With summer just around the corner, we’re already being bombarded with messages about getting into great physical shape for the season of shorts and swimsuits. While it’s generally a positive thing to want to be fit and healthy, in my work with my clients I find that focusing on rebooting body image can be even more valuable than embarking on an elusive journey to the ideal body. I tell my clients that it is one thing to have fitness goals, and it is another thing to connect your body image and weight to your self-worth. I support fitness goals, but I work diligently with clients to loosen the death grip of body shame and judgment.
Unfortunately, many folks can relate to the idea of having a negative body image. And compulsive habits like over-exercising, calorie restricting, withdrawing from social gatherings, obsessing with how our body looks, stepping on the scale multiple times a day, constantly looking in the mirror to nitpick every imperfect detail (or on the flip side avoiding mirrors and cameras) develop. What folks with autoimmune disease may not know is that negative body image can have an even bigger impact in terms of managing their health.
It’s no wonder that negative body image often goes hand in hand with autoimmune disease. These disorders can alter one’s physical appearance, creating symptoms like:
- Weight gain
- Weight loss
- Hair thinning and/or hair loss
- Muscle weakness
- Joint inflammation
- Skin issues such as pigmentation, rashes, acne, and the list goes on!
When we experience these symptoms, it’s all too easy to feel frustrated, believing that our body is damaged or working against us. But even though the experience of physical symptoms is real, negative self-talk is a 100% mental game—and we get to decide how we talk to ourselves. We become what we think! If our inner critic is saying we look disgusting in a swimsuit and our hair looks awful, well, then, that’s our reality.
Beyond boosting our self esteem, we should understand that taming our inner critic has a powerful impact on our body’s ability to cope with autoimmune disease. The connection between self-perception and physical symptoms is very real.
A harsh inner critic, that insists reality be different, triggers the autonomic nervous system—our fight or flight (stress) response. This can lead to being in a chronic state of stress in which cortisol is constantly being pumped into our body and wreaking havoc on our immune system, microbial profile, cardiovascular system, and hormonal balance. You name it, stress impacts it! The Centers for Disease Control agree, claiming that 90% of illness is caused by stress. Some experts even say that stress is America’s number one health problem. If your body is already up against autoimmune disease, a loud inner critic is only going to exacerbate your symptoms. So, what can we do?
Tame the inner critic to support healing
Give your inner critic a name—choose someone you can’t take seriously. Whether it’s a celebrity or someone you know in real life, the more ridiculous the better! This will help you separate your negative thoughts and perceptions from the truth. For me, my negative self-talk becomes hard to believe when I picture Donald Drumpf yelling it at me.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
Stop and ask yourself: is this thought really true? Sure, I might think I should have thicker, longer hair, but is the statement, “I should have thicker, longer hair” really true? Then, try turning it around and see if it doesn’t allow you to accept yourself better: “I shouldn’t have thicker, longer hair.” The Work of Byron Katie has been a helpful method for me to learn how to change my thoughts and perceptions and to actually accept what is–instead of fighting against reality. Change your thoughts and perceptions and you will literally change your world!
Focus on whole health
It is ingrained in us from a young age that if you look thin, you are healthy. It’s important to question this cultural value. As someone who spent many years as an unhealthy thin person, I can attest to this firsthand! I often work with clients who come to me for weight loss, and it’s amazing to witness the shift as they learn to become aware of health and healing on a deeper level. Consequently, their tunnel vision on weight loss alone dissolves. Focus on health as a whole—and don’t forget to nourish yourself with fulfilling relationships, spiritual practice, satisfying work, restorative sleep and physical activity.
Feed your body well
Body image issues often come with a strained relationship with food—have you ever told yourself any of the following? “Fats are the enemy.” “Food is not on my side.” “I’m allergic or sensitive to everything!” Being in this mental tailspin distracts us from nourishing our body with healthy, whole foods. Eat foods that are fresh, high quality, and local if possible, and try to eat with a mindset of gratitude and mindfulness. Avoid highly processed foods that cause inflammation and poor body functioning. Remember, food is so much more than calories—food is fuel and it has the power to heal! Feeding ourselves well also supports a healthy mental state, and it looks different for everyone. My ideal diet might not work for you, and vice versa. Sure, get some advice from the external world (media, the internet, a friend, or neighbor), but ultimately listen to your inner wisdom and pay attention to your body to know what it needs.
Practice soul-centered self care
Do what you love and what makes you feel good. Teach yourself that you deserve the things that make you happy—and it doesn’t have to be what people expect! I’ll tell you what, if another person tells me to journal for self care, I’m going to lose it. I don’t like journaling. It stresses me out. When I do the things I like, like soaking in warm water, playing with my kids or enjoying a cup of tea while staring out the window and thinking of nothing in particular, my parasympathetic nervous system (restorative state) is triggered—which, you guessed it—promotes healing. A word of caution, though: make sure your self care activities bring you into your body in the present. Try to avoid activities that help you cope with stress by numbing it, such as overuse of alcohol or endless Netflix binges.
With these tools in mind, relax in your body with more confidence and love this summer—embracing your body for what it is, imperfections and all.