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By Andres Fonseca - Co-Founder & CEO at Thrive

Overcoming Body Image Concerns

Whether we like or not, our body plays an important role in the way we see ourselves. Sometimes even too important a role. In our culture, we are constantly bombarded with images from ads, social media, and even from our own friends that emphasise appearance above everything else. By now it is no wonder we have all become a bit self-conscious and, as a result, most of us will find something that we don’t like about our body. This is normal.

Body image issues start when this self-criticism takes over our life. Without even realising we can spend hours each day worrying about our appearance. We may start spending money to get rid of imperfections and may adopt a diet that can even hurt us in the long run. Some people go through multiple surgeries to try to correct the problem, but nothing ever works.

If you are wondering whether this might be you, the NHS lists five key indicators for a body image problem:

You worry a lot about a specific area of your body (particularly your face)

You spend a lot of time comparing your looks to other people's

You look at yourself in mirrors a lot, or avoid mirrors altogether

You may spend a lot of time and effort to conceal flaws – for example, by spending a long time combing your hair, applying make-up or choosing clothes

You may even pick at your skin to make it "smooth"

It’s important to note that these indicators are merely behaviours that apply to all of us to some extent. From time to time we start a new diet, try new clothes on or hit the gym to overcome certain issues we don’t feel good about. What separates body image issues from these everyday activities is that body image problems are rooted in cognitive errors. Our perception and our thinking are often not as reliable as we would like to think. Just think of a situation where you are looking for new shoes. As you walk around the shop your perception will be focused only on shoes, so much so that you won’t notice anything else. When we have a body image issue we tend to hyperfocus on some perceived problem with some part of our body. This may be completely unnoticeable to anybody but us. Therefore, no matter how hard we exercise, or how little we eat, our distorted perception will still mislead us to think you have to do more. This constant frustration can also lead to low self-esteem, low mood and wide-ranging changes to our behaviour that may result in serious health and social problems.

To overcome body image issues, what you need is a more realistic way of looking at yourself and the role of appearance in everyday life. Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, can help you a great deal in this. Its main goal is to overcome unrealistic thought-behaviour patterns. From psychology research, we know that we are more likely to notice and remember events which are familiar to us and consistent with our thinking. When it comes to body image issues this means that when we are too focused on our appearance, we also hyperfocus on what we see around us, particularly whatever confirms our view that there is an issue with our appearance. We are more likely to notice beautiful people, more likely to notice beauty ads, more likely to attribute the social success of good looking people to their appearance and more likely to notice people who are better looking than us. On the other hand, we ignore people who are not that good looking, often fail to notice successful people with average appearance or dismiss the failures of people who are good looking. We may even only seek the company of those who also put a high value on appearance. Psychologists call this distortion confirmation bias which means that our mind selects the information which confirms our worldview. In the case of a body image problem, this cognitive bias constantly reinforces our worries and our belief in our flaws.

If you think you are struggling with a body image problem, you may benefit from identifying these biased thought patterns. If the problem is causing you distress or interfering with your ability to do the things you want to do, your GP can point you to the right professionals in the local area trained in treating these issues. For starters, you may want to visit www.nhs.uk and search for body dysmorphia which contains detailed information on the condition and its different forms of treatment.

To end, we would like to offer you a few general pointers that may help you in setting your thoughts straight:

1. Most people attribute less value to appearance than you think.

2. Our appearance is primarily genetic, mostly beyond our control. Therefore, while some people judge others based on this, looks say nothing about a person’s worth.

3. Beautiful people are just as likely to be unhappy as ugly people.

4. Judging people based on first impressions is a mistake that everyone makes but these are updated over time. Our first impressions are never final.

5. Physical beauty is only part of what makes a person attractive. The way we treat people, our humour, intelligence, personality etc. are just as important.

6. For most people what someone is doing with their life, opportunities, and skills is way more important than their looks.

7. Our happiness depends on our choices and attitude and not on our looks.

If body image issues are causing you a lot of distress and are affecting your ability to do the things that you want to do, like go out and meet people, please do make sure you seek help. The starting point should be your GP. Also, many of the techniques I’ve described and other effective techniques to reduce the stress and anxiety that body image issues can cause are available in the Brothers-Thrive app. These include the calm breathing technique, meditation sessions or the applied relaxation programme.