How to Embrace Your Body as It Changes, According to Mental Health Experts

Talk to yourself like you'd talk to a good friend — meaning, be kind and understanding to yourself and your new body.
Image Credit: JLco - Julia Amaral/iStock/GettyImages

When you're an athlete at any level, your body adapts to the sport your play. It harbors the effects of your hard work — your muscles forming to boast time under strain. The more you specialize in a sport, the more your body reflects it.

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But if you're recovering form an injury, transitioning away from a sport, just had a baby, gained weight, lost muscle or are just getting older, your body may change. Some people embrace the changes well. But it's very common for active people and athletes to be frustrated with the changes they experience for a variety of reasons.

So, how do you deal? We talked to two experts who gave insights into how to embrace and appreciate your body at all stages of life.

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Why It Can Be Hard to Accept Changes in Your Appearance

A change in weight, strength or mobility means different movement patterns, the inability to perform at the same level and, of course, a different appearance.

Melissa Streno, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified mental performance consultant at Lantern Psychology who specializes in sports psychology and body image issues, says she sees clients about this all the time.

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"I think part of it is that these are athletes who grew up so entrenched and embedded in the sport culture and the routine and the structure, it becomes a part of their identity," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "So when they transition out of sport or take a break, if that identity has been so wrapped up in athletics — and not just competing and training, but the body image component — the expectations of how they are supposed to look, the pressure, how others see them, it's really hard to adapt to those changes."

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It's important to check in with yourself to find out why you are having a difficult time with your body. For some people, it's less about the actual physical changes and more about what those changes represent.

Often, athletes assume their athletic identity without taking time to explore who or what else they are. So while you might think it's the number on the scale giving you grief, it could be something more at your core. Are you mourning an identity that no longer fits with your current stage of life? Who are you besides an athlete?

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"I treat it like a grieving process," Streno says. "There are the same stages of grief in terms of denial, bargaining. anger and acceptance. It's a good framework to use because I think athletes really relate to it in a sense of losing a part of who they are. People describe it as being pushed off a cliff with no support. Like, 'What do I do? Who am I without sport?' It's a real challenge."

However, this can also be an exciting steppingstone for discovering who you are in addition to sports, Streno says.

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No, You Don't Have to 'Get Back' to Your Former Body

Too often, people will get stuck in a cycle of trying to "get back" to their previous, "fitter" bodies. It might seem like a normal and healthy idea. You want to shed some weight or grain some muscle mass, so what's the harm?

If you find yourself thinking in this way, ask yourself why. Why do you want to get back to that body? If it is purely for aesthetics, which it commonly is, that can be problematic.

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"In the society we live in, we're so focused on appearance," Streno says. "I think that can be so surface level, and that doesn't ever reflect who somebody is at the core. So, it's important to recognize that you might be choosing to fight for a body that you don't need to be in or isn't actually where your body wants to naturally be. If you choose to fight, it is going to be miserable, and it's just not sustainable."

Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS, an athlete psychotherapist, agrees.

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"It ends up being an uphill battle for the rest of your life," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "So really tuning in and asking yourself: 'Who are you doing this for?' is essential. Ask yourself if needing to be in that body type really aligns with your values and the things that drive you."

Others might feel like they are trying to get back to their old body so they can feel better performing in their chosen sport. For example, if someone who is healing after giving birth wants to resume running but finds their new body has new pains, they might yearn for their pre-baby body. While this is totally normal, it might be more self-compassionate to give yourself a break.

"If your activity is not truly not enjoyable because it doesn't feel good, then find something else to do," Roth-Goldberg says. "Shifting into something that ​does​ feel good — even if it's just temporary — will help your body and mind as you get back to whatever it is you truly want to be doing."

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How to Accept Your New Body

Within the grief framework, acceptance is the final stage. Accepting your new body is an important step in being at peace with yourself — but that doesn't mean you need to repeat disingenuous positive affirmations about how much you love your body. At the same time, there is no need to berate yourself for falling short of self-imposed standards.

"I like to remind people to talk to themselves like they would talk to a good friend," Roth-Goldberg says. "Meaning, be kind and understanding."

Next, it's important to acknowledge the fact that you're experiencing discomfort or a sense of unfamiliarity in your body and that it is normal. In this stage, it's important to do some fact checking, too.

Are you actually carrying too much weight? A doctor or dietitian can help with what you might want to address from a health perspective and assist you in redefining how to move and fuel during this new season of your life. Once this is set, working toward true acceptance can begin.

"I like to work toward a body neutrality perspective," Streno says. "To me, it represents this idea of trying to define what a body is and working toward asking and answering questions like, 'What does my body stand for? What do I value about my body? What does my body let me do?' The hope is that a person gets to the point where they determine they could be okay with their body. They say, 'I don't have to love it all the time, but I have a strong foundation of acceptance.'"

When to Seek Help

It's important to note that fighting against where your current body wants to be naturally can lead to restricting food, overexercising and other harmful behaviors.

"If you take a look at your diet and exercise habits and realize that for years, you've been striving to look a certain way or be a certain weight and you're never happy, you have to understand that it might not ever be enough," Streno says. "And you don't want to compromise your health."

A trained professional who is well-versed in disordered body image can help redefine what "healthy" or "fit" should mean to you. They might also be able to help detangle some other issues that could be contributing to the body image problem. Streno says she sees people focusing on weight or strength but who are ultimately trying to fill another void in life.

"If there's something else we're desiring, or we're feeling like we're not connected to or attaining something we genuinely want, we use something else that at least gives us that temporary relief," she says. "The keyword is temporary. If you are on this merry-go-round, ask yourself how reaching a certain weight would make you happy. What would it bring to your life? And then, what is it that you're looking for? Is it a relationship? Is it a different job? Is it a different location? Because usually it's something else that is missing, and you're using your body as a tool to get there."

A mental health professional can help work through body image issues and whatever thinking traps accompany them. Reaching out for help is the first step in getting to a more fulfilled place, no matter what your body looks like.

We recognize the many obstacles in finding proper mental health care. Both access and affordability are huge issues. Low-cost options like Open Path Collective and Inclusive Therapists are available.

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