When your body is unintentionally transformed after a serious illness or injury, it can take a toll – not only on your body but also your mind.
Suffering from a serious or chronic illness comes with dramatic physical and mental changes, often having a negative effect on a person’s body image and their confidence. It is not only the change in appearance, but also pain, discomfort, and a loss of bodily control which can significantly alter how someone views themselves.
The body, which has battled a mountain and survived, may not be recognisable to some extent, but must now be nurtured. However, our idea of body image is so intrinsically linked with what we see from the media, that imperfections from illnesses are often made more apparent, making it very difficult to accept and love your body and the changes it has experienced.
Breaking a cycle of negative thought patterns is not easy when contending with a significant illness or injury. Dr Anne O’Boyle, clinical psychologist with the Evidence-Based Therapy Centre in Galway, specialises in clinical health psychology, working with people who have physical health conditions, especially long-term conditions, who experience associated psychological distress and adjustment issues. She says: “People may feel unhappy about their body initially but for many these feelings resolve as they gradually accept and adapt to the changes. However, for others, the effects are longer-lasting, and they may require additional support for psychological distress coupled with a negative body image.”
Talking about concerns with an understanding partner is helpful to overcome feelings about unwelcome body changes
The physical changes experienced with serious, chronic or long-term illnesses can be psychologically damaging. Experiencing uncontrollable and rapid weight-loss or weight-gain, scarring or loss of body parts, limited mobility or loss of bodily functions, changes to the skin or hair loss, and consistent pain can all have an upsetting effect on how a person views their body.
“As a result, individuals may experience low mood, anxiety, anger, feelings of shame or self-loathing, and the adjustment process can include preoccupation with body image, shock, anger, and grief,” says Dr O’Boyle.
A social stigma exists surrounding physical changes due to illness or injury, creating an unwanted social isolation. Many experience a type of pity, rejection or are faced with a fear or shame from friends or family who begin to face their own morality at the thoughts that it could happen to them.
“An important aspect to consider is how this body image concern affects functioning,” Dr O’Boyle explains. “For example, is it preventing someone from returning to previously enjoyed activity? Avoidance of going out or social anxiety can be a sign that someone is struggling with body confidence.
“Avoidance may perpetuate the problem by having a detrimental effect on relationships, leading to increased isolation. The resumption of usual activities is very important in the adjustment process and helps overcome feelings of anxiety to restore self-confidence. Body-confidence is especially important in intimate and physical relationships. Talking about concerns with an understanding partner is helpful to overcome feelings about unwelcome body changes.”
Breaking any stigma associated with illness or injury can help to battle the internal struggle many feel with bodily changes, leading to a more positive relationship with their body.
Annabel O'Keeffe is the general manager with charity group, Look Good Feel Better. Recognising the daunting and life-changing effect cancer can have, the group understands the stress of the physical aspects of cancer treatment, which can be demoralising and knock a person's confidence.
‘Free make-up and skincare workshops’
"Look Good Feel Better host free make-up and skincare workshops to over 1,000 women undergoing cancer treatment a year in 19 locations throughout Ireland, " says O'Keeffe. "We help people to regain a sense of themselves and learn tips and techniques on how to cope with the physical effects of cancer treatment."
Compassion is a helpful way of relating to ourselves in difficult times and we can start by having a compassionate stance toward our bodies and the suffering it has endured
Look Good Feel Better is not only focused on women. Recognising the difficulties men face following cancer diagnoses and treatment, it is piloting Look Good Feel Better workshops for men this year. Anyone interested in attending a workshop can book through their oncology nurse.
“It’s really important not to put too much pressure on yourself,” says O’Keeffe, “and to realise that a lot of the effects of cancer treatment are temporary so try not to do anything permanent that you may not be happy with later. Be kind to yourself, treat yourself and try to surround yourself with positivity. One thing we hear from a lot of people having attended a Look Good Feel Better workshop is: ‘I felt like myself again for the first time in a long time’.”
Dr O’Boyle reminds us that body image concerns are one part of the multi-faceted adjustment process after an injury, illness, surgery, or medical treatment. “It is important to emphasise that it is normal and healthy to take time to adjust to these changes,” she says. “Compassion is a helpful way of relating to ourselves in difficult times and we can start by having a compassionate stance toward our bodies and the suffering it has endured. It is useful to consider how we could nurture our body with self-care, a healthy diet and physical exercise. Compassion includes an awareness and non-judgmental stance to our emotions, turning towards rather than away from our emotional experience and dissatisfaction with the body, leading to gradual acceptance and adaption.”
Dr O'Boyle provides some specific compassionate techniques to overcome body image distress:
– Give yourself a break, you have been through a difficult experience and you are doing the best you can to adjust and adapt to changes in your body.
– A gratitude exercise: spend a few moments being grateful for the body and consider all the things it does daily to keep us alive and functioning. Connect with the body that has been resilient and gotten through this difficult time of illness.
– List three things that you like about your body or are grateful that your body does.
– Talk to your body like you would to a best friend. Speak in a kind and loving way toward the body that has gone through a challenging time.
– Common humanity: take a moment to consider that suffering is a common experience for all human beings. You are not alone in your struggle.
– Gradually start to look at your body in the mirror, even the parts that cause you emotional suffering. Challenging avoidance by turning towards rather than away from your emotional experience will help to overcome dissatisfaction with the body.
– Overcome avoidance by resuming activities that you previously enjoyed. This is very important in the adjustment process and helps to reduce feelings of anxiety to restore self-confidence.
– Nurture the body with self-care, a healthy diet and physical exercise.
– Share your feelings, thoughts and needs with someone you can trust.