I wasn't surprised when body image came up again and again in my work with teen girls. During group sessions but mostly when we were in private, they'd speak on their self-consciousness about how fast they were developing, how they weren't developing fast enough, how they were being treated differently because of this, and how much weight they wanted to lose.
But the more I worked with young women and grappled with my own mental health, I came to understand a different dimension of body image.
Body image isn't just about how your body looks, but also how it feels and functions.
Perhaps my lovely psychotherapist readers can speak on the multitude of ways that trauma and other emotional challenges can affect how (or whether) a person perceives her body.
For now, I'll just say that my twenties was ridden with all sorts of body mayhem related to stress and my mental state: insomnia, uncontrolled face flushing in front of groups, anxiety-induced nausea on school or work days, poor appetite, topped off with weight gain and poor libido from the antidepressants.
I remember calling in sick so often that my boss started asking if I was okay. I hadn't thought she'd noticed, considering she had almost 100 other employees to supervise.
Truth be told, I really wasn't okay. As I treated young women with body image issues stemming from puberty and PTSD, I was dealing with my own body image issues stemming from anxiety, depression, and just being a highly sensitive person who didn't know she was highly sensitive.
Spoiler alert: I eventually got out of this downward spiral and recovered. Hallelujah! But one of the reasons that recovery was such a challenge for me was because I no longer trusted my body. I had an image of my body as dysfunctional, weak, and out of my control.
How could I trust that my body would be able to heal itself, after all the weight gain and insomnia and fight-or-flight reactions gone haywire? How was I supposed to trust that it would start "listening" to me again?
Well, there are certain truths related to this that I've unearthed on my journey to recovery.
Truth #1: YOUR BODY WILL ONLY LISTEN TO YOU IF YOU LISTEN TO IT.
The body sends us signals about its internal state. All the discomfort and discombobulated symptoms I felt during my descent into depression and anxiety were by no means my fault--I don't like to say any mental health challenges are anyone's "fault"--but they did give me clues to what I needed in order to start healing.
When a car runs out of gas, that's a clue that you should fill the tank. When a flower starts to droop, that's a clue that you should water it. When you start feeling heart palpitations or getting debilitatingly dark thoughts all day, every day, that's a clue that you should probably get some help.
And when your body feels this out of whack for this long, that's a good sign that it's time to realign or rebalance some things--whether that's your hormones, neurotransmitters, sleep cycle, energy, priorities, relationships, diet, or nervous system.
Let's listen to our body and give her what she needs to realign or rebalance, so she can finally stop throwing this tantrum and start helping us to feel good again.
Even if it takes us a while to figure out exactly what it is that she needs, we are trying, we're doing something. If nothing else, we are advocating for our well-being every time we make a choice to heed what we think our body might be telling us. This is a skill we'll need for the rest of our lives because this is how we create a healthy and harmonious relationship with our bodies.
>>DO THIS: Schedule at least one quiet moment every day to just breathe and scan your body. Literally put it on your calendar, in your planner, or put an alarm on your phone, because it can be remarkably hard for modern people to just STOP and LISTEN to themselves. Some people like to do this through meditation or gentle yoga, but feel free to just sit and notice. Take 2-10 minutes to deliberately notice any tightness, looseness, hunger, energy, sluggishness, warmth, coolness, soreness, or residual emotions being held in your muscles. And then give your body what she needs, based on this information.
Truth #2: THE SENSATIONS YOU GIVE YOUR BODY WILL TEACH IT HOW TO FEEL.
Memories, emotions, and life experiences are not only held in the mind--they're also held in the body. Literally. Significant life experiences are held in your soft tissues, throughout your nervous system, and even sometimes your DNA.
After coming out the other end of a life-shaking experience, whether directly related to your health or not, your body is bound to have an off-kilter perception of what she's actually feeling or what she should be feeling in everyday situations.
Through no fault of your own, your body has been fed all sorts of stimuli that has made her confused about what her "baseline" is. Maybe she now makes your palms sweat or your stomach churn out of the blue, even when your mind tries to tell her that she's safe. The truth is, your body is safe right now; there's no lions or bad guys or avalanches on your tail right now. Your body is simply sitting and reading these words. That's it.
But out of sheer habit, your body believes otherwise--and responds accordingly.
As your body's "parent", you have the wonderful opportunity to now feed her the types of sensory information that will recalibrate her. Re-teach your body how to recognize her true baseline and regulate her feelings.
This often involves being intentional about where you take your body and what you expose her to. For example, I often met up with a trusted girlfriend as I recovered from the hardest stretch of my twenties, and we'd just go get a cup of herbal tea at the local Coffee Bean. With the familiar ambiance, the soothing beverage, and my dear friend's company, I felt safe and cared for while also technically being "out and about".
Generally speaking, the more calming or affirming activities I engaged my body in, the more she realized that she did not have to be on the defensive all the time. I go into this at length in "Heal the Body First", a free 4-week self-care challenge for introverts. Check it out if you want to go deeper into re-teaching your body how to get back to her regular self.
>>DO THIS: Engage in one activity a day that naturally cues your body to take deep breaths, relax its muscles, or laugh. Being in a state of relaxation or play is how you know that your nervous system is no longer in its fight-flight-freeze response. Maybe frolic with your goofy cat on the living room floor, take a leisurely stroll on a familiar path next to the ocean, or add long stretches and aromatherapy to your end-of-the-day shower routine. The point is to give your body a daily physiological reminder of how “safe” feels like.
Truth #3: YOUR BODY IS A MIRACULOUS LIVING MACHINE.
The final truth that helped me to trust my body's ability to heal herself is that she is simply miraculous. Your body is, too. This is just a fact.
Our bodies are complex beyond comprehension. Even after being studied by scientists and manipulated by medical professionals for thousands of years, our bodies still hold mysteries that are yet to be solved.
What keeps your lungs expanding and contracting? What parts of you are made from stardust, and which galaxy did this stardust come from? What nerves, muscle fibers, blood cells, synapses, and electrical signals had to work in harmony to help you cup that warm mug of tea (or pick your nose ;) ? What is that spark that lights up inside your body, creating a very physical sensation, as you dance to your favorite song or experience a runner's high?
It's true that science can provide partial answers to these questions, but you are the one who gets to experience your body's mysteries in full.
Even if your body had her starts and stops and stutters, she has kept you alive thus far. Acknowledge your body's efforts to carry you through this life and give you lived experiences that will be eternally unique to you. She is doing her best.
Let's show our bodies gratitude and compassion.
I know, this might be much easier said than done. But hopefully you know me by now: I'm a fan of taking abstract ooey-gooey ideas like this, and making them actionable.
>>DO THIS: Do a daily Healthy Body Yoga practice with Adriene Mishler on YouTube. As Adriene says in the intro of the video, “A happy and healthy yoga body is one that is united… the three part of the mind and the body and the spirit being tended to is where the happy and the healthy truly come from.” Every single part of your body is given an opportunity to shine during this juicy 20-minute practice and Adriene is phenomenal at reminding us to do every movement with integrity. Trust--this is SO worth your time.
Remember, every choice you make to help your body feel and function at its best is an extra bit of evidence that you have some power in controlling your own experience of life.
Be your body's BFF and she will repay the favor. Be intentional about what you feed your body, how you move it, what elements or stimulation you expose it to, how much rest you give it.
If you’d like some extra guidance as you practice trusting and celebrating your body again, jump into the free self-care challenge, Heal the Body First, by signing up below.
I’ll break it down into bite-sized chunks for you over the course of four weeks so you can simply focus on taking it one day at a time.
It does take time and practice to feel and function at your best again, but it doesn't need to be complicated and you don't have to do it alone. Let's begin, shall we?