Understanding Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)


Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) can have a big impact on your mental health and cause severe emotional distress. You may feel overwhelmed by a need to perfect your physical appearance or be consumed with negative thoughts about the way you look.

Let’s take a closer look at BDD and the kinds of treatment available.

What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition characterised by constant negative thoughts about your physical appearance and is usually concentrated on one perceived defect. This perceived flaw could be so small that others don’t even notice it, or it could even be an imagined physical defect.

Some of the most common perceived flaws involve skin imperfections, body odours, facial features, and body weight. To outsiders, BDD may look harmless or simply be seen as a lack of self-esteem or confidence. In reality, body dysmorphic disorder is a serious mental health disorder that can cause a lot of emotional distress. You may feel an overwhelming need to constantly groom yourself or look in the mirror. You might even withdraw into social isolation out of embarrassment or fear of how others will perceive your physical appearance.

Some people with body dysmorphic disorder may turn to plastic surgery and cosmetic surgeons to make them feel better, but this is only a temporary fix and does not actually solve the problem at hand. Body dysmorphic disorder requires proper treatment – without it, you could develop severe depression and intense suicidal thoughts.

Warning Signs of BDD

Though everyone will experience the disorder differently, there are a few common BDD symptoms to look out for, including:

  • Intrusive thoughts about your physical appearance
  • Skewed body-image 
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors (i.e. constant grooming, brushing your hair, picking at your skin)
  • Social phobia
  • Social anxiety
  • Worrying that other people will notice your perceived defect or think that you’re unattractive
  • Trying to hide perceived flaws with makeup, cosmetic surgery, or certain clothes
  • Seeking reassurance and affirmation from others about your appearance 

If you believe that you or someone you know may have BDD, consult the expertise of a mental health professional.

Causes of BDD

Though there’s no set cause for body dysmorphic disorder, most mental health professionals agree that it all comes down to a combination of social and environmental factors. This could include peer pressure, family members or guardians who have instilled low self-esteem into their children by constantly critiquing their physical appearance, abnormal brain functioning, traumatic events, and the fact that we live in a society that equates physical appearance with beauty.

Risk Factors for BDD

Body dysmorphic disorder usually develops by early adulthood and can affect both men and women.

Certain factors may increase the chances that someone develops BDD, such as:

  • Having a family history of mental health disorders (i.e. eating disorders, anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder)
  • Having underlying mental health problems
  • Experience with bullying, teasing, or childhood neglect
  • Societal expectations of beauty

How Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder Diagnosed?

Diagnosing BDD is important if you believe you are suffering from the disorder. This will ensure you receive a correct diagnosis and will allow mental health professionals to screen you for any additional mental health disorders that may be contributing to your BDD. 

If you receive a positive diagnosis for BDD, the kind of treatment that you’ll be recommended will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • The severity of your condition
  • Your age, existing mental health state, and medical history 
  • Your tolerance to specific medications or procedures
  • Your preferences
body dysmorphic disorder

How Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder Treated?

According to NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), BDD treatment may consist of a combination of medication and therapy. Let’s take a closer look at each treatment approach.


In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe a medication known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can help reduce symptoms of BDD by disrupting brain chemicals – otherwise known as neurotransmitters – with serotonin. Your doctor will monitor your medication for the first few weeks to see if any symptoms crop up and whether or not SSRIs are right for you.

If SSRIs are not producing any noticeable effects, you may be prescribed a common antidepressant called clomipramine. This will only usually happen if no improvements have been made within twelve weeks. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Classified as a type of talk therapy, CBT is focused on helping you better manage your emotions and triggers. During therapy sessions, your therapist will walk you through BDD to help you better understand your condition and form healthier habits. The whole purpose of cognitive-behavioral therapy is to work through negative thoughts and replace them with positive associations and behaviors. 

In some CBT sessions, you may also be introduced to exposure and response prevention (ERP), a technique that’s used to help people with BDD face triggering situations head-on. ERP involves confronting situations that would normally make you feel anxious, self-conscious, or consumed with your appearance. The purpose of ERP is to get you accustomed to the emotions you feel during these situations and give you the tools needed to manage your feelings in healthy ways.

Group and Family Therapy

Group therapy, particularly family therapy, is an excellent way for those suffering from body dysmorphic disorder to voice their feelings and help their family better understand what they’re going through. It’s also a safe space for family members to open up and voice their concerns, all the while being guided by a therapist.

What Happens If Body Dysmorphic Disorder Is Left Untreated?

If you believe that you or someone you know may be struggling with body dysmorphic disorder, it’s key that you try to help as soon as possible. The earlier you can start treatment, the easier it will be for you to recover within a quicker time period. 

If you leave BDD untreated, however, certain complications may arise, such as:

  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Depression or other mood disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts and tendencies 
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Health and hygiene problems from repetitive behaviors such as skin picking

Can You Prevent Body Dysmorphic Disorder?

Though there’s no set way to prevent body dysmorphic disorder, there are a few things that individuals and society as a whole can do to ease the pressure such as educating young people on BDD and the importance of healthy and realistic attitudes to physical appearance. We also need to make clear to those suffering from body-image or self-esteem issues that they can seek help and that their problem is just as valid as any other mental health condition.

Tips for Living With Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Though body dysmorphic disorder can easily be treated, there are a few things you can do to accelerate your recovery and ease your symptoms as you work through treatment.

Practice Self-Care

Try to take time out to look after yourself and prioritise your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Something as simple as practising meditation or mindfulness can go a long way in easing stress and helping you focus on the present. You may also find journaling a helpful release to get your emotions and thoughts on a page, as well as spark your creativity. It’s also important to keep on top of your overall health, so make sure you eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep.

Join Support Groups

You might find it helpful to join support groups for those with body dysmorphic disorder. Not only will this give you a chance to open up and make friends, but it will show you that you’re not alone in your journey. You may even find inspiration from those who have already recovered and share coping tips and strategies with one another.

Use Self-Help Resources

You may find self-help tools and resources beneficial. These can help you better understand your condition and give you valuable tips for dealing with triggers and stressful situations.

Compassionate and Caring Mental Health Treatment at The Wave

Here at The Wave, we understand just how complex and sensitive the topic of body dysmorphia is. That’s why we’ll never judge you or treat you like a ‘case’ – you’ll always be treated with respect and care. Our mental health professionals have a lot of experience in BDD and will work with you to create a personalised treatment plan. After all, no two cases of body dysmorphic disorder are the same – everyone will have their own unique experiences and triggers. Alongside BDD, we also treat a wide range of other mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, amongst others.

For more information, please get in touch with our care team who will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have and help walk you through the admissions process.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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