What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)?

A lot of people don’t really get Body Dysmorphic Disorder. So you’re worried about your flaws?—so am I. You’re concerned about how other people think you look?—sounds familiar. In a world where body image issues are so normal, differentiating between ‘normal levels’ of body image concern and BDD is a trial.

 Now this may be difficult for people who do not experience BDD, it may feel like just another label for something that is not really exceptional at all. But I can assure you it feels impossible for those who are actually experiencing BDD. Understanding that the way you perceive your flaws is not just harsh but wrong can be very difficult to come to grips with.  Validating and managing these feelings can feel impossible.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition, a type of anxiety disorder which leads sufferers to worry excessively about one or more aspects of their appearance which may seem slight or non-existent to other people. Let’s discuss some key symptoms and differences between BDD and other mental health conditions.

Symptoms of BDD

            BDD is an extremely distressing disorder and many of its symptoms manifest in ways that are not immediately visible to the people around you. These include:

  1.  Hyper fixation on a particular part of your body, or several
  2. Relentless rumination about your perceived flaws
  3. Constantly comparing yourself to other people

            Pre-occupation with a particular body part can be all consuming for people struggling with BDD leading to intrusive thoughts, high levels of anxiety, and an inability to focus on other things that are going on around you. Behavioural symptoms include:

  1. Compulsively checking your appearance in mirrors and reflective surfaces or alternatively avoiding your reflection all together
  2. Avoiding social situations because of anxiety surrounding your outward appearance
  3. Repetitive and damaging behaviours like skin picking, compulsive grooming, changing your clothes often, shopping excessively, self-harm
  4. Seeking cosmetic surgery or permanent change
  5. Camouflaging areas of your body that you dislike with makeup, tan, baggy clothing

BDD and Eating Disorders

Most people do not differentiate between BDD, Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues because they understand all of these challenges to include an unhealthy or abnormal pre-occupation with your appearance, which leads to poor mental health and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Though they can share certain characteristics and individuals can experience more than one of these disorders at the same time, there are key differences and particular symptoms which may require specialised treatments and specific supports.

What are the differences between BDD and Eating Disorders (ED)

Note: Eating Disorders is an umbrella term for multiple disorders. The information below refers to eating disorders generally and may not accurately reflect all eating disorders.

Though there can be several differences between BDD and ED, the primary differentials are:

  1. Focus what is the body image disturbance?

BDD usually involves preoccupation with any or many particular parts of the body but most commonly with the face/facial features, particularly one’s skin, hair and nose.

Eating Disorders — tend to involve a preoccupation with the weight, shape and size of one’s body as a whole.

  • Behaviours — what are you doing to change this body image disturbance?

BDD – tends to involve things like skin-picking, self-surgery or pursuit of plastic surgery, and compulsive self-grooming.

ED – tend to involve behaviours that control diet and exercise habits (thereby your shape/size) including binge-eating, purging and compulsive exercise.

Abnormal eating is not a required behaviour for BDD whereas to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, eating habits must be significantly impaired. People with BDD can experience abnormal eating habits but these tend not to be as problematic, compulsive or severe as with an ED diagnosis.

What helps with BDD?

            Like all mental health disorders, completely overcoming your symptoms forever may be idealistic, and often it is more effective to learn to recognise and manage your symptoms, which can look different for different people.

If you think you have BDD, we urge you to speak to someone about what you are experiencing and feeling towards your body. This does not have to be a medical, clinical or pharmacological professional in the first instance (although in more severe cases please do explore these options) but simply, a friend, family member or someone else who has experienced similar struggles. Sometimes it can help to read books, listen to stories and follow social media accounts where others share their lived experience with BDD to help you understand your own experience and whether it would be helpful to seek a formal diagnosis.

Finding a safe space where you can feel calm and take your focus away from your perceived flaws can be a huge part of healing. Be careful not to mistake avoidant behaviours for finding a safe space – in the short term avoidance may enable you to keep your anxieties at bay but in the long-term, avoiding social situations and other activities can lead to further isolation and alienation from potential support networks.

Your safe space may be a book, somewhere you can read about someone else’s life and world and not feel so absorbed by your own; it may be ensuring you are connected with friends even if that doesn’t mean socialising in big groups or in person at all; it may be support groups, therapy, or a Mentor who can help you to understand your condition, relate to others and develop constructive ways of coping based on lived experience or professional expertise.

What I can tell you for certain is there is support out there and you do deserve help.

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