It can be dangerous, debilitating and all-consuming. So why have so many of us never heard of body dysmorphia?

Here, Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno takes us through everything to know about the mental health condition currently affecting around 2 per cent of the population.  

What is body dysmorphic disorder?

Individuals with body dysmorphic disorder (formerly known as dysmorphophobia) are preoccupied with one or more perceived defects or flaws in their physical appearance, which they believe look ugly, unattractive, abnormal, or deformed. The perceived flaws are not observable or appear only slight to other individuals. Concerns range from looking “unattractive” or “not right” to looking “hideous” or “like a monster.” Preoccupations can focus on one or many body areas.

There are two variations of Body Dysmorphia – one where the sufferer is delusional and the flaw is an imagined thing, the other where the flaw is a real thing however the importance of this is severely exaggerated.

What’s the difference between body dysmorphia and poor body image? 

The difference is that body dysmorphia can be quite obsessive and imagined, and poor body image is a person’s perception of one’s self which they see in a negative light. Whilst a person’s body image might not always be positive, it is not imagined or overly exaggerated and doesn’t tend to preoccupy a person’s time too much. Most people tend to have a view that they have physical imperfections, however, with body image, these imperfections aren’t something a person will constantly focus on, merely that they are aware of it.

What are the tell-tale symptoms of body dysmorphia?  

One of the biggest tell-tale symptoms is the tendency to focus and obsess about perceived flaws, as well as thinking flaws exist when they don’t. A person with body dysmorphia will also often seek excessive reassurance from others, engage in repetitive compulsive behaviours in order to check, camouflage, hide, or fix the perceived defect. Examples include excessive mirror checking, repetitive efforts to hide their perceived flaws, and avoiding activities that might display flaws (such as swimming).

Who is most likely to experience body dysmorphia?

Most people have something about themselves that they don’t like however that doesn’t mean that they have body dysmorphia, rather a view of themselves which is related to their own body image. Body dysmorphia usually develops at adolescence and teenage years. Research shows that it affects women and men almost equally.

How is it diagnosed – is there a test you can take?

There are diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 used by mental health professionals which can ascertain whether someone is suffering from body dysmorphia. The criteria normally looks at repetitive and obsessive behaviours related to a preoccupation with appearance and how this affects the person’s life (for example, does it impair their social or occupational functioning?). Unfortunately, body dysmorphia is often misdiagnosed as a disorder such as generalised anxiety disorder or eating disorders. Body dysmorphia symptoms can also appear in conjunction with or cause other disorders such as anxiety and depression.

For information, support and guidance from qualified Australian psychologists, contact LYSN. 

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