What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

Most teens — in fact, most people of all ages — can find something about their bodies that they don’t like. Your son might wish he were taller or more muscular. Your daughter might not like the roundness of her hips or might wish her hair were thicker or a different color. These are normal feelings when they come up occasionally and cause minimal to no distress. For a person with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) however, obsessions about various parts of the body become distressing and life-altering. If you are concerned about this condition and think it might be affecting someone you love, read on for more information as well as tips for getting your loved one the help they need.

Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Some of the symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder are internal; that is, the person who has them might not share them. Some examples of internet symptoms of BDD include:

  • thinking that people are taking a special interest in how you look
  • assuming that others are constantly looking at you, thinking about your appearance, and judging you
  • believing that something about your body or appearance is disgusting or is a type of deformity

Other symptoms are more apparent. Examples of symptoms of BDD that someone might be able to notice include:

  • wearing clothing that hides a certain part of the body
  • refusal to wear a bathing suit, short sleeves, shorts, or sandals, depending on the part of their body that offends them
  • spending hours each day looking in the mirror
  • avoiding mirrors at all costs
  • picking obsessively at the skin
  • using tweezers to remove body hair on an excessive basis
  • avoiding social situations
  • refusal to go to school because they don’t want anyone to see what they consider an ugly or hideous body part

When and Why It Occurs

Body dysmorphic disorder often begins during early adolescence, around the age of 12 or 13. It happens in roughly the same number of boys as it does girls. The condition can last well into adulthood.

The causes of the condition aren’t clear, but there are some theories:

  • There might be a genetic predisposition because it tends to occur in individuals who have relatives with BDD or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • There’s also speculation that a malfunction of serotonin in the brain might be the cause of some cases.
  • Negative life experiences such as bullying or child abuse might also play a part in some people with BDD.

The takeaway is that because there is no consensus on how or why BDD occurs, there’s really no way to prevent it. The best way to prevent serious consequences of the disorder is to be aware of the symptoms.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder vs. General Insecurity

Many teens are insecure about their appearances. You might wonder whether your insecure teen is having a problem with body dysmorphic disorder. The general rule is to determine how much their thoughts are affecting their life. If your teen is mildly concerned that a certain pair of jeans makes them look chubby or doesn’t like the way their hair looks but doesn’t spend  hours each day dwelling on it, it’s likely just a normal phase of adolescence. If, however, they are consumed with thoughts about their appearance or are unable to leave the house without covering perceived flaws with makeup or clothing, a more serious problem might be at play.

If your teen is just suffering from a less-than-ideal body image, there are some things you can do to help them feel better about themselves.

  1. Encourage healthy behaviors. Exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep will help keep your teen at a healthy weight and keep him or her looking their best.
  2. Visit a dermatologist if your teen is worried about acne.
  3. Point out that people you see on television, in movies, and in magazines are often airbrushed and otherwise artificially presented; encourage your teen to look past Hollywood interpretations of beauty and to think about what’s healthy, normal, and right for your teen.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Other Mental Health Issues

One danger of BDD is that it will turn into an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, OCD, or some other mental health issue. If your teen feels that they have no control over how a certain part of their body looks, an eating disorder might follow as an effort to gain control. Over time, BDD can cause social anxiety, too. As the individual tries to avoid being seen by others, they might feel more and more panicked about social interactions and do whatever they can to avoid them.

In severe cases, body dysmorphic disorder can cause depression. Signs of depression include:

  • Isolation
  • Losing interest in formerly enjoyed activities
  • Letting grades plummet
  • Thoughts of suicide

If your teen is talking about dying, looking at or buying weapons or medications that they might overdose on, or threatening to attempt suicide, this is a medical emergency and needs immediate intervention.

Treatment for Body Dysmorphic Disorder

There are two main treatments for BDD:

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  2. Antidepressants

The CBT is helpful for teaching the individual different ways to view their body. Because the disorder focuses on an obsession, therapy can help them turn their attention elsewhere and learn to cope with the intrusive, untrue thoughts.

Antidepressants, which need to be used with caution in teenagers, can also help victims of the disorder to enjoy their normal activities with fewer obsessive thoughts.

In Conclusion

A diagnosis of body dysmorphic disorder can be troubling for both teenagers and their parents. If you suspect that your teen’s obsession with his or her appearance has gone past the point of normal teenager insecurity, a visit to his or her primary care physician can result in a referral to the appropriate mental health care specialist. Keep the lines of communication open with your teen and try the tips above to improve his or her body image, but don’t hesitate to seek help if the condition does not improve.

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