How a Distorted Body Image Fuels Disordered Eating
Preoccupation with body image usually kicks in during adolescence. In the early teen years, kids suddenly become obsessed with what society has determined as “good looks.” Many will pore over fashion or celebrity magazines, identifying the physical traits of seeming perfection, and then begin comparing these “perfect” body parts to their own. The mirror may become a young person’s worst enemy if this interest in what our culture dictates as physical beauty becomes an unhealthy obsession.
Although most of us can quickly point out the body part we wish we could fix or change, this desire doesn’t usually occupy more than a passing glance in the mirror on a given day. However, when an individual becomes so preoccupied with their perceived flaws that they can no longer control their negative thoughts about themselves, often resorting to drastic measures to fix the imagined defect, they may suffer from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
BDD is a mental health disorder characterized by extreme and persistent obsessive thoughts regarding some aspect of their appearance. Someone suffering from BDD may spend several hours a day performing rituals coping with or hiding their distorted body image.
Surprisingly, BDD affects males and females nearly equally, with the disorder typically developing during the adolescent and teen years. About 1-2% of the U.S. population grapples with BDD, with the majority zeroing in on their hair, skin, nose, chest, or stomach, although people with BDD can find fault with any part of their anatomy.
BDD is tightly associated with other anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders (ED), and social anxiety disorder. Symptoms of BDD, however, are specific and include:
• Preoccupation with appearance. The individual is preoccupied with one or more nonexistent or slight defects in their appearance, thinking about the imagined defects for at least an hour a day. They may spend a great deal of time trying to camouflage the imagined flaw.
• Repetitive behaviors. The individual performs repetitive, compulsive acts in response to the perceived defect. The repetitive acts can be behavioral, as in mirror-checking, excessive grooming, changing clothes often, seeking reassurance from others, or skin picking. If weight is the primary issue, disordered eating, over-exercising, or unnecessary cosmetic surgery may result. Repetitive behaviors can also be mental, such as constantly comparing one’s appearance with others; tormenting themselves by feeling they come up short.
• Impairment. When the preoccupation causes significant distress or impairs areas of functioning such as social, academic, or occupational, then BDD is indicated. Their constant negative self-talk hinders their ability to function, causing them to miss work, skip school, avoid social events, and isolate themselves.
Treatment for BDD
Because the sufferer of BDD is often embarrassed and ashamed of their condition, they might not seek medical help. However, effective treatment is available for treating BDD, often with great success. A typical treatment regimen includes both psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy has been shown to help someone with BDD identify the thoughts that trigger the disordered behaviors, and then to replace the response with a new, healthy thought and behavior pattern. By teaching the BDD patient how to manage their triggers without resorting to avoidance or compulsive behaviors, CBT can help them see the bigger picture and to respond in a more rational way. CBT has been shown to improve such symptoms as depression, low self-esteem, and social anxiety.
SSRIs are considered the first-line medication of choice for treating BDD. SSRIs are antidepressants that can help reduce obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. The medication helps to control the distress that BDD can cause, including anger and suicidal thinking, as well as improve daily functioning.
Casa Serena Can Help
If you or your loved one struggles with irrational perceptions of their physical appearance that have culminated in disordered behaviors, we are here to help! At Casa Serena our caring, expert clinical staff understands that BDD is not just vanity gone wild, but is a serious and dangerous mental health condition that needs to be treated with understanding and compassion. Our treatment plans are individualized to the specific needs of each patient and to how their BDD has manifested itself. Contact us today and speak to our knowledgeable staff today at (925) 682-8252.
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