What Is Dysmorphophobia?

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What Is Dysmorphophobia?

Dysmorphophobia, or the fear of deformity, is a term for a condition that is now known as body dysmorphic disorder. Body dysmorphic disorder is a somatoform disorder in which sufferers imagine bodily imperfections.​

Dysmorphophobia is a broad term that encompasses multiple specific fears. Some people are afraid of becoming deformed or disfigured, while others fear those who have a disfiguring condition. Some expectant parents worry that their child will be born with a deformity.

People who have this fear may focus on many areas of the body, or they may become very concerned about perceived deformities or imperfections related to a specific area of the body. Common areas of concern include facial features, body symmetry, hair, and muscularity.

Symptoms

People with dysmorphophobia often experience intrusive thoughts related to a perceived deformity or a fear of one. For example, they might become excessively concerned or distressed about a scar or mole. Such thoughts not only intrude unexpectedly, they also lead to significant distress and changes in behavior. 

Some of the symptoms that a person might experience include:

  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of certain situations
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Depression
  • Discomfort
  • Engaging in actions meant to hide or disguise the perceived flaw
  • Making comparisons with others
  • Seeking cosmetic procedures to "fix" the flaw but not feeling satisfied with the results
  • Seeking reassurance from others

Diagnosis

Dysmorphophobia was first described by an Italian psychiatrist in 1891. This condition was first included in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but was later changed to body dysmorphic disorder in a later revision. 

In order to be diagnosed, your doctor will assess your symptoms. You might be diagnosed with BDD, but your doctor will also rule out other conditions. Other conditions that may cause similar symptoms include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and eating disorders.

Causes

The exact causes of dysmorphophobia are not fully understood, but several different factors are believed to play a role. Some possible causes that can contribute include:

  • Bullying
  • Brain abnormalities
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Low self-esteem
  • Social relationships
  • Societal and media influences
  • Trauma and abuse
  • Triggering events

Research has also found that body dysmorphic disorder also commonly co-occurs with other mental health conditions. For example, studies have found that around 60% of people with BDD also develop an anxiety disorder at some point during their lives.

Types

Body dysmorphic disorder often centers on some common areas of concern, although it can involve specific parts of the body or more general worries about imperfections and the fear of deformity. Symptoms often center on:

  • Breasts
  • Facial features
  • Genitals
  • Hair on the body or head
  • Nose size
  • Skin imperfections such as acne, freckles, scars, and wrinkles
  • Thighs

In some cases, the fear of deformity in others is based on medical fears. People who have germ phobia, hypochondria, or nosophobia may be at particular risk for this type of fear, but it can occur in anyone. Some disfigurements are caused by communicable diseases such as leprosy. Although these diseases are now readily treatable, they have been stigmatized for centuries. A lack of understanding may increase the fear of other people's deformities or disfigurements.

Treatment

People who have dysmorphophobia often do not seek help from a mental health professional. Instead, they commonly seek treatment from plastic surgeons, dermatologists, dentists, hairstylists, and other professionals in order to fix their perceived physical problems. 

However, treatments are available that can relieve the symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder. If you develop an unhealthy obsession with your own appearance or that of a loved one, seek professional assistance.

Like most phobias, dysmorphophobia responds well to a variety of mental health treatments. Left untreated, the phobia could worsen, gradually limiting your daily life and preventing you from connecting with others.

Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach that may be used to treat body dysmorphic disorder. CBT helps people learn how to identify the automatic negative thoughts that contribute to their fears of deformity and imperfections. Once they recognize these thoughts, they then practice finding ways to replace those thoughts with more positive, realistic ones.

Medications

Doctors may sometimes prescribe medications to help with some of the symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder. These may include antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which have been shown to help reduce some of the symptoms of BDD. However, medications such as these are most effective when they are used in conjunction with psychotherapy.

Coping

If you are experiencing symptoms of dysmorphophobia, there are things that you can do that may make it easier to cope. Some strategies you might try include:

  • Avoid comparing yourself to others: While it can be difficult to manage, finding ways to stop making social comparisons can help you to feel less fixated on your own body. If you notice yourself engaging in comparisons, look for ways to reframe your thoughts in more positive ways.
  • Practice relaxation strategies: Finding ways to relax and care for yourself can help reduce some of the stress associated with symptoms of dysmorphophobia. Strategies such as meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness may be helpful.
  • Practice positive self-talk: Rather than focusing on your negative evaluations of yourself, make it a point to notice your positive qualities. When unhelpful, critical thoughts pop up, turn your attention to more helpful ones.
  • Focus on acceptance: No matter your appearance, you should focus on practicing self-acceptance. It can also be helpful to work on accepting others as they are. By being less critical, you may find that your focus on perceptions of imperfection is less noticeable. Show compassion to yourself and others.

A Word From Verywell

Dysmorphophobia is often relieved through exposure and experience. When these fears are centered on deformities and disfigurement, learning more about them can help lessen symptoms of fear and anxiety. For people experiencing body dysmorphic disorder, it is important to get treatment in order to help relieve the distress and intrusive thoughts that can interfere with a person's ability to function normally.

If you or a loved one are struggling with body dysmorphic disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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