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The vicious circle of body image & mental health

gemma before and after2 (cropped)
The theme for this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is body image. Being overweight most of my life and having lost 8 and a half stone over the last 5 years (pictured above), the way I think and feel about my body has encountered a lot of changes - and so has my mental health. 

As I sit here writing, it's the 9th anniversary of my mum's death and I ponder, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did being overweight cause my mental health issues, or did my mental health issues cause me to gain weight?

I was a quiet and shy child, constantly worrying. I didn't realise at the time but I was suffering with anxiety.  Even at a young age a lot of my time was spent thinking about what other people thought of me and how I looked. I remember being around 9 or 10, sitting on a bench at school next to my friend and noticing that my thighs were bigger than hers. Immediately I felt ashamed, like there was something wrong with me. I locked myself in a toilet and cried so much I was sick and got sent home.

From that day I was my biggest critic, which in turn fuelled my anxiety. Each morning I'd look at myself in the mirror and hate what I saw: "no one's going to like you, you're fat", "you're ugly", "look at your stomach in that outfit - you're disgusting!" 

"I was trapped in a vicious cycle"

All these negative thoughts made me feel worthless so I'd try and make myself feel better, but unfortunately with chocolate, cookies, fizzy drinks and sweets. And so, I found myself trapped in a vicious cycle. 

Things took a turn for the worse at 19 when I lost my mum to ovarian cancer and, boy, did it hit me hard. I became severely depressed and turned to my old friends, binge-eating and drinking, to numb the pain. I gained even more weight and the shame I felt associated with my body just led me to binge more for comfort. 

As I sank deeper into my depression I isolated myself from the people around me and food and alcohol became my only friends. I'd turn to them when I was sad, angry, hurting, celebrating, you name it.  

The cycle continued for some time and I had no hope things would ever change. 

It wasn't until I was 25 and became a surveyor, moving my entire life from a small village in Derbyshire to London that I realised enough was enough! I was so unhappy with not only how I looked but how I felt. 
I was anxious, tired, unmotivated and seriously lacking confidence; often pulling out of plans at the last minute because I worried what other people thought of how I looked.  
I reached almost 22 stone and suffered one of my worst ever panic attacks on the morning of the big move. I couldn't carry on like this - this isn't what my mum would've wanted. 

That's when I was ready to face the facts. I didn't love myself, or care for my body; I was angry and channelling that through my destructive behaviours which made my anxiety and depression worse. 

I didn't recognise the person I had become.

"I found healthier ways to heal my pain"

First I had to change how I treated myself - I would never dream of speaking to anyone as I spoke to myself. I had to choose to support and encourage rather than punish and criticise myself. If I had to give one piece of advice about body image and confidence, it's that it doesn't come at a specific size or shape or weight, it can only come from consciously choosing to love and accept your body no matter what.
I started by making small changes, eating less sugar and processed foods. I started walking more, and found getting out into nature really helped boost my mood too - an added bonus!  

It was going to therapy once a week where I really began learning how to be kinder to myself and my body. I found healthier ways to heal my pain, through meditation, yoga, and talking to others.  The weight finally began to shift and in turn my outlook started to shift. I became my biggest cheerleader, rather than my biggest bully: it's amazing how things change when you treat yourself with love and respect. 

That's not to say the transition happened overnight. There have been and will continue to be bad days, and that's OK! No one is going to feel amazing all the time but it's important to be there for yourself like you would the people you care about. You'd never call them a disgrace or a failure for making unhealthy choices, so don't do it to yourself either.   

I have never been happier or more confident. When you treat your body and mind well you truly blossom into the person you were always meant to be.

So, back to my original question, I think for me, it was not being overweight that caused my mental health issues or vice versa, but the two went hand in hand, like adding fuel to a fire. Ultimately, it wasn't losing weight that made me happy or more confident, it was loving myself and my body no matter what - and that, I think, is true beauty.

Gemma Foster is a surveyor and RICS registered valuer based in the south-east. She is one of LionHeart's mental health ambassadors.

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