Mental Health Awareness Week - Body Image

Is there a link between our belief about our appearance and our mental wellbeing? We think so and this is a topic that we feel passionate about.

We hear about body image issues so often in our work with young people, and the issue to do with our bodies is more far reaching than we would imagine.

During this year's Mental Health Awareness Week (hosted by Mental Health Foundation), we were keen to be part of the conversation.

In our work with children and adolescents, we see at first hand how the perceptions we hold about our appearance can present hurdles to young people and impact their mental wellbeing.

We decided to get involved in Mental Health Awareness Week because we feel it is important that these conversations take place, that young people and their families realise that they are not alone in having these negative feelings and that there is help out there to enable these feelings to be regulated.

What is Body Image and why is it important?

'Body image’ is a term that can be used to describe how we think and feel about our bodies. Our thoughts and feelings about our bodies can impact us throughout our lives and can have a negative effect on the way we feel about ourselves and our mental health and wellbeing.

Having body image concerns is a relatively common experience especially for adolescents coming to terms with changes in their body and their appearance. These concerns do not necessarily lead to mental health problems however, research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation has found that there is a link between young people who are dissatisfied with their bodies and 'a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders'.

Body image concerns are not just felt by children and young people but if left unchecked, can follow through into later life and affect both women and men.

There are so many ways in which we use our bodies to channel negative feelings - our bodies essentially become the vessel for big feelings. Here, we explore how we use our bodies to connect, or disconnect, with emotion.

Our relationship with food.

Overwhelming feelings can be displaced into over or under-eating. Put simply - what we put into our bodies, or deprive our bodies of, can be a way of coping with overwhelming thoughts and feelings.

We see this time and time again in our work with young people: when we give attention, time and care to the overwhelming and unprocessed feelings, we offer the opportunity for a young person to be able to unburden themselves. We give them licence to self-care in a positive way as opposed to engaging in a destructive relationship with their body.

How we treat our bodies.

Self-harm can be a frightening topic for adolescents and their families and can be a displaced way of regulating powerful feelings.

When feelings and emotions become just too big for us to be able to deal with, we can hurt ourselves as a way of coping with this unbearable emotion. As with anything, we find that once the underlying issue can be heard, held and understood, that young person no longer feels the need to turn against their body in an attempt to regulate their feelings.

How we use social media to show our best selves.

For this generation of young people, it must be acknowledged that there is an additional pressure not known by generations before: the presentation of their lives, and their image, is often aired and played out on social media.

At times, this can have a destructive influence on young people and can lead to them feeling low, inadequate, envious, insecure and more. The presentation of unattainable perfection as young people view images that are 'photo-shopped' or 'filtered' puts unbearable pressures on them which may lead to unthinkable outcomes.

We want this to stop and intend to be part of the ongoing dialogue about the negative influence of social media.

Our beliefs about our bodies: what matters?

We all want to show a more confident, assured persona to the outside world - so how do we achieve this? Our belief about our internal world, our ‘goodness’, and our acceptance of our 'outward-self' is what leads to the peaceful assuredness we all aspire to achieve. We want our young people to feel confident in presenting their true self rather than their perfect self.

This is where we can help: therapy is so vital to our mental wellbeing - it provides the chance to stop, think, explore, process, feel, connect and it is this that enables us to feel happier.

In addition, we teach mindfulness skills to teachers, children and young people. Two key aspects of being mindful are trying to stay in the present moment and to cultivate a sense of non-judgement. Research has shown that those adopting these approaches have a healthier relationship with food and their bodies. It is possible that a neutral, accepting approach to one’s experiences could foster an acceptance of body and identity. What’s more, we believe that focusing on the present moment might prevent people from ruminating on negative thoughts about themselves.

We are currently supporting hundreds of children and young people who have issues such as these and many others, and are never-tiring in our conversations with them, and about them.

If you would like to speak to us about the services we provide, please contact Catherine Munns who will be happy to help.

For the full report published by the Mental Health Foundation into Body Image and its impact on mental health, go to their webpage to download.