The missing link to healing body image

Ah, Body Image… what a complex conversation to be had. There are so many layers to body image and we each have different trauma and trigger responses around it.

We weren’t born with anxiety about what our bodies look like… or with chronic overwhelm, worrying about what others might think of our appearance. We have learned all of that (consciously and unconsciously) through the world we live in.

If we hadn’t experienced body image trauma before, then we wouldn’t be fearfully anxious about what size or shape our bodies are. We wouldn’t even think twice about what others thought about our bodies. We would be fully happy with the body we have and we’d just eat whatever we wanted without weight loss or weight gain even entering our minds… imagine that!

So it’s clear that most of us (from the research I’ve done and continue to do, I’d guestimate around 80% of women in the world) suffer from body image trauma. AKA the way they think their body looks is significantly negatively affecting their lives (and most likely their relationship with food).

Mindset alone is not the answer

Mindset is amazing and necessary however that’s not all you need to heal your body image. It goes deeper than that.

When I first started my journey and therefore my education around healing my relationship with food and my body, I thought that in order to feel ok in my body, all I had to do was to lie to myself and say things like:

“My body is fine as it is, it doesn’t matter if I don’t love the way it looks.”

“My body is beautiful.”

“I love the fat on my body”

Whilst all of that is indeed true, at the time it felt like a big lie but I didn’t know then what I know now.

I genuinely thought that the only way for me to live in food freedom was to ‘Positive Mindset’ my way through any uncomfortable feelings and to just tell myself that “I was fine” and it “didn’t matter.”

Whilst your mindset is absolutely necessary on your journey to food freedom and body love, it’s only going to get you so far all by itself. And this is what I see a lot of coaches doing, (it’s what I used to do too) but we’re missing a hugely important step before we bring in the power of positive thinking. But before I go into that, we need to be familiar with what trauma actually is.

What is trauma?

When you experience intense emotional and/or physical pain where your nervous system can’t cope. As humans, we’re wired for survival and so when our nervous system can’t cope with an event, we literally think we’re going to die! Especially if we experience this as a child. As children, we become so overwhelmed with the emotions that we feel during a traumatic event that we literally think we’re going to die.

“Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.”

-God Google

An example I thought about when writing this was when my mum and I were walking my dog, Hero, and we walked past a rabbit hut with rabbits in it. My mum was holding Hero and he jumped forward to get to the rabbits and she let go of the lead as she was caught off guard. Hero was trying to get to the rabbits by chasing them back and forth along the length of the hut. I obviously grabbed him as quickly as I could and I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor rabbits.

The rabbit’s natural response would be to run as fast and as far as possible. They couldn’t run away because they were trapped in the run. This type of experience can cause death in animals due to the shock.

Humans are different to animals because we have a conscious mind and we have language, therefore we think in words. But we still have the animalistic survival part of our brain (the brain stem) that drives our behaviour if we’re in a fight, flight or freeze response. This overrides everything and sends the logical part of our brain offline. Therefore we experience trauma similar to an animal – life or death – and sometimes it can be.

There are three main types of trauma: Acute, Chronic, and Complex

  • Acute trauma results from a single incident.
  • Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse.
  • Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature.

In my experience (personal and with my clients), body image trauma is usually a mixture of all 3 types; acute, chronic and complex.

What they all have in common is they each cause feelings of helplessness, and diminish our sense of self and our ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.

Trauma is also subjective meaning that two people can have the same experience yet one could be traumatised and the other may not be affected at all. The reason for this is multilayered and too complicated for me to go into here (AND I’m not a licensed trauma therapist) but simply put, how each of us experiences events depends on our past experiences, our conditioning, our upbringing, how much our emotional and physical needs were met as a child how we see the world internally.

Body image trauma

Body image trauma is when you experience body ridicule toward your own body or someone else’s body due to its size or appearance. 

Put in another way;

Poor body image is due to personally experiencing trauma around our body’s appearance or witnessing someone else experience body image trauma.

We then experience body shame. We feel like there’s something wrong with our body and therefore we are ashamed of it. We want to hide away so others can’t see. We start diets or fitness regimes in an attempt to change our bodies.

Desperate to fit in

We are literally coded to want to fit in otherwise we could die. This stems from when we needed our human tribe to survive. If we were thrown out for any reason, it would be a matter of life or death. This is also why we compare ourselves to others so much. We’ve not only been conditioned to do so but it’s also coded within us for “survival”.

When we are judged or ridiculed because of our body appearance, we don’t feel safe. AKA it feels like a matter of life or death.

And let’s be honest, society is a shit show and does ridicule those bodies that are far from the “ideal” so no wonder we feel this way about our bodies!

Trauma is stored in the body 

Our bodies and emotions can only safely handle a limited amount of stress, trauma results whenever an experience exceeds our abilities to handle and cope with its consequences. The energy of the trauma is stored in our bodies’ tissues (primarily muscles and fascia) until it can be released.

Now consider for a moment, how many times over your life span you’ve experienced trauma around your body or someone else’s body. I can honestly say that personally, I’ve lost count of the number of little t traumas I’ve experienced around body image. From seeing Britney Spears ridiculed in magazines for weight gain and cellulite to hearing someone comment negatively about someone else body, to my Grandma saying my legs were like tree trunks.

If I allow myself to go there, I can remember my big T traumas. One of them was when I was on a night out and a group of lads were looking and pointing at me laughing. I then saw my ex in the crowd with a panicked look on his face… one of his friends came up to me and my friend and showed us a picture of a girl who was naked, legs spread. The friend who I was with was drunk and didn’t really read the situation. She looked at the photo and said “whos that fat slag?” It was me. My ex had taken the photo after we had just had sex and somehow it had been passed around his mates… Oh, the joys of being a teenager.

As you can imagine that was very traumatising for me.

How many times have you experienced little t and big T trauma? How many times after having experienced that have you processed your emotions, felt them, understood them and released them physically…?

Unprocessed trauma gets “stored” not just in your unconscious mind and memory but throughout your physical being.

Trauma & Body Image: Triggers

Have you ever heard of flight, fight, or freeze? During times of crisis, chaos, and traumatic experiences we enter “survival mode.” You might have heard this phrase before; but what does it mean?

When we experience stressful events our brains begin to function in a different capacity. Before we go any further, it is important to mention that these experiences can either be real-life threats or perceived threats to our safety; our brain does not always differentiate between them, it just reacts.

When we are experiencing an actual threat, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we go into either:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze

When we experience a trigger from past trauma – in the context of body image for example; putting on a swimsuit – it also activates our sympathetic nervous system. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between an actual threat or a perceived threat. So if you have body image trauma, simply putting on a swimsuit can cause you to feel immense overwhelm and panic if you think that it’s not safe.

The primary response we often have to trauma is fight or flight. The heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, big muscles get tense and ready to run or fight, and digestion slows down.

The other reaction we can have—often when the trauma is overwhelming and inescapable, as might be the case with rape or an ongoing abusive relationship—is to freeze, or go into a kind of a detached state. AKA freeze.

During these responses, which are mediated by the autonomic nervous system, areas of the brain responsible for fear, anger, and emotion, particularly the amygdala, become much more active, while areas in the frontal cortex, responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful decision making, human connection, and compassion, become less active.

Put into simpler terms:

When you experience a body image trauma – depending on how deeply your past experiences have affected you – it can unconsciously feel like a matter of life or death. To your body, it is. And so it’s extremely hard to relax, move through it, connect to self-compassion and just “put on the swimsuit” like it’s no biggie.

It is a biggie because this is a TRAUMA RESPONSE.  

Fight, flight or freeze?

The most common sympathetic nervous system response when it comes to body image is “flight”. To run away from the situation, to hide away at all costs. This is due to the shame that we feel.

Healing body image trauma

So what the fuck are we supposed to do to heal body image trauma?

You can’t mindset your way out of it that’s for sure. Trauma is complex but there is one common denominator when it comes to healing stored trauma;

You gotta feel it to heal it…

For more extreme trauma such as PTSD, other methods are used to help with this such as EMDR and using MDMA is proving effective at treating severe trauma when used in therapy.

The best way to heal body image trauma is to get help. I support my clients through nervous system regulation, mindset work including neuroplasticity (re-wiring the brain) and knowledge and understanding which are all key in helping to heal trauma.

I’ve come up with a 10 step framework to heal body image trauma. It can also be used to guide yourself step by step through negative self-talk and self-flagellation.

I call it the 10 Rs:

The 10 Rs

  1. Recognise – your trauma response is happening and notice what you are saying to yourself without judgment. Don’t identify with how you feel, just notice. You are not the sadness/fear/shame you are simply experiencing it. You are not what your thoughts are telling you that you are (eg- fat, ugly and gross) you are simply noticing that the thoughts are there.
  2. Reassure – yourself. Pour compassion into yourself. Self-kindness is key here. “It’s ok that I’m feeling this way, it’s just a trauma response. I am safe now.
  3. Relax – your physical body. You need to activate your parasympathetic response via nervous system regulation. This could be deep breathing. A meditation. Mindfulness. Soft music. Foam rolling. Yoga. Asking your loved one for a cuddle. Anything that helps you to relax.
  4. Resonate – with your feelings. Let them in. Really FEEL them in your body. Where do these feelings live in your body? If the feeling were a shape, what shape would it be? If it were a colour, what colour would it be? If it could move around, would it be moving, swirling or blobbing about?
  5. Radically accept – that you are where you are right now. You feel this way and that’s ok. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be. Forgive yourself.
  6. Realise – when you first ever felt this way. Where has this fear stemmed from? More often than not, it will be from childhood. The body image trigger you’re experiencing isn’t about your body now, the pain has already been experienced years ago. It is stored in your body and hasn’t been fully felt and released. There will also be many layers to this feeling. You may think it’s about your actual body, but it’s not. Fat doesn’t grow with shame cells.
  7. Release – the feeling after you have felt it fully. Let it go. Go back to your younger self in your mind’s eye and comfort her if you need to. What would you say to her? What does she need to hear? Release the stored trauma by touching yourself lovingly such as gently massaging and caressing your tummy or the cellulite on your thighs. Dance – move – get a massage. Do something to physically move the stored trauma through and out of the body.
  8. Reframe – this is where mindset comes into play. Tell yourself a new empowering story and write down some positive affirmations – that you believe to reframe the situation. If you find it too difficult to reframe straight to positive, start with neutrality and build from there.
  9. Respond – to the situation as the unconditionally self-loving version of you would. Act as if you are already healed, free and living a life fuelled by self-love.
  10. Rejoice – celebrate and acknowledge yourself for doing the inner work. It’s not easy my love. Be there for yourself through it all.

Your window of tolerance

In order to act as the self-loving version of you, it will need you to get outside of your comfort zone. It’s important that when doing this that you stay within your window of tolerance.

This is your edge. It’s stretching you but it’s not so far out that it will cause overwhelm and create another traumatic experience. We don’t want that. We want growth, not a panic attack. So it must feel uncomfortable but not completely out of reach.

If you feel fear and excitement when you think of doing the thing, that’s a sign that it’s absolutely meant for you to do it!

Repetition

Keep repeating the 10 step framework whenever you need to. Each time, you’ll become slightly more emotionally resilient and you’ll teach yourself that it’s safe to feel your difficult emotions. You’re strong enough to feel them. You’ll also be releasing stored trauma from your body and so you’ll feel freer, happier and more at peace with fewer and fewer triggers as time goes on and you continue to do this work. You’ll also have a huge comfort zone and a huge window of tolerance. Hello, peace and happiness!

A great quote I live by:

I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am”

Charles Horton Cooley

If you think that others think that you’re the sexiest and most incredible woman they’ve ever met then most people will treat you that way.

Then the more positive experiences you have, the safer and more relaxed you’ll feel. But you have to move first. You have to take the action (or the non-action, such as body checking) first.

It takes time to feel safe in your body.  

Keep repeating the framework every time you experience a trigger and you’ll heal.  

You gotta feel it to heal it. 

Be gentle with yourself ☺️❤️🥰

If you’d like support, guidance and a completely personalised path for you to heal your relationship with food and your body, I’m your woman.

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