In This Article
Body dysmorphia is simultaneously an extremely common and extremely harrowing thing to experience. Although it comes in many forms, psychologists generally describe it as a preoccupation with perceived flaws, to the point where it interferes with leading your normal life. Thoughts take over your mind all times of day, and even something like getting dressed in the morning can trigger a full-blown panic attack. Loving your own body is a foreign thought.
“It's more than the usual preoccupation with some aspect of one's body that they do not like,” Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT, tells Byrdie. “Body dysmorphia is a destabilizing mental health disorder which significantly impairs functioning. It can even lead to people refusing social engagement and leaving their home. It often centers around some hyper awareness about a real or perceived body flaw that, in many cases, others will not even notice.”
Of course, with help from trained professionals, anyone suffering with body dysmorphia can learn to overcome the symptoms. Here’s what three therapists recommend anyone struggling with body dysmorphia do to form a healthier body image.
What Causes Body Dysmorphia?
According to therapist Nikita Banks, LCSW, body dysmorphia is caused by a myriad of factors, so it’s hard to pin down just one trigger. “Body dysmorphia is a thought distortion. The way you think, feel and see your body is other than what it is, usually characterized by a flaw which others see as minor or they don’t see at all, which the person internalizes and obsesses on correcting in unhealthy ways. There is no one cause, but many psychologists and thought leaders on the subject say it could be a combination of chemical imbalance, psychological, or personality development issues as well as trauma.”
Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D, owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group, agrees. “A set of related factors make certain people more vulnerable to body dysmorphia than others. This includes a tendency towards perfectionism and shame. In addition to these psychological factors, we also have to consider social factors. There's a tremendous amount of pressure on people to fit particular cultural standards of beauty that are represented on TV and social media. And the fact is, beautiful people are rewarded in life through higher levels of life and job satisfaction and overall happiness in life. We're taught that it can literally pay to be beautiful.”
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is Key
According to Gerst, one of the first things that anyone suffering with body dysmorphia should do when they’re ready to confront the condition is look for a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This specific type of therapy works well for things like body dysmorphia, because it helps patients become aware of their negative self-talk and change their thinking and reactions to stressful situations. “If a preoccupation with body image, or some aspect of your body, becomes debilitating, professional help is key,” Gerst says.
Practicing mindfulness—in other words, simply paying attention to your thoughts when you have them, and allowing yourself to experience them—can also help. This is due to the fact that, like CBT, it helps you realize what your thoughts are whenever you have them, notice what usually sets those thoughts off, and perhaps even change your thinking. According to Banks, mindfulness can help foster compassion for yourself, which is key for anyone suffering with body dysmorphia.
“Research suggests that cultivating compassion for yourself can help lessen the effects of body dysmorphia,” she says. “Self compassion can be cultivated by taking notice of moments when you judge yourself and working to reduce that, using mindfulness practices that help limit your attachment to or overidentification with particular ideas or thoughts about yourself, and recognizing that you're not alone in your struggles.”
Steps You Can Take Every Day
Even if you’re just making one small step a week toward cultivating a healthier body image, you’re still making moves to overcome your body dysmorphia—and that’s impressive in and of itself.
Language: According to Gerst, one small step you can take every day is to develop an awareness of how you talk to yourself so you can eventually break those habits. “Thoughts feel automatic, but they are actually habits. When you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror or a reflection in a window, what do you say? Do you automatically start critiquing something about yourself? Or do you think kind thoughts to yourself?” she asks. “Recognize that you can certainly continue to function with an endless negative commentary about yourself running through your head. But you will not thrive. And no amount of compliments from others will do the trick, without you first encouraging yourself.”
Therapy: Lyons recommends finding a therapist so you can discuss your condition, and agree on a treatment that you feel comfortable with. “It's important to see a licensed mental health professional so that they can assess the severity of your body dysmorphia. If your body dysmorphia is at clinical levels, care under the supervision of a professional is important given the potential severe consequences of this disorder. It can also be helpful to know that many treatments for body dysmorphia exist so if one approach doesn't feel like the right one for you, let your provider know.”
Kindess: And, the simplest thing you can do? Just try to be kinder to yourself with every passing day. Banks tells Byrdie, “As we grow our bodies are always developing and changing. Through puberty, childbirth, and as we age. It is a beautiful part of life and in exchange for these changes wonderful things happen. And as soon as you learn to embrace change, and see it as not only necessary but a beautiful part of our journey we can accept it for what is. So we have to learn to focus on the beauty of the changes.”
Body dysmorphia may feel like an endless spiral of negative self talk, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right therapist and treatment, forming a healthier body image is possible to achieve—and will help you live a happier life with yourself.