Q: I've heard that low self-esteem not only is a social problem but also can trigger many physical health problems. Is that true? -- "Worried" in Wyoming
A: I can directly relate to this question and the many issues related to low self-esteem. Growing up, I was what you'd call "painfully shy." In high school, I would avoid asking a question in class or even giving a book report. For me, the pain was real and overwhelming. In spite of a debilitating sense of insecurity, I managed to graduate.
I soon enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. While stationed in Korea, I was introduced to the martial arts. Earning my black belt in the Korean form of karate changed my life. It started me on a path. It changed the way I saw myself, and within eight years, I was on top of the martial arts world and a champion.
I've tried to impart these lessons throughout my life. My wife, Gena, and I have seen firsthand the power of martial arts discipline through our foundation, KickStart Kids, which teaches the martial arts via a physical education curriculum in more than 46 Texas middle schools, serving more than 7,000 kids. It is a means for young people, many from broken homes and at risk, to reap the benefits of this training, helping them to crack the egg of insecurity -- by replacing the negative with positive -- and to move on to become successful in their own right.
Though the focus on the issue of low self-esteem tends to be on the mental health aspects, research continues to find a definite link between negative emotions and physical health. It is said that people who feel good about themselves -- those who have a proper mental balance and believe in their abilities -- have better overall biological function than people who constantly see things through a negative lens. Negative thoughts lead to negative stress, and the constant distress caused by this negativity can strain your body severely and lead to health issues. The negative emotions that come with low self-esteem have been found to weaken the body's immune system and increase its levels of inflammation. These factors have been associated with heart disease. Doctors also have found that people who are spiritually and mentally active, with high self-esteem, respond better to medical treatment than those who are racked with negativity.
The sad truth is that people with severe self-esteem problems seem to have no incentive to care for themselves. They feel overwhelmed by fear and a belief that they are powerless to change anything in their world. Instead of exercising and trying to improve their health and improving how they feel about themselves, they tend to remain inactive and passive.
Yet we know that just a modest program of physical exercise can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes significantly. It can help prevent hypertension and the emergence of diabetes and osteoporosis in adults. In children, physical fitness has been not only shown as one means of addressing the obesity epidemic but also associated with higher achievement.
Unfortunately, increasing a person's self-esteem is not as easy as exercising and repeating positive affirmations over and over again. The hard, disciplined work of challenging and changing the self-critical thoughts that caused the problem in the first place is essential. It is easier said than done.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in dealing with the problem is the fact that the term "low self-esteem" is only a popular description of the way a person thinks or feels about himself or herself. It is not an official diagnosis of a mental health problem. This seems to be in great measure part of the problem in effectively dealing with the mental and physical health problems associated with low self-esteem.
For example, though a recent Vanderbilt University study was able to reinforce the idea that there is a relationship between self-esteem and eating disorders, the researchers were not able to show that eating disorders caused by low self-esteem can be treated or even prevented. The study concluded that the direction needed is toward solutions rather than more analysis of the problem. Given the magnitude of the issue of often-debilitating low self-esteem in our often-troubling and complex society, it is hard to argue with that thought.
For more information on KickStart Kids, please go to http://www.kickstartkids.org.
Chuck Norris' weekly column on health and fitness, "C-Force," can be found at creators.com.