My Mental Health: Body Dysmorphic Disorder

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about my experience with eating disorders, and briefly mentioned Body Dysmorphic Disorder (also known as BDD or simply dysmorphia). Through my own experience with it, dysmorphia is like walking through a very long corridor of funhouse mirrors, and every mirror shows you something different, depending on how your dysmorphia is affecting you that day. It might be your teeth, or your nose, or your thighs, or even something that’s never crossed your mind before. That’s too large, that’s too small, that needs covered up – the list of grievances seems endless.

As it is a mental illness, Body Dysmorphic Disorder can go hand-in-hand with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders. As I suffer from or am in recovery from most of these, I’ve found that they do try and feed off of each other. For example, if I’m having an anxious day, I may have a harder time keeping my dysmorphia under control.

The NHS’s page on dysmorphia defines it as follows: Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance.

I found this website to be particularly helpful during the early stages of research. It includes a list of symptoms, possible causes and treatment options. Further research brought me to the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation’s website. Here I found a more detailed insight into dysmorphia, including stories from people who suffer from it and are now in recovery, a questionnaire that may help you figure out if it is dysmorphia that you have, as well as an FAQ about symptoms and help available.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this disorder, but having had years of experience with it, I know first-hand what I’m talking about. That being said, how it affects me or my own coping mechanisms may not help you, and you may need to take a different route through recovery than I have.

Listed below are a few self-care tips and methods that I use to cope with my dysmorphia on a day-to-day basis. As dysmorphia can be tricky to deal with, like any mental illness, some days these methods may work better than on others.

1. Music. I find that music helps me a great deal, especially when I’m getting ready for the day. Right now, I find that Fall Out Boy is especially helpful to listen to, particularly their song I Don’t Care. Sometimes when I am suffering from sensory overload (when my senses are being bombarded by sound, or too much light), I find instrumental music, such as Trip Hop, very helpful and there are a number of bands and songs to be found on YouTube. n e v e r by palence is one of my favourites.

2. Water. This may seem like a very obvious one, and it’s one that you’ll find plastered everywhere, but there’s a reason for it. I find that if I’m not well-hydrated, I’ll have a harder time performing the most basic tasks, especially decision-making, and this is where anxiety often finds its opening. Decision-making during an anxiety attack is a nightmare, and for me it can very quickly lead to confusion, panic and abandonment of whatever plans I was making, from going out to see friends to even making food. With my history of eating disorders, this can be a particularly dangerous problem, and I won’t be able to eat until I’ve calmed down, which can take a while. To combat this, I try to make sure that I always have a bottle of water with me, as something as small as a few regular sips of water can save me a lot of trouble.

3. Food. Like water, food plays an essential role in keeping anxiety at bay. Of course, as dysmorphia is a physically based disorder, it may try to convince that you don’t need to eat, and I’ve found that this has happened to me a fair few times. When this happens, the best thing to do is to eat something small, such as a banana or a breakfast bar to stave off any oncoming anxiety. I’ve found that once I do this, food isn’t as much of a big deal as it was a few moments ago.

4. Be Yourself. In a world dominated by social media, Photoshop and editing apps, and magazines filled with make-up and dieting advice, it can be very easy to get caught up in it all and let it take over your life. We’re told from every angle that we need to be prettier, we need to be thinner, have clearer skin, better hair, straighter teeth – it’s exhausting. Living with dysmorphia only serves to heighten this problem. Many of us like to wear make-up, or style our hair in a specific way, or wear corsets or heels or push-up bras – a never-ending list of products to make us look taller, thinner, more pristine, as close to perfection as we can possibly push ourselves. As great as these can be – I personally adore vintage styles and experimenting with different looks – it is vital to your own mental health, as well as coping with dysmorphia, that you take time to be yourself. No make-up, no fancy hair, no corset – just regular, bare-faced you. I find that the longer that I spend all made-up and “perfect”, the harder a time I have adjusting to what I actually look like underneath it all. To make this easier, try and schedule in some self-care around this time – a hot bath, or a good book, or whatever you do to take care of yourself – and you will begin to associate being yourself with nice things.

5. Mirrors. With dysmorphia, mirrors are both a blessing and a curse. I’ve found that on my bad days, I can spend over an hour throughout the day looking at myself and trying to fix my perceived flaws with my fingers or make-up, or taking photos of myself to see how I look to other people. As hard as it is, when bad days come, for me, it’s best to stay away from mirrors and photos, because I know that I won’t be happy with what I see no matter what. On good days, when I’m more relaxed, I like to spend a little time looking at myself and deciding what I like about myself. Now I know this sounds very cliched, but I’ve found that it does help. Realistically, when your anxiety is calling you names and telling you that you’re any number of horrible things, what do you actually gain from it, other than more self-loathing? Nothing. Nothing at all. I’m not saying within a week you should be shouting how much you love yourself from the rooftops (if only it were that easy!), but even starting with the smallest things can help to make a big difference. For example, I’ll start with “I like the shape of my collarbones” and maybe I won’t get any farther than that, but it’s a start. The important thing is not to push it. Don’t force yourself to say nice things if it begins to make you anxious and upset. Some days I’ll have something as tiny as “I may not like the shape of my stomach, but I like that it lets me enjoy my favourite food and helps keep me alive”. It might sound silly, and your anxiety may scoff, but it’s helped me countless times.

I hope that this has been helpful in even the smallest way, and if I can provide any further help or guidance, I’d be more than happy to. Unfortunately I don’t know how to get rid of dysmorphia completely, but having some control over it is an incredible feeling, and I hope to keep gaining back control, just as I hope the same for whoever may be reading this.

And just remember:

You are not vain.

You are not shallow.

And you are most certainly not as alone as you might think.