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Negative Body Image linked to Poor Mental Health in Teens: How to cope

girl checking weight

Negative Body Image Linked to Depression, Anxiety, Suicidality in Adolescents

Young adults are particularly concerned about their appearance. But this isn't a mere observation to put aside. Research shows that depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts are more prevalent in adolescents with a negative body image. This is even more than in people with other psychiatric disorders.

The findings aren't far-fetched, seeing that people tend to feel the way they look -- or think they look. Those who believe they look great also often feel great and have higher self-esteem. For people with a negative body image, self-esteem drops to a frightening level, especially for young people. 

Note: Negative body image isn't the possession of a not-so-good-looking body; it's the perception that you're not so good-looking, or that your body doesn't conform to societal standards. This has become especially prevalent due to expressions of the perfect body -- mostly among women -- on social media.

At the end of the day, negative body image is a thing of the mind. It's subjective. One may actually not be fat but would think they are.

Types of Negative Body Image

There are many forms of body image concerns, and they can affect how people think in different ways.

In the research, the following body image concerns were identified in several hospitalized adolescents:

The study discovered that one-third of the adolescents had negative body image that were more severely ill than their counterparts. Adolescents with BDD, eating disorders, and weight/shape concerns were significantly more depressed, anxious, and suicidal than others without any negative body image.

Study author Jennifer Kittler, Ph.D., noted how this research highlights the significance of body image in young people's mental health. Many adolescents are preoccupied with their appearance, and it causes them a lot of distress when they feel adequate.

And more often than not, young people tend to measure themselves based on social standards.

Additionally, the researchers discovered that the patients tend to have higher levels of:

This finding suggests that the adolescents' body image concerns may have something to do with past sexual or physical abuse.

But the most interesting thing about the research is that most of the patients weren't actually overweight. They just thought they were. More often than not, young people misconceive or exaggerate their physical issues, and it puts so much pressure on them.

How to Improve Your Body Image

Below are tips to improve your body image and develop a healthier relationship with your body. Here are some tips to help you on your journey:

  1. Recognize that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes: There is no single definition of beauty. Every body is unique and has its own beauty. Embrace diversity and remember that your worth is not solely determined by your appearance.

  2. Challenge societal beauty standards: The media often portrays unrealistic and narrow beauty ideals. Recognize that these standards are not representative of real people. Surround yourself with diverse and inclusive representations of beauty, such as following body-positive social media accounts or seeking out media that promotes body diversity.

  3. Focus on self-care, not self-criticism: Instead of fixating on perceived flaws, prioritize self-care activities that make you feel good physically and mentally. This can include engaging in regular exercise, practicing relaxation techniques, getting enough sleep, and nourishing your body with balanced and nutritious meals.

  4. Practice positive self-talk: Be mindful of the way you speak to yourself. Replace negative self-talk with positive and affirming statements. Remind yourself of your strengths, talents, and qualities beyond your physical appearance. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion.

  5. Surround yourself with supportive people: Build a network of friends, family, or mentors who support and uplift you. Surrounding yourself with positive influences can help you feel more confident and accepted for who you are, beyond your appearance.

  6. Limit exposure to negative influences: Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel inadequate and avoid comparing yourself to others. Remember that social media often showcases curated and edited versions of people's lives.

  7. Seek professional help if needed: If negative body image persists and significantly affects your well-being, inducing depression, anxiety, or eating disorder, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can provide guidance and support tailored to your specific needs.

Negative Body Image: The Silent Killer

Sadly, body image concerns are actually a silent killer. It is a mental health risk that often goes unnoticed and can render interventions less effective.

Some patients are being treated for mood disorders when instead the underlying cause is their negative body image. Treatments can be more effective when the cause of the problem is addressed.

"We have indeed seen a number of teens entering the hospital whose negative feelings about their appearance is a major influence on suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts, a fact which is often initially not recognized by parents and even professionals," says Jennifer Dyl, lead author.

Encouraging teens to verbalize their appearance concerns can go a long way in promoting their mental health. They find it hard to speak about these things because they may sound awkward. But helping them understand that it's okay to feel that way is a great step to helping them find confidence again.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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