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Periods and fitness: “I’ve not had a period for years because I’m afraid to lose my ‘fit girl status’”

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We all have ‘limiting beliefs’, mostly about our own selves. We create and use them to make sense of the world and help us feel safe – but they are not based on facts. What’s more, they can be detrimental to our mental and physical health. Writer Ally Sinyard digs into her own and finds out how to overcome them.

“I’m not good enough.” “I must look a certain way to be loved.” “Eating ‘clean’ and being fit means I’m valued more.”

These are all examples of limiting beliefs. If you’ve never heard of the phrase before, don’t worry, I hadn’t either.

“As human beings, we all have a relatively inflexible internal belief system that influences our day to day thinking, interpretation of events, emotions and behaviours,” Dr Bryony Bamford, founder of The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image, tells Stylist

“Some of these beliefs can, of course, work in our favour, but others can work against us – causing difficulties in many aspects of our lives. ‘Limiting beliefs’ are those that interfere with us achieving positive mental, emotional and physical health.”

I recently started treatment and recovery for Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA), because I haven’t had a period in almost seven years. So far, I’ve learned and accepted that this was caused initially by stress and disordered eating, and made no better by RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport). 

Simply put, I’ve been underfueling my body for the amount of exercise I’ve been doing, and so my body has stopped producing the necessary amount of hormones for ovulation.

In order to regain my period, I’m now on a food and exercise plan that essentially requires more food and less exercise. However, recovery from RED-S and HA is more than just a physical process. The mental side involves healing my relationship with food, exercise and, ultimately, my own body – and this is done partly by overcoming my own limiting beliefs. 

As a little bit of homework, I’ve been asked to reflect on my childhood experiences and identity, and what beliefs I developed from there and still hold onto.

I’m an oversharer, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. For example, I was overweight and teased about it as a kid. At the same time, I didn’t have many friends and was always really bored at primary school. Basically, it wasn’t the happiest of times. It’s also fair to say the wider culture and environment I grew up in at that time was fatphobic and judgemental.

So it doesn’t take much head-scratching to figure out how I started associating being overweight with being unhappy and isolated. It’s just taken me this long to consider that one thing doesn’t necessarily cause the other. 

My situation of course is nothing unique. “There are lots of culturally inherited beliefs that women, in particular, absorb,” Emmy Brunner, founder of The Recover Clinic, says. “For example, ‘no one will find me attractive past a certain age’ or, ‘being overweight means I’m unattractive’. These ideas become entrenched and directly impact how we see ourselves.”

I should reiterate at this point that, like most of us, my limiting beliefs are exclusively about myself, and no reflection of how I view others. That’s why things can be so confusing and contradictory. I don’t care or pass judgment, either internally or externally, about other people’s bodies. 

I don’t use ‘fat’ or ‘thin’ as descriptors for anyone other than myself, whether in my head or out loud, because they’re relative terms. And I don’t make assumptions of someone’s character or quality of life based on what shape they are. 

I love the body positivity movement deeply, in part because I love to see people owning and celebrating who they are. Perhaps that comes from a combination of being proudly queer, existing in a culture that “loves to see it, honey!”, but also from aspiring to one day share the same joy and self-love that those within the movement do.

illustration of woman with rainbow
Limiting beliefs: "recovery involves healing my relationship with food, exercise and, ultimately, my own body."

The fact is, in order to be healthy again and in order to regain my period, I need to overcome my limiting beliefs – and to do that requires more than simply following a #bodypositivity hashtag and hoping to scroll myself to freedom.

“Telling yourself you’re not a loser won’t suddenly make you believe you’re a winner deep down inside,” specialist counselling psychologist Dr Omara Naseem tells me straight. “It’s tough to challenge and change our beliefs, because they’ve been around for a long time and we perceive them to be accurate.

“What’s more, we are constantly looking for evidence that reinforces them. It takes time, and it takes practice.”

How to overcome limiting beliefs

Emmy Brunner, Dr Bamford, Renee McGregor and Dr Naseem offer their advice on overcoming limiting beliefs.

1. Emmy Brunner suggests beginning by considering the “story” you tell yourself about who you are and where those ideas come from. “Are your beliefs about yourself serving you or holding you back in your life?” she asks. “Self-awareness goes a long way to shifting these views, but also making a commitment to speak to yourself with kindness and compassion is a great place to start.”

2. Rather than assuming your beliefs are accurate, Dr Bamford recommends asking yourself if you would apply the same belief to someone else. “Would someone I care about think this of me?” she asks. “Would I use this language towards my mother or daughter?”

As well as questioning why you hold these beliefs, Dr Bamford says this approach can give you a little insight into whether your beliefs are helpful, kind and accurate. “If they aren’t, working towards changing these beliefs with the guidance of self help or an experienced therapist, can be a hugely positive step towards achieving better emotional and physical health.”

3. Renee McGregor points out that “‘I must walk 10,000 steps a day” is another example of a limiting belief. “While the guidance is that we should aim to walk/move daily,” she says, “10,000 steps is a fairly arbitrary unit as to a certain degree, it depends on where your starting point is. However, it is the fact that it becomes a rule/belief that you need to live by that is the concern.”

One way to challenge beliefs is to challenge the behaviour associated with it. So actually not walking 10,000 steps daily, but also not changing anything else, including your energy intake. The more you do this and see that it doesn’t have a negative outcome, the less likely you need to hold onto that limiting belief that is actually adding more anxiety to your life, rather than security.”

4. Dr Naseem says the best way to change your limiting beliefs is to challenge them head-on. “To do that,” she says,”you need to give up the unhealthy negative self-talk, habits and ways of thinking. By changing these you can chip away at your unhealthy beliefs a little bit at a time from the ground up.

“For example, if you purposely avoid interacting with people because you think you’re too socially awkward to make friends, commit to introducing yourself to a new person every day. Meeting new people and putting yourself out there will challenge your beliefs about yourself. This could be broken down into a smaller step such as striking up conversation with the coffee barista daily.

Instead of thinking you’re too socially awkward to make friends, you might be able to accept that although you are a little awkward at times, some people will like you for that. “You have to step outside of your comfort zone by having new experiences to gain new information to form a healthy new belief,” Dr Naseem says.

“The truth is, you’re stronger than you think. Not everything we think is true. Challenging these beliefs will help our brain see ourselves, other people, and the world in a more accurate light.”

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity Beat website.

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