes, and”. The ‘and’ refers to the simultaneous effort at eliminating weight stigma, diversifying standards of beauty, standing up to Diet Culture, and striving toward your own body neutrality. And eventually glorious embodiment. That is, actually feeling peaceful, at home, and dare I say even ecstatic in the body you have.
After all, it is where you will live your entire life.
And your body is THE instrument for sensory experiences.
The sight of a vast ocean or mountain range, the smell of cinnamon, the sound of a beautiful melody, or the taste of your favorite scrumptious food, can only be accessed through your body. Thinking of and treating your body as an instrument for pleasure rather than as an object to criticize is an example of what happens in body image therapy.
Feeling neutral and even satisfied in your body is your birthright.
If not now, when?
One of my missions in life is to encourage people to improve their relationship with their body, whatever the size or shape. I know it is possible. The amount of energy and creativity that body image therapy frees up is astonishing.
There is nothing wrong or unnatural about feeling anxious or depressed. If you are a human being, you inevitably experience anxiety and depression. That is life.
Anxiety and depression have physical symptoms associated with them. Knowing how to keep the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression from derailing your life is an important part of well being. And of life in general. Otherwise, symptoms can take over, and your quality of life will suffer. How? Socially, interpersonally, health-wise, and in all other ways you can think of.
Let’s take a closer look at anxiety, starting with a definition.
Anxiety occurs when you feel nervous or stressed about something.
Maybe before an exam, or on a first date, you notice feeling slightly agitated or restless? Or worried, and/or a preference to avoid whatever is stressing you out?
Feeling anxious can be uncomfortable, even to the point you may wonder why the feeling exists.
Did you know that you, like everyone else, are wired to experience anxiety as a protective mechanism?
Anxiety is protective? Say what?
Anxiety is adaptive when facing challenges. So, we don’t want to get rid of it completely.
Back in the day of our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors, feeling anxious when lions approached was a good thing. Our ancestors’ anxiety helped them to fight off the animals or run for safety.
Anxiety kept them alive by activating the fight-or-flight mode. The same mechanism remains today as part of our brain. It prepares you for action and safety. In many cases, the fight or flight activation is a ‘false alarm’, because there are no lions or their equivalent chasing you. The threat in the present is more benign, like a first date or arriving late to an appointment. Much less is usually at stake than being attacked by a ferocious beast, but your nervous system doesn’t distinguish.
Without the safety mechanism of anxiety, humans would not have survived.
So, you can actually thank your anxiety for the evolution of our species.
Despite the benefits of anxiety, uncomfortable physical symptoms often occur in the body when you feel anxious.
Remember, anxiety is normal and something most of us experience. The severity can vary, from mild to severe.
Anxiety is considered a disorder depending on how long it lasts, how much distress it causes, or if it interferes with your life in other ways.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Nausea or stomach pain
- Rapid heart rate (maybe even feeling your heart pound)
- Shortness of breath (to the point where it may be hard to breathe)
- Muscle tension
There are about ten different categories of anxiety, many of which have overlapping physical symptoms. Examples of the categories include Phobias, Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, professional help may be the best next step.
Here is some good news: You can take steps on your own to manage your anxiety and physical symptoms.
Five of the best ways to keep the physical symptoms of anxiety from ruining your life include:
- Physical activity, be it formal exercise, walking in the park, dancing in your room to favorite music, or some other movement – it all counts as being physically active.
- Find time to be outside every day.
- Aim to avoid or at least limit alcohol and caffeine. Avoid nicotine. All worsen anxiety.
- Make sleep a priority. Anxiety and sleep problems go hand in hand. Getting enough sleep is important; it may reduce anxiety AND can help you cope with symptoms if you do become anxious.
- Relaxation techniques actually work. There are many different types. Discover what works for you. Maybe yoga? Guided meditation? Pick something that calms you and be sure it does not add to anxiety.
Up next is depression. Let’s define it and describe what it feels like to be depressed.
Feeling sad is normal. We all have losses and challenges, and sadness is a natural emotion.
Most everyone knows what feeling ‘off’ is like. Or feeling blue, sad, down in the dumps. Having these feelings on occasion is completely normal. With more moderate depression you may feel joyless and disinterested in what you usually like to do. Low energy and a bad mood can accompany depression too.
As with anxiety, depression levels range in severity from mild to severe.
Depending on how long depression lasts, how much distress it causes, and how it interferes in your life, you may have more than ‘just’ feelings of depression.
Feeling helpless and hopeless can also be a part of depression. This can become so central that suicidal thoughts may occur. (If this happens, call your local emergency room asap. The Samaritans are also available to talk to for support. ) Seeking professional help from a therapist and possibly a medication prescriber (aka a psychopharmacologist) is important, so that the symptoms do not become debilitating or lead to thoughts of suicide.
Physical symptoms of depression can include:
- Aches and pains, such as back or joint pain
- Sleep problems, such as insomnia or awakening a lot during the night
- Changes in appetite
- Slowed speed and movement, or agitated speech and movement
- Digestive problems
Fortunately, there are tried and true ways to keep physical symptoms of depression from ruining your life.
The same strategies to keep physical symptoms of anxiety from derailing your life also apply to depression. These include: physical activity, time spent outside, limiting or avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, prioritizing sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques.
Two additional recommendations for improving physical symptoms of depression are less well known. They target the sense of meaninglessness and lack of pleasure that can accompany depression.
- Engage in daily activities for mastery.
The bar for what is considered mastery may be low. That is ok. Even if making your bed is a mastery activity, great! The point is to do something that you really don’t feel like doing because of depression, and give yourself credit for having done it. Voila! Mastery.
This type of activity can be helpful to offset feeling like you can’t do anything right, or that you are too glum to do anything.
2. Engage in daily activities for pleasure.
Pleasure is often absent when feeling depressed. Even if it feels like just going through the motions, purposely plan and do something each day that brings you some sense of joy, pleasure, or peace. Examples include using your favorite body cream after showering, cuddling with your pet, or lighting a candle and listening to your favorite music.
There is a lot you can do to help yourself keep the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression from ruining your life. They are all forms of self care.
Unfortunately, self care has gotten a bad rap. Self care, ironically, is essential to well being. Rather than self indulgent, self-care helps to keep the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression away.
Self care each day may just keep anxiety and depression away!
Even if it doesn’t, self care will help you manage the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression. There is no down side to self care!
In my private practice I teach teens and adults how to navigate anxiety and depression. Please contact me if you would like more information.