7 Tips for Accepting Your Body With IBD
Having ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease takes a toll on your psyche as well as your body. Use these ideas to keep the illness from taking control of your self-esteem.
By Mikel Theobald
Medically Reviewed by Kathryn Keegan, MD
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Living in a world where Photoshopped images of celebrities dominate the media, having an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — including Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis — can make maintaining a positive body image difficult. From unwanted weight loss to surgery scars to living with an ostomy, these bowel diseases can take an emotional as well as a physical toll on your well-being.
A study of Portugese female IBD patients published in February 2019 in the journalQuality of Life Research found that women who had more symptoms of the disease and had a higher body mass index were more likely to have a negative body image. Additionally, the researchers found that a negative body image was highly associated with subjective reports of worse quality of life.
There are many aspects of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis that you can't control, so it's important to take control where you can. Try these tips to love yourself and foster a positive body image.
1. Educate Those Around You
Well-meaning but ignorant comments, such as “You're so thin,” “You need to put a little meat on those bones,” and “Gosh, I wish I had Crohn's disease so I could lose weight,” leave Frank J. Sileo, PhD, psychologist and executive director of The Center for Psychological Enhancement in Ridgewood, New Jersey, shaking his head. Sileo has had Crohn’s for more than 20 years, and much of his practice is devoted to helping others with chronic illnesses. Educating those around you about the realities of IBD can help squash insensitive remarks.
2. Get a Lift From Exercise
Physical activity is important for good health. It helps with muscle tone, strengthens the immune system, and promotes stress relief by releasing endorphins. There may be limitations to the types of exercise you can safely do, and you may have to take a break from exercise during flares, but good options include low-impact aerobic exercise, such as bicycling, swimming, and brisk walking.
3. Have Compassion for Yourself
Body image is very connected to self-esteem, Dr. Sileo says. Chronic illnesses like IBD can greatly impact how you feel about yourself and have a trickle-down effect on self-esteem, he explains. Being kind to yourself — showing self-compassion — can help you to maintain a positive body image. A study published in June 2015 in the journalSelf and Identity found that individuals with IBD with higher levels of self-compassion generally had more positive coping skills and reported lower levels of stress than people who scored lower on a self-compassion scale. Ways to practice self-compassion include:
- Memorizing a compassionate phrase to repeat when you start having negative thoughts
- Practicing guided meditation
- Talking to yourself as you would to a close friend or loved one
4. Write Down Supportive Affirmations
Leave these love notes to yourself in places where you will see them often — on your mirror or as a screen saver on your phone. Make it a point to constantly remind yourself that you are more than this disease and you have a lot to offer the world.
5. Join a Support Group
Being able to share experiences and concerns over body image with people who understand what you’re going through can prevent feelings of isolation. Whether you want to participate in person or online, you can start your search for a group through the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.
6. Change What You Can, and Accept What You Can't
Side effects of medication, bouts of diarrhea, surgical scars, and ostomy bags — these are all very real reminders of how IBD invades your life. Use them as motivation to control the areas of your life that you can influence. Explore your interests. Start a new hobby. Find a new physical activity you enjoy. Get a tattoo — that’s what one of Sileo’s patients did to counter a scar after surgery. Not only did the tattoo distract from the scar, it was also something she liked and felt good about.
7. Talk With a Therapist
There are times when you need a professional to help you overcome the battle scars of fighting IBD. If depression, anxiety, or a preoccupation with your appearance is taking up space in your life, seek counseling from a licensed therapist familiar with the effect of Crohn's or ulcerative colitis. “Working on your psychological self can be just as important as working on your physical self when treating IBD,” Sileo says.
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