A Strategy for Troubling Body Image Thoughts

by Jodi R. Galin, Ph.D.

Many people with eating disorders are troubled by preoccupation with body image dissatisfaction.  Negative body thoughts can take up much time in someone’s head prior to full recovery.  These thoughts are frequently quite upsetting and can make good self-care difficult.  The first step toward reducing this preoccupation is improving nutrition, normalizing eating, and if necessary, gaining weight.  Unfortunately though, the thoughts do not always just go away.  

Just because you have a thought, doesn’t mean the thought is true.  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us to stop equating thoughts with objective truth*.  Specifically ACT teaches to “defuse” (or separate) our thought from the action or belief that it refers to.  For example, someone struggling with body image issues may have the thought, “my thighs are too big” fused with the belief that the thought is true, meaning his/her thighs actually are too large for his/her body (whatever that means).  

Here are some of my favorite defusing strategies that can you try in order to more effectively cope with a troubling thought.  When you realize that you are having a troubling thought:

  1. Watch the thought float by.  Literally, imagine the thought on a cloud floating through the sky and away from you.  This can take some of the power out of the punch.
  2. Add the statement, “I am having the thought that….” to your thought.  For example, if you have the troubling thought, “I am too fat to go out on a date,” restate the thought to yourself as, “I am having the thought that I am too fat to go out on a date.”  This helps you have the perspective that the thought is just a thought, not the objective truth.
  3. Make yourself laugh.  Sing the thought to yourself or out loud to a silly tune like “Row Row Row Your Boat” or “Happy Birthday.”  You may find your critical self-judgment voice diminished by your silliness.
  4. Label your thought as part of the stories that you tell yourself.  For example, you could say, “Oh that is just my I am too fat story” or “there I go again with the no one likes me story.”  If you can label something as just one of your stories, you are more likely to realize that stories aren’t always true.

If you find these strategies helpful, I strongly recommend Russ Harris’ book, The Happiness Trap.  The author explains the principles of ACT in a very user friendly manner.  

*Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap:  How to Stop Struggling and Start Living.  Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books.