How to Support a Loved One with Body Dysmorphia

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Body dysmorphia is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). An individual suffering from body dysmorphia perceives gross imperfections with their appearance. These imperfections are often imaginative or too subtle to be noticed by anyone else. However, for people with body dysmorphia they are occupying a big portion of their everyday life causing.

Image Credit: LightField Studios / Shutterstock
Image Credit: LightField Studios / Shutterstock

Body dysmorphia is challenging people who suffer from it. It is also hard for the family and friends of the person with body dysmorphia. It is important to recognize that body dysmorphia is a diagnosable mental disorder.

You might hold some misconceptions about body dysmorphia. Learning more and working on understanding the disorder is the first step you need to take in order to help a loved one suffering from body dysmorphia.

Symptoms of Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia affects men and women equally. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 1.7 to 2.4 % of the population is affected by body dysmorphia.

The symptoms characterising the condition usually reveal themselves in the teen years. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), the symptoms of body dysmorphia include obsessive thoughts about one’s appearance and compulsive behaviours targeting these thoughts.

The obsessive worries are intrusive, negative thoughts about one’s body, more often associated with the face, skin, hair or genitals. Individuals with body dysmorphia engage in compulsive, repetitive behaviours to alleviate the negative thoughts that they have. These behaviours include seeking reassurance about one’s appearance, mirror checking or avoiding looking at mirrors, skin picking, hair grooming.

These symptoms describe the psychological profile of the mental condition. Any treatments targeting body dysmorphia take into account this general characterisation of the disorder. However, each case is taken up individually as symptoms tend to vary vastly among people.

It is vital to understand the symptomatology of body dysmorphia if you want to help a loved one experiencing these symptoms. Body dysmorphia can, in some cases, lead to avoidance of social interactions of any kind and make personal relationships challenging. Thus, understanding the condition is the first step towards helping someone who is struggling with it.

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How can you Support a Loved One Struggling with Body Dysmorphia?

Friends and family are an integral part of one’s life. Having someone that you can count on is very important when you’re going through difficult times. It can be extremely hard seeing a loved one suffer from any condition.

Being able to help is everyone’s wish when it comes to the people we love the most. Obsessive worries and compulsive thoughts occupy the most of people suffering from body dysmorphia’s life.

However, there are a number of ways in which you can help them:

  • You should try to accept their feelings. You need to accept the feelings of a person with body dysmorphia and most importantly to understand that these feelings are very hard to cope with and even though you might not see what they see, the feelings regarding their appearance are real for them. Do not judge them as self-obsessed.
  • Be a good listener. Open a safe space to talk. People with body dysmorphia can find it hard to acknowledge and share their thoughts and feelings in most cases because they find them embarrassing. You should understand that talking is the first step in seeking help thus you should do your best to be there for your friend or family member.
  • Help them seek treatment and support. In many occasions people experiencing mental health problems reach out to family and friends first before they seek professional advice. This means that the support that you can offer is very valuable. It is important to know that you do not require any special training to be able to emotionally support a loved one with body dysmorphia. Just being there and doing small things can be extremely valuable.
  • Support them in their self-help practices. Simply by accompanying a person with body dysmorphia to their self-help sessions or to their therapists can be very valuable for them.
  • Offer practical support. By giving a hand with practical issues such as household chores or childcare you can give a person with body dysmorphia more time to attend self-help sessions or therapy sessions.
  • Acknowledge small wins. Living with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours is very challenging and celebrating e.g. the less time spent engaging in a certain behaviour can motivate the person with body dysmorphia.
  • Learn what triggers compulsive behaviours. Certain situations can be very difficult and can provoke repetitive behaviours. Although sometimes situations like that cannot be avoided doing your best to gradually work the situation out can be of a lot of help.
  • Try not to get involved into debates regarding appearance issues and encourage people to do the same.

Although it can be quite challenging and sometimes distressing being close to someone who suffers from body dysmorphia, a lot of support and resources are available that can help you and your loved one cope with the daily struggles that the disorder poses.

Most importantly, you should remember that at the end of the day the emotional support that you can offer is the first step towards making the life of your loved ones better.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Sep 5, 2019

Clare Knight

Written by

Clare Knight

Since graduating from the University of Cardiff, Wales with first-class honors in Applied Psychology (BSc) in 2004, Clare has gained more than 15 years of experience in conducting and disseminating social justice and applied healthcare research.


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