This post was updated on April 5th, 2020
While the physiological effects of PCOS are well discussed by many of us online, one of the MOST common, yet LEAST discussed symptoms of this disorder is the dramatic effect it can have on our self-image. Whether you refer to this symptom as self-esteem, self-confidence, or self-belief, the symptom is the same – you just don’t feel good about yourself like you should.
While I’m sure if you look deep enough, you will find some sense of inadequacy within most people, you are even more likely to find a poor perception of oneself if you really get to know a woman with PCOS because of the unfortunate symptoms of this difficult disorder.
I’m a strong believer that in order to solve our problems, we really need to have a thorough understanding of them. Moving beyond our negative emotional states is no different, so to help free ourselves from any guilt, blame or shame I want to share with you some of the less well understood reasons why women with PCOS often struggle emotionally.
I’ll then share with you the three best techniques that have helped me to overcome low self-esteem during my journey with PCOS.
PCOS is Associated with Anxiety & Depression
It’s pretty impossible to feel good about yourself if you suffer from either anxiety or depression, yet unfortunately women with PCOS are more likely to suffer from both of these disorders than the general population.
The link between having PCOS, anxiety/depression and poor self-esteem is pretty straightforward:
- When you have PCOS, your hormones are not in balance.
- When your hormones are not in balance it’s almost physiologically impossible for the complex neurochemistry of your brain to function as it should. Anxiety and depression are a direct result of this disrupted neurochemistry.
- When you feel anxious or depressed, it’s easy to mistakenly blame yourself for whatever is troubling you and to see your natural and normal shortcomings as terrible personal failings that you should have somehow prevented.
For many of us, low self-esteem is a symptom of anxiety and depression, which is itself a symptom of our PCOS! While anxiety and depression are characterized as mental health disorders rather than physiological illnesses, this really is a distinction without a difference as the functioning of the brain is a direct consequence of biochemical reactions that are no less dependent on physical aspects of our bodies, than our hearts and lungs are.
I know well what it feels like to have both anxiety and depression and it’s completely clear to me that what and how we think about ourselves and our life situation is entirely a result of how our brain is working on any given day. Have you ever gone to bed feeling upset, overwhelmed, or hopeless about something only to find you feel slightly more positive and proactive about it the next day? This sort of experience demonstrates my point precisely:
If you suffer from anxiety and depression, then it has nothing to do with your moral fortitude and everything to do with your health!
It’s not your fault, and you can get better. You just need to work on healing your injuries and building better mental fitness, the same as a competitive runner with a strained ankle would if she wanted to get faster at the track.
While our poorly performing brain chemistry is clearly the root cause of much of our poor feeling towards ourselves and life in general, external influences are an obvious way to trigger and exacerbate an already sensitive problem for us. Here’s just a few examples to support my point:
1. Women with PCOS gain weight 2-3 times faster than others. Couple weight gain with the RIDICULOUS body image expectations promoted in popular culture and you have a perfect recipe for feeling down about yourself. Even though we may know that every single image around us has been photoshopped extensively these days, it is still always a struggle to stop ourselves from playing “let’s compare” with models in advertisements, or celebrity glamour shots.
2. Women with PCOS are more likely to have problems with infertility. As someone who has failed in the pregnancy department for many years, if anyone doubts the reality that infertility can unfairly make you feel like a total loser then please send them my way as I will be happy to educate them on how this experience affects us.
3. Women with PCOS have to put up with cosmetic issues. Thanks to the high levels of androgens that are a major part of having PCOS, many of us deal with at least one of several potential cosmetic woes that include acne, eczema, facial hair growth, and the thinning or loss of our prized hair. It doesn’t matter how much someone can try and tell you that true beauty is really on the inside, if we look at ourselves in the mirror and we don’t think we look our best, it affects how we feel about ourselves. It’s a natural part of being a woman to want to be beautiful on the outside too, and to feel we’re falling short of our own expectations, let alone those of others, can be a heavy cross to bear.
Before I overcame my PCOS through the transformation of my diet and lifestyle, tummy fat and acne had always been the first thing I saw when I looked at myself in the mirror. Never mind all the positive things I COULD have thought about my own appearance, the self-critic in me was (and often still is) the loudest and most obnoxious voice chattering away in my head.
So now that you understand how anxiety and depression is the link between PCOS and low self-esteem; and that we also have to face plenty of external barriers to feeling good about ourselves, you should now be free from any guilt or shame concerning your self-image and be ready to get on top of it.
Solution 1: Get on Top of Your Brain Chemistry
Given that the problem of poor self-image starts in the brain, it makes sense that one of the best long term solutions is to be found there also. If you suffer from anxiety or depression and it’s affecting your self-esteem, then finding your way through this is essential.
Having struggled on and off with both anxiety and depression myself I found that despite the obvious effects, when you’re in the thick of it, it can be really hard to notice you have it! It’s so easy to feel your anxiety or depression is totally justified because of your life situation and no doubt, most of us have to put up with some pretty unpleasant life experiences at times, but if you’re feeling miserable all the time for a sustained period, or your loved ones are getting worried about you then please don’t be too brave to seek professional help.
Finding a good counsellor is a great place to start to help weed out the health problems from the general ups and downs of life. Or if you’re lucky enough to have compassionate caring friends and family, don’t be too proud to speak with them about how you’re feeling to try and reorient yourself against a safe and steady reference point.
There is also some great high quality advice available these days on how to improve your mental health and I recommend you consume as much of this as you can so you can and map out a solution that is right for you. If you’re interested in trying a cognitive behavioral therapy approach, one of my favorite books is Change Your Thinking by Sarah Elderman which was a real game changer for me when I first read it years ago (this is not an affiliate link).
Also as I will discuss in more detail below, nutritional and other lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on treating depression and anxiety! This is a very new area of study but there is some terrific information coming out showing how functional medicine is successfully being used to treat the underlying conditions of poor mental health instead of using band-aid solutions like anti-depressants.
This is really exciting stuff and something I will be dedicating more writing time to in the near future!
Solution 2: Start Taking Steps Towards Healing Your PCOS
If PCOS is the underlying problem, then overcoming PCOS is the ultimate solution to your less than optimal feelings toward yourself. Having PCOS is a lot like being dealt a pretty poor set of cards in a game of poker. But like all good poker players, a woman with PCOS has a lot of control over her destiny by how she plays her hand. Yes, I’m talking about the lifestyle interventions of diet, exercise, and stress management which are so well proven to treat PCOS that I can guarantee your symptoms will reduce if you commit to making positive change in these areas!
Lifestyle interventions help to improve our self-esteem on a number of levels. Firstly, when you start to eat well, exercise, and manage your stress, your health improves both physically and mentally, and you will be more likely to conceive (if you’re trying). Your cosmetic symptoms will also reduce, and you will lose weight (if you want to).
While all of these outcomes will certainly make you feel A LOT better, mastering a sense of control over your situation may be one of the biggest boosts to your self-esteem you could hope for.
Here’s the real kicker though: the same lifestyle interventions that improve the hormonal imbalances behind your PCOS, are also exactly the same as those recommended for better emotional health! Like I discussed above in “Solution #1” there is some great information coming out showing that good nutrition results in better mental health.
Changing your lifestyle is even MORE likely to be successful at improving your mood and feelings toward yourself over the long term than any pharmaceutical solution. So if you’re looking for low cost, permanent healthy solutions then diet, exercise, and stress management need to be where you spend the majority of your effort.
Trust me, if you empower yourself with the transformation of your physical health, your self-esteem and confidence will soar in response.
I know that learning to look after ourselves can be a difficult thing to do, especially when your self-belief isn’t at its best. And even when you know what you should be doing having to implement it can be really tough, especially if you are dealing with low self esteem or depression or anxiety. I know it was for me! It took me years to adopt all of the lifestyle changes I knew I needed to make and that was after spending years searching out the right information.
This is exactly why I created the Free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge. This challenge aims to help give a short cut to women who want to overcome their PCOS, but don’t want to struggle down the same long path that I did.
Solution 3: Build Resilience to External Influences
The solutions I’ve mentioned so far are really great long term fixes, but here’s a way to build emotional resilience against all the unpleasant external influences you’re dealing with in your life that is available to you right now through the use of two scientifically proven techniques: mindfulness and self-compassion.
If you’re feeling down about yourself then chances are there is some faulty thinking going on in your mind whether you are conscious of it or not. The first thing you can do to ease your suffering is to become consciously aware that you are even having these thoughts and becoming familiar with the negative beliefs behind this faulty thinking.
Doing this is exactly what mindfulness is all about! Giving yourself the space to patiently discover the errors or limitations in the beliefs that are hurting you and causing negative thoughts is the first of two steps that can help you right now.
Now the second step to building emotional resilience is to bring some self-compassion to your plight, which is another primary objective of mindfulness. The idea here is to recognize that you are a flawed human being, but one that ALWAYS deserves to be loved and honored, and you don’t need to wait for others to do this for you.
Self-compassion is about treating yourself, through your self-talk and your actions, as well as you would treat anyone else you cared about deeply who you wanted to help. Taking care of others is something that comes naturally to most of us, but being compassionate toward ourselves is something that takes practice.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with mindfulness, please feel free to follow either (or both) of these links to find out more:
- My blog post about the Mind Body Connection and Mindfulness
- My interview with clinical psychologist and mindfulness practitioner, Judy Robinson.
Another great resource I strongly recommend for people wanting to discover mindfulness meditation is the podcast “The Rubin Mindfulness Meditation”. This podcast is a 30 minute live recording of a weekly mindfulness group lead by prominent mindfulness meditation leaders from the New York area.
If you want to learn more about what self-compassion is and how to actually practice it, I strongly recommend you check out the work of Dr Kristin Neff, who is one of the best communicators I have come across on the topic of self-compassion and she even offers free audio downloads for self-compassion guided meditations and exercises.
If you suffer from the physical effects of PCOS, then pay attention also to how it is affecting your self-image. If you’re not feeling good about yourself, it’s not your fault. This is another consequence of having PCOS.
The good news though, is that like all your other PCOS symptoms, your self-esteem and confidence respond exceptionally well to low cost, 100% natural therapies that are completely within your control. You can start building your resilience to the external influences that upset you right now and you can make longer term plans to overcome your PCOS by finding ways to improve your diet, exercise and stress management. My Free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge is a great place to start, as well as the other resources I suggested above.
The powers is in your hands. You just need to take a few small steps each day, and anything is possible. Best of luck, and remember to be GOOD to yourself!
Kym Campbell is a Health Coach and PCOS expert with a strong passion for using evidence-based lifestyle interventions to manage this disorder. Kym combines rigorous scientific analysis with the advice from leading clinicians to disseminate the most helpful PCOS patient-centric information you can find online. You can read more about Kym and her team here.