Mental Health Awareness Week – body image – how we think and feel about our bodies.

13 May, 2019

body image mental health week

Mental Health awareness week starts today. This year the theme is body image – how we think and feel about our bodies.

We are all body conscious to one degree or another, whether we have a stoma or not, but here at Colostomy UK our own research has shown a direct link to how living with a stoma can negatively affect body image. Results from our 2016 quality of life survey suggest that over 40% of ostomates feel that their confidence is ‘somewhat or significantly worse’ since stoma surgery, and 61% felt their body image was worse.

So why does body image matter? Body image and self-esteem directly influence each other—and your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. If you don’t like your body (or a part of your body), it’s hard to feel good about your whole self… and negative thinking has a way of leading to more negative thinking. It’s no surprise then that 36% of responses also felt their mental wellbeing was worse since surgery and 1 in 5 felt they didn’t have control of their lives.

Being active and getting fit can play an important part in how some someone thinks and feels about themselves. It can have a positive impact on body image too. However, many people with a stoma are put off taking up exercise. The fear of developing a Parastomal Hernia is very real with some research suggesting as many as 7 out of 10 ostomates will have one at some stage. This is where the challenge lies, if you don’t strengthen your core then the chances of developing a hernia increase, but if you over exercise or take part in the wrong activity you’re again more likely to develop one.

So what can Colostomy UK as a support-focused charity do to improve how ostomates think and feel about their bodies?

Our Active Ostomates project is one tool at our disposal.

Active Ostomates has been running since 2016. Through stoma support groups, it delivers free sessions in activities including chair yoga, archery and swimming.

For older people, chair yoga is an excellent way to loosen and stretch muscles, reduce stress, and improve circulation. It also reduces anxiety, helps lower blood pressure, protects joints, and builds strength and balance.

Archery is also a great activity for strengthening the core as, over time, the core becomes better at gaining control of the body’s balance and helps with more accurate shooting. Hand and finger strength and flexibility increase in archery too. And, if that wasn’t enough, the concentration practised during archery can help with coping in high-pressure situations, and in day-to-day life as well.

Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise that anyone, let alone someone with a stoma, can enjoy. It positively impacts your entire body whilst putting little strain on your muscles and joints. However fear over whether their bag will leak or come off, plus of course poor body image, stops many ostomates from getting back in the pool after surgery.

All the above activities are delivered at, or in partnership with, stoma support groups.  Why? Because by holding sessions in surroundings that are comfortable and familiar to people, in an environment where they are participating with fellow ostomates, we can greatly reduce if not totally erase many of the barriers that exist to being active. Swimming is a perfect example. We hire the entire pool and changing facilities to create an environment that’s as safe as possible for people. The worries about leakage or their bag coming off won’t go away but knowing that If it did happen they’d be surrounded by ostomates who’d be nothing but supportive is enough to convince many people to take that first dip. And, I might add, we haven’t had a single mishap yet!

We know that it works as well. The quotes below come from ostomates that have attended sessions. They speak for themselves:

“I didn’t do much swimming at all but I got in the water and that’s what matters, smashing the fears with the help of my wonderful family”

“This is the first time in thirty years with a stoma that I’ve had the chance to do fun stuff, activities and talk to other people who also have stoma’s, so there’s no shame or awkwardness between you all, you can all just be yourselves relax and enjoy some time out!”

We want Active Ostomates to be the trigger that gives people the confidence to get active at their local club, gym, or sports centre. By achieving this outcome, we know that we really have had a positive impact on a person’s confidence and body image. But, while this might be the final goal,  we’re also aware that the little steps that our initiative encourages, can actually have a life changing impact as well.

Giovanni Cinque


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