What is body dysmorphic disorder?

What is body dysmorphic disorder?
Written By: Counselling Psychologist
Ph.D. Relationship Psychology
Reviewed By: Counselling Psychologist
MA Psychology Pennsylvania State University, USA
Last Updated: 01-05-2023

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Body dysmorphia, also known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is a mental health condition that causes an individual to have a distorted and obsessive view of their physical appearance. It is estimated that 1-2% of the population may be affected by BDD, and it can significantly impact an individual s quality of life.

Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health illness in which a person can t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in their look - a flaw that appears to be insignificant or can t be noticed by others. However, it is accompanied by feelings of embarrassment, shame, and anxiety to the point where an individual avoids many social situations.

Since there is an extreme preoccupation with appearance and how an individual sees their body, they spend a significant amount of time each day checking themselves in the mirror, grooming themselves, and constantly looking for reassurances. The perceived flaw, combined with the repetitive behavior, gives people suffering from body dysmorphia a great deal of emotional anguish and hinders their capacity to function in day-to-day life.

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Symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder

The symptoms of body dysmorphia can vary from person to person but typically involve a preoccupation with perceived flaws or defects in one s physical appearance. This preoccupation can be so intense that it interferes with daily life and causes significant distress. Some common symptoms of BDD include:

  • Obsessive thoughts about one s appearance, such as constantly checking one s appearance in mirrors or other reflective surfaces.
  • Engaging in excessive grooming or grooming rituals, such as excessive hair washing or plucking.
  • Repeatedly seeking reassurance from others about one s appearance.
  • Avoiding social situations or activities due to concerns about one s appearance.
  • Comparing oneself to others, and feeling inferior as a result.
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors such as skin picking or excessive exercise to try and improve one s appearance.
  • Frequently changing clothing or makeup to try and hide perceived flaws.
  • Believing that one s appearance is so flawed that it interferes with daily life, work, or social interactions.
  • Feeling anxious, depressed, and ashamed.
  • Thinking of suicide.

Individuals with body dysmorphic disorder may excessively focus on one or more parts of their body, such as the face, hair, skin, breasts, genitalia, or body build. Men may be more likely to experience muscle dysmorphia, where they perceive their body build to be too small or not muscular enough. Insight into the disorder can vary, with some individuals recognizing that their beliefs about their appearance may be excessive or not true, while others are convinced that their perceived flaws are real.

Causes of body dysmorphic disorder

The causes of body dysmorphia are not well understood, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Some possible causes of BDD include:

  • Genetics: There may be a genetic component to body dysmorphia, as it appears to run in families.
  • Chemical imbalances: There may be an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain that contribute to the development of BDD.
  • Childhood trauma: Childhood experiences, such as bullying or abuse, may contribute to the development of BDD.
  • Societal pressure: Societal pressure to conform to certain beauty standards can contribute to the development of BDD, particularly in individuals who are already vulnerable to this type of thinking.

Diagnosis of body dysmorphic disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder is diagnosed by a mental health expert who assesses your symptoms and their impact on your daily functioning. The following criteria must be met for a BDD diagnosis to be made:

  • You must exhibit an excessive preoccupation with a minor or imagined flaw in your appearance.
  • Your preoccupation with the perceived flaw must be disruptive enough to impede your ability to function normally.
  • Your symptoms cannot be attributed to another mental health condition.
  • Individuals with BDD often experience other mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

Treatment of body dysmorphic disorder

There are several treatment options available for body dysmorphia, including therapy and medication.


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most commonly used form of therapy for BDD. CBT focuses on changing the negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with body dysmorphia. In CBT, individuals learn to challenge their negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. They also learn coping strategies for dealing with anxiety and stress related to their appearance.

Another type of therapy that may be helpful for BDD is exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP involves gradually exposing individuals to situations that trigger their anxiety related to their appearance, such as going out in public without makeup or covering up perceived flaws. The individual then learns to tolerate the anxiety without engaging in their typical compulsive behaviors, such as excessive grooming or avoiding social situations.

When to see a therapist/ psychiatrist:

Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition characterized by an excessive preoccupation with one s appearance and repetitive behaviors related to the perceived flaw. The disorder can lead to significant distress, impairments in social and occupational functioning, and even suicidal thoughts and behavior if left untreated. It is important to seek help from a healthcare provider or mental health professional if you are experiencing signs or symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder. Treatment options, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, can help alleviate distress and improve functioning. Without treatment, the disorder can worsen over time and lead to severe consequences.

Supporting your loved one suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

If you suspect that a loved one has Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), it is essential to approach the situation with empathy, patience, and understanding. Here are some steps you can take:

Educate yourself about BDD: Learn as much as you can about BDD, its symptoms, and the available treatment options. You can start by reading reputable websites or books on the subject.

Express your concern: Approach your loved one with care and express your concerns about their well-being. Let them know that you ve noticed some signs that may indicate that they have BDD.

Be a good listener: Listen to your loved one s concerns and feelings without judgment. Try to understand what they re going through and how it s affecting their life.

Encourage them to seek professional help: Encourage your loved one to seek professional help from a mental health specialist who is experienced in treating BDD. Let them know that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a courageous step towards getting better.

Offer support: Offer to accompany your loved one to appointments, help them find a therapist, or provide them with emotional support throughout their treatment.

Remember that it may take time and patience for your loved one to accept that they have BDD and seek treatment. However, your support and understanding can make a significant difference in their recovery.

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