Almost everyone has some self-image issues. Maybe you feel your thighs are too big, your hair is too frizzy, your waist isn’t small enough, or your muscles have no definition. In our culture that seems fixated on appearances, it can be hard to love your body and easy to find fault with it. But for those who suffer from body image disorder, a distorted internal perception of their body can make it virtually impossible to live a normal life. Thoughts about their physical imperfections can be persistent and intrusive, even when the perceived flaw is nonexistent. They believe their body is unacceptable, and that it should be hated and hidden. These feelings can grow and fester, interfering with social and/or occupational functioning and causing elevated levels of anxiety and depression, or the development of eating disorder behaviors.
Many people suffer from the condition without even realizing it. Body image disorder is equally prevalent among men and women, and it occurs all around the world. If you believe that you or someone you love may have body image disorder, it’s important to recognize the signs:
- Preoccupation with physical appearance
- Obsessively looking in the mirror or other reflective surfaces
- Grooming excessively
- Showing reduced or poor performance at work or school
- Utilizing extreme diet and exercise behaviors
- Undergoing numerous cosmetic surgery operations without satisfaction
- Avoiding social gatherings and social situations
- Comparing one’s physical appearance with others
- Feelings of extreme self-consciousness
- Spending a large percentage of time and thought on exercise, food, calories, and weight
- Wearing excessive makeup or clothing to camouflage perceived flaws
If you think you have body image disorder, don’t hesitate to seek help. There are effective treatment options that improve functioning and adaptability for people with body distortions to change faulty appearance-related beliefs. With the willingness to work toward a positive life again, it’s entirely possible to overcome body image disorder and have a healthy self-image.
So, how does this body image disorder thing get fixed? There are both therapy- and medication-based treatment options to help those with body image disorder. The goal of these treatments is to improve quality of life and overall day-to-day functioning, while also decreasing the distress associated with appearance concerns. Other treatments, such as nutrition counseling, exercise, and massage can all be helpful in forming a loving relationship with the body. In addition, there are a number of self-help behaviors that can bring significant symptom relief:
- Educate yourself. Learn all you can about body image disorder. Knowledge truly is power and it can motivate you to do whatever it takes to get better.
- Know your triggers. Talk to your medical professional about what situations or events may elicit your individual signs and symptoms. Ask him or her to help you formulate a plan of action if symptoms return.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol. They can worsen your symptoms and counteract the progress you’ve made in therapy.
- Stick to your treatment strategy. If you’re prescribed medication, take it as directed and don’t skip therapy sessions, even when you’re feeling better.
- Keep a journal. Write about obsessive thoughts associated with your body image disorder and share them with your medical professional. Don’t forget to record when you’ve successfully overcome the urges and negative thoughts, as well.
- Eat and rest. It’s important that you get enough sleep and that you maintain a healthy diet, as they contribute to both physical and mental health.
- Don’t isolate yourself. Take time to participate in activities you enjoy and to get together with friends and family.
- Learn stress reduction techniques. Ask your therapist to recommend stress management techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises.
If you think you have body image disorder, the best thing you can do is open up and talk about it with a friend, loved one, or medical professional. Bringing light to body image struggles is the best way to find freedom from them.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, Executive Director at The Body Image Therapy Center.