Self

How You Can Use Neuroscience To Stop Hating Your Body

Photo: Mariia Korneeva / shutterstock | canva 
Use Neuroscience To Start Loving Your Body

Many years ago, I served as the expert for a body image survey for Glamour magazine, and the experience has stuck with me. Participants in the survey included 300 women across the country of all shapes and sizes. They were asked to write down how many negative or anxious thoughts they had about their body throughout the day.

On average, the participants had 13 negative thoughts each day about body image issues. Ninety-seven percent admitted to having at least one “I hate my body” moment. With the proliferation of social media, this negativity likely has only gotten worse.

Comments like, “You are worthless,” “I can’t imagine anyone wanting me like this,” and “My stomach is nasty. No one would want to touch me,” and “You are lazy. You don’t like how you look but won’t do anything to change it," were common.

Ouch!

If your partner said any of these things to you, it would be considered verbal abuse. Yet many women across the country are practicing negative self-talk and saying these abusive things about their body image to themselves daily, which affects their feelings, behaviors, and moods — not to mention their self-esteem and perceived self-worth.

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How neuroscience can help change the way you see yourself 

Whatever you focus on shapes your brain.

If you constantly think negative thoughts, like "I hate my body," that neural pathway gets stronger, and those thoughts become habitual. In this surprising way, you're reaffirming your body image issues through negative self-talk.

   

   

Scientists have discovered that the brain has dynamic properties throughout life. Its nerve cells (neurons) can form new connections, stimulate new pathways through the brain, and assume new roles and functions. What does this mean for you?

Through purposeful attention, mental training, and practice, you can change your brain to develop body-affirming thinking. The more you practice a new behavior, the more integrated or groomed the pathway becomes. For example, studies demonstrate increased thickness of music areas in the brain of musicians. Their brains have stronger neural pathways to support musicality and dexterity than someone who is not a musician because they strengthen this area of their brain regularly.

The second major finding of the survey was that respondents who were unsatisfied with their careers or relationships tended to report more negative thoughts than women who were content in these areas.

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she is feeling good and happy

Photo: Alena Ozerova via Shutterstock

Avoiding uncomfortable feelings may lead you to hate your body more — not less

Feeling uncomfortable emotions of any sort (anger, boredom, sadness, etc.) led to many women putting their bodies down.

One of the factors that can lead to body dissatisfaction is projection. Projection, where your body can become a screen on which you project negative feelings, plays a role in negative body self-talk. For example, Susie, a college student I treated for body image dissatisfaction and anxiety who was distraught because she knew her boyfriend was losing interest in her described the following:

“I was walking to my boyfriend’s apartment and was thinking after four years would he be breaking up with me before the end of the school year or even earlier.” She felt her thighs “banging against each other” as she got closer to his place. She saw herself in a store window and was disgusted with how she looked especially her thighs.

She said to herself, “Why would he want to stay with me with the way I look?” She felt out of control and sad, so she decided to skip dinner and run for an hour to get her body back in control.

I told her, “You have to remember that you had the same thighs all day. The fact that you are focusing on them right now may be a distraction from the pain of seeing your boyfriend, who you fear will leave you soon.”

Instead of recognizing, “I feel out of control because I am losing the man I thought I would marry,” she projected, “My body is out of control and ugly, especially my thighs.” She didn’t know how to handle the pain of loss and helplessness she was experiencing, so she projected it onto her body, which she thought she could change.

Since her body was not the real issue, attempts to change it will fail. Seeking help to see if the relationship can heal, learning skills to handle loss, and reaching out to others for support is what she needed to do.

Do you project negative feelings onto your body? Is this process playing a role in your body dissatisfaction?

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An exercise to help you stop hating your body

For one week, keep track of all the negative feelings you have about your body. Write down the time, situation, and negative thoughts about your body. The goal is to recognize the times you are criticizing your body and see them as a signal to stop, try to understand what is going on, and figure out what negative self-talk might be distracting you from facing.

Is it your body that is “out of control,” or is it something deep inside that is painful or overwhelming and needs to be resolved?

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Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke is a New York Times bestselling author, sought-after professional speaker, researcher, and licensed psychologist.