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Mindfulness and Positive Body Image

We’re close to twenty years into the 21st century.

It’s a safe bet to say that almost anyone reading this blog has heard of mindfulness. And that’s not surprising, because although it’s still considered a complementary or alternative therapy in the medical and mental health communities, and many members of the general public still think of mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation as new age novelties, the fact is that with each passing year the scientific evidence for mindfulness as an effective support for both physical and mental health issues grows stronger.

Decades of research show mindfulness helps people reduce symptoms of:

Mindfulness also helps decrease:

  • Rumination (persistent negative rethinking of situations or events)
  • Negative thought patterns
  • Somatic distress (stress-induced physical pain or discomfort)
  • Emotional reactivity

That’s not all – not even close. Mindfulness helps improve:

  • Working memory
  • Focus, attention, and concentration
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Cognitive processing speed
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Self-esteem
  • Measures of physical well-being, such as:
    • Medical symptoms
    • Sensory pain
    • Physical impairments
    • Overall quality of life

Those are a lot of benefits – and they’re all supported by peer-reviewed, scientific research. That’s why mindfulness practices are common therapeutic supports for people living with mental health issues, chronic physical conditions, as well as life stress, sadness, or anxiety that doesn’t reach the level of clinical diagnosis or require professional treatment.

But that’s still not all.

A recent study indicates there’s yet another area where mindfulness practices can help: body image.

Mindfulness, Internal Awareness, and Body Image

Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom report that mindfulness practices improve what’s called interoceptive awareness, which is the term mental health scientists use to describe an individual’s perception of their own body and the physical sensations they feel.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines interoception as:

“Sensitivity to stimuli inside the body, resulting form the response of specialized sensory cells called interoceptors to occurrences within the body (e.g., from the viscera).”

The study U.K. is significant in that many previous studies on mindfulness – and on interoception in particular – observed only small groups of young women. However, this study took a different approach: they collected data from 646 adults – 447 women and 199 men – between the ages of 18 and 76. This broadened sample size and diversity of participants gives the study more weight and expands our understanding of what mindfulness practices can do and who they can help.

To measure levels of interoceptive awareness, researchers collected online responses to six different clinical assessments. All measure aspects of internal awareness:

  1. Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness (MAIA)
  2. Body-Appreciation Scale-2
  3. Functionality Appreciation Scale
  4. Authentic Pride Scale
  5. Appearance Orientation Scale
  6. Overweight Preoccupation Scale

These questionnaires cover many topics. From awareness of signals from the body to the brain about hunger, heart rate, and physical discomfort, to awareness of signals from the body to the brain about personal image, appearance, and satisfaction with personal image and appearance, the goal of the multiple assessments – in this study – was to gather as much information about the different ways in which people experience and interpret these body-to-brain signals.

The Results

Here’s what they found. Participants who…

  • Were capable of sustaining attention to their body-to-brain signals reported higher levels of positive body image than those who weren’t capable of sustaining attention to their body-to-brain signals.
  • Trusted their body-to-brain signals reported higher levels of positive body image than those who did not trust their body-to-brain signals.
  • Trusted their body-to-brain signals reported being less preoccupied with being overweight than those who did not trust their body-to-brain signals.

This information is intriguing in that it seems to be telling us something relatively simple. If you’re capable of listening to your body, and you trust the feedback it’s giving you, you’ll have a more positive body image – and be less preoccupied with your weight – than people who are not capable of listening to and/or trusting their internal body-to-brain signals. It’s intriguing because the participants were diverse: different sizes (as determined by body mass index), different ages, and different genders. Statistical analysis revealed that after controlling for these factors – BMI, age, gender – the ability to listen to and trust body-to-brain signals was a significant predictor of positive body image.

What this means, big picture, is that we now know mindfulness practices – characterized by the ability to tune into one’s body, brain, and emotions – can help improve how we see ourselves. Yes, in order to keep a healthy body we need to exercise, eat well, and get plenty of sleep – that’s all a given. This study tells us that listening to – and more importantly, trusting – the signals our body sends us is also an important element of mental health and well-being.

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