Body anxiety is a coping strategy so many of us have fallen into without naming it. It’s a defence mechanism that our brain has developed over time to try and protect us from all the potential rejection we are told is out there in the big wide world. We are constantly told our value is based on our aesthetics and presentation (and our brain reads this as safety). So all those moments you’ve been tempted to go on the latest fad diet, even though it does not align with your politics and you keep circling between temptation and “I should know better”, – it is because your brain is trying to tell you that this is THE ONLY WAY WE WILL BE SAFE. And while these strategies may have served us well in the past, chances are, they are no longer serving us other than to keep us trapped in loops of confusion and berating.
Not feeling safe in our own skin is a pretty major hindrance to our well-being, and anything we can do to soothe the panic is worth investigating.
I wanted to do a really light look into the science of why our brains behave like this, so we can understand body anxiety a bit better and what we can do to overcome it. We’ll explore the role of the amygdala, the emotional centre of our brain, and its relationship with body anxiety. We’ll also look at the benefits of letting go of body anxiety and how it can help us build a life that requires less gripping onto everything for mere survival.
When I think about the sense of tense anxiety that I've always had to walk around with, I can see that my body has consistently received the message that it needs to armour itself.
When we are in a world where women's bodies are preyed upon for judgement or analysis, it can feel like to relax is a danger. The problem is, the more we allow this belief to fester, the more our body itself believes it is the site of danger.
The brain is a complex organ, constantly processing information and creating new pathways. When we face a stressful situation, our brain activates the fight-or-flight response, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This response is designed to help us survive danger, but when we’re constantly exposed to stress, our brain starts to develop coping mechanisms to protect us.
Creating hypercritical views of yourself is a natural result of a society which constantly reminds us that our value is our attractiveness. Feeling anxious that our bodies may be unable to protect us from all of this judgement (danger) is a natural coping mechanism. It’s a defence mechanism that our brain has developed to protect us from the negative emotions and experiences associated with our bodies.
We are literally told that our very survival involves presenting in an acceptable way (and all too often, it frequently is). Our brain is constantly on the lookout for danger and is trying to protect us from straying into the waters of vulnerability. So it keeps you paddling in the amygdala, which is the emotional centre of our brain. It’s responsible for processing emotions like fear, anxiety, and stress. When we are constantly living in a state of hypervigilance, always looking for dangers (see: how many people have been told about walking home with keys in their hands), our amygdala is activated, and it starts to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
When it is clear that letting go of body anxiety has many benefits for our mental and physical health, how can we actually do it? Especially in a world which keeps us on such high alert? Surely the aim is to try and build a life which creates more peace and joy for you, your body and the world around you with each decision we get to make? So when we look at the parts of our life which we can control, how can you bring more calm here? How can you bring less conflict to work? How can you exercise for joy rather than punishment? How can you make your food about pleasure rather than rewards? How can you create more spaces of sanctuary in your world?
Because the more of us who do this, the more of us will be well-resourced to be able to effectively impact the structural change which needs to happen without burning out.
You looking after yourself is intrinsically linked to making the world a better place. When one of his heals, there are more of us who are more resourced to be able to gather and hold the people who need more love, care and compassion than they're able to give themselves right now.
I believe that making peace with our bodies is fundamental to the societal shift which needs to happen so more people can feel safe in their own skin. This is why I believe it is worth putting the effort into working towards a place of body calm.