Chronic Illness and Body Image: How to Remain Positive

  • By Avery T.
  • 17 May 2021
  • 6 minute read
Chronic Illness and Body Image: How to Remain Positive | The Health Sessions

This article is written by Avery T.  

Chronic illness is broadly defined as a condition lasting more than 1 year and requiring ongoing medical attention. Whether it be mental or physical (or a combination of both), many Americans live with chronic illness—40% to be exact.

Chronic illness often presents a variety of challenges, but what is less discussed is the mental toll it can take on a person. Chronic illness challenges self-confidence particularly when there are visual markers and sub-symptoms of illness on the body, like a diabetes pump, colostomy bag, amputation or limited mobility. Many people suffer from the psychological impact of feeling betrayed by a body that doesn’t work normally, particularly in regards to body image.

This mental toll can affect a person’s relationships and entire life if not dealt with appropriately, so it’s important to address these feelings in a healthy way. Consider implementing the following tips in your life to foster a healthy body image while living with chronic illness.

1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and often involves meditation techniques for achieving a more calm and relaxed state. Being mindful of negative body image can be an extremely helpful first step in achieving body confidence. Instead of trying to force positivity, sit with your negative thoughts and allow yourself to grieve if needed.

It is normal to mourn your pre-illness body or a more healthy time in your life. Trying to push away negative thoughts only makes them worse. This concept is also known by psychologists as the “white bear phenomenon” and refers to the notion that deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts only make them more likely to surface. For example, if you tell yourself to not think of a white bear, you will think of a white bear.

When incorporating mindfulness into your life, also try to explore triggers, or things that cause a negative reaction in you. Determine when those thoughts arise. Is it when you’re tired or hungry? Is it when you spend time with certain people? This can help you determine how to care of yourself, whether it be developing healthy coping strategies such as accessible meditation or avoiding triggers altogether.

Chronic Illness and Body Image: How to Remain Positive | The Health Sessions
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2. Find community

Even though chronic illness is relatively common, not everyone suffers in the same way or from the same physical ailments. It can be easy to feel alone or even ostracized because you feel different than everyone around you. Finding a community of people with similar experiences as you can help you feel more confident in your body because you’ll feel represented and not so alone.

There are many ways to find community, especially on the internet. There are likely many options such as online support groups, Facebook groups, and influencers or content creators that speak about your chronic illness. You could also seek in-person groups through websites like Meetup. Having friends and communities that make you feel less alone can do wonders for your body confidence.

3. Cleanse your social media

In with the new, out with the old. When you’re seeking a new community, try cleaning out old influences that may be making you feel poorly about yourself. Consider how you feel when you see a certain person or influencer’s posts. Do you feel jealous? Sick? Lazy? Unattractive? These are all indicators that you should either mute or unfollow a person.

As a society, we spend a lot of time online, so it’s important to consider what type of content we’re consuming that could be subconsciously affecting our mental health. When you clean out the bad influences, try replacing them with content creators that have a chronic illness you can relate to (and/or who are body positive) and make you feel good when you view their feeds.

4. Talk with your loved ones

Especially if your chronic illness is a new addition to your life, your loved ones may not know how to navigate the topic with you or make you feel truly comfortable. If you feel uncomfortable when your friends or family members do or say certain things, have a conversation with them. For example, with family, ask that you spend time in inclusive ways or that they be careful of their language or negative self-talk. In many cases, most people aren’t aware that they could be triggering or not inclusive because they fail to see a situation from a perspective other than their own.

Furthermore, it’s especially important to be honest with your spouse. Chronic illness can present challenges to romance and create a strain on intimate relationships. Whether it be decreased libido, physical limitations, or even erectile dysfunction (ED) in men, these issues can be sub-symptoms that take a toll on body confidence and intimacy. To overcome the negative impact on your sex life, you should have an open discussion with your partner about your insecurities and expectations with sex. If you believe these issues can be handled medically, be sure to see a doctor about how you can address certain issues with treatment like ED medications or other methods. When you feel understood and supported by your partner, or receive reassurance from a medical professional, you’ll feel less ashamed.

Chronic Illness and Body Image: How to Remain Positive | The Health Sessions

5. Develop a hobby

There are a variety of benefits to developing a hobby. Hobbies are great stress relievers and a fantastic method of helping you focus your attention on your interests and abilities instead of any limitations or differences. By developing your talents and perhaps even working toward a goal related to your hobby you can build your inner confidence and help stay in the present moment.

If you don’t know what hobby speaks to you, explore your interests. Are you more creative, intellectually curious, or athletic? What is a talent you’ve always admired in other people? There is something for everyone. A good starting point is by exploring online on a platform like YouTube or taking a more focused class on a dedicated learning platform like Skillshare. There are thousands of videos and blogs online of people sharing their hobbies, so it’s an accessible way to gauge your interest in something you’re curious about.

6. Practice self-care

Lastly, don’t forget to show yourself some basic love and attention by making time for self-care. We are often much harder on ourselves than others, so be sure to give yourself the attention and care you deserve. Self-care has become a big buzzword in recent years, with associations of the term linked to a fancy skincare routine or treating yourself with routine “retail therapy” sessions, but self-care can be as routine as cleaning your space, cooking yourself healthful, yummy meals or taking a bath.

Self-care is unique to everyone’s personal lifestyle and love language. It’s likely you already have ideas on things you’d like to incorporate into your life to show yourself care. Follow them! Self-care will help you focus on what you do have rather than what you lack.

Everyone with chronic illness experiences ups and downs with their body confidence. Frustrations and negative feelings are a completely normal part of life. The key to coping is learning how to care for yourself. This looks different for everyone, so explore and exhaust all of your options. Remember that body confidence is a practice, not a destination.

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