Body Image and Mental Health
|Many people experience fears related to the appearance of their body. For some individuals, the concern may largely involve one specific body area or aspect of their appearance. For example, a person may experience anxiety about the appearance of their nose, hair, ears, or other body areas. This appearance-related anxiety may be accompanied by repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing distress about their appearance, such as checking one’s appearance in the mirror, attempting to “fix” or modify one’s appearance, and wearing certain clothes in an attempt to conceal one’s appearance from others. |
When these symptoms cause an individual significant emotional distress and/or negatively impact their ability to function, it is likely that these symptoms meet criteria for a mental health condition known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is a serious condition, though it does respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT for BDD primarily includes exposure and response prevention (ERP), cognitive restructuring, and perceptual training techniques.
Other people may experience fears related to the appearance of their bodies as a whole. In particular, many people struggle with physique-related fears where the worries are centered on the size and/or shape of one’s body being socially undesirable. People of any gender can experience these struggles, but women and girls in particular may face greater societal pressure to adhere to a “thin ideal” body type, and may develop unhealthy habits practiced to modify their physique and/or lose weight, including withholding food from themselves, exercising excessively, and inducing vomiting after eating. When these symptoms are accompanied by emotional distress and life interference, it is likely that criteria are met for an eating disorder (ED). Although eating disorders are very serious conditions and can be life-threatening, they can also be treated effectively using CBT, as well as another treatment approach known as family-based treatment (FBT).
Finally, body image-related fears may also be present in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Specifically, some people experience intrusive thoughts about potential changes or “flaws” that may develop in their physical appearance. For example, a person may fear that their hair will start to turn gray or they will develop “bags” under their eyes, even though these changes have not yet occurred. Nonetheless, the person may respond to these recurring fears by repeatedly checking their appearance to detect whether these “flaws” are actually occurring, or by engaging in other behaviors to try to prevent them from occurring. Fortunately, although OCD is often very debilitating, it is a very treatable condition that responds well to a specific CBT intervention known as exposure and response prevention (ERP).
What are common triggers for fears related to appearance?
People who struggle with fears related to their body image/appearance may find that their symptoms “flare up” in social situations where they are interacting with other people; in particular, social situations in which a person believes that their perceived body image-related “flaw” or imperfection would be easily noticed may be very triggering to the person. Additionally, the person may be triggered by situations in which they become keenly aware of their perceived body image-related flaw. For example, if a person believes that their nose is too large or misshapen, the act of standing in front of a mirror where their nose is clearly visible to them may provoke a high level of anxiety about their appearance.
If you’re struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free 15-minute call today with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.
We look forward to working with you.