When you stand naked in front of the mirror, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Are you critical of yourself? Perhaps you think thoughts such as, “I am not thin enough, I am not curvy enough, my butt is too flat, my butt is too big, my belly is too flabby, my boobs are not big enough,” fill in the “I am not good enough” statement here.

In fact, studies have shown that between 72% and 91% of women report not being happy with their bodies. More than 90% of them prefer to see themselves with clothing than without. About 80% of women over the age of 18 do not like what they see and may even see a distorted image.

Outside of being an eternal pain to continually hear this negative chatter in the background, my research has shown that self-perception goes beyond what you see in the mirror all the way down to a cellular level.

It goes beyond skin deep.

When you have a negative thought, the brain sends signals to the body in accordance with that thought. Your body “hears” the thoughts and releases chemicals that produce feelings you experience around that thought. These chemicals are detected by your brain, which reinforces the original thought. When this thinking and feeling cycle continues for days, weeks, months or years you literally wire your nervous system and become biochemically attached to that state of being. 

Simply put, if you think negative thoughts about yourself, you wire the mind to continue to think and feel negatively about yourself.

Once the patterns or templates are in place they continue, beyond conscious awareness, to flood the mind and body with neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and hormones that can slow down the metabolism. The mechanism behind this decreased metabolic functioning can be traced back to the stress response. The stress response aka the sympathetic nervous system is the part of the autonomic nervous system that prepares the body to fight or flee a dangerous or perceived dangerous experience. Back in the day when humans were wrestling saber-toothed tigers and fleeing from warring tribes, the stress response was paramount to survival. This response was designed for relatively short and intense bouts of action followed by ‘recovery time’ where the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and allows the body to rest and digest.

When the body is in fight or flight mode all functions not related to readying the body for the impending “threat” get decreased and or shut down. This includes metabolism, digestion, cellular reproduction and repair, hormone production, and immunity. Today people aren’t wrestling tigers and the average person isn’t preparing for battle, but we still experience the stress response because it is wired in the body’s physiology. Unable to filter for content, the sympathetic nervous system responds in the same way it would whether there is a real threat or a perceived threat. This is the same response that is triggered with body image issues that are accompanied by visceral, negative emotions. The sympathetic nervous system is detecting its own body as an enemy and threat, turning on and shutting down functions of the body not specifically related to survival of the organism.

Why should you care? 

For decades people have been taught that the way to lose weight is diet and exercise. While healthy eating and regular exercise are important they aren’t the only factors related to weight loss. Changing self perception changes the nervous system and biochemical makeup of the body which have real and measurable effects on metabolism, digestion and ultimately your waistline. So instead of putting in more time at the gym or searching for the next trendy diet, try the exercises below to start the process:

  1. Self Awareness: you don’t know there’s a problem, until you know there’s a problem. The first thing I do with clients is ask them to stand naked in front of a mirror, which they can do at home alone, and listen to the internal dialogue. I ask them to notice if the dialogue negative or positive. If the dialogue is positive, great! Next I ask if there are any positive emotions that they feel when they look at themselves in the mirror. I’m looking for a disconnect between what they are consciously telling themselves and what the biochemicals are signaling the body to feel. If they say “I think I am beautiful”, but there are no positive emotions associated with that then there is a disconnect between the conscious and subconscious minds. If there are both negative dialogue and negative emotions we start from there.

  2. Gratitude Journaling: Once you have a baseline understanding of where you are in terms of body image and self-perception, you can quickly and easily go into creating more positive neural networks while simultaneously pruning back the negative neural networks. For 21 days write down 5 things that you are grateful to your body for. This trains the mind to start scanning for body positive things rather than body negative things. Over time this affects the production of neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and hormones that can enhance metabolism.