Anxiety and Body Dysmorphia
When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Let's put it another way, what do you focus on? According to Professor Kieron O'Connor of the University of Montreal, many thousands of people have such an unhealthy and illogical preoccupation with a part of their body that it affects all aspects of their life. "Sufferers are convinced that part of their body is abnormal... they have difficulty separating what is real from what is not."
People who suffer with anxiety appear to be more prone to the condition. O'Connor has even estimated the parts of the body that constitute the most concern. These are the skin (73%), hair (56%), the nose (37%), the belly and weight generally (22%) and the chest (22%). "It's as if these people are looking at themselves in a mirror that deforms their image," says O'Connor.
Dysmorphia is the term given to the condition where people believe some part or parts of their body is flawed. They may focus a great deal of their time on studying the ‘problem' in the mirror. They may frequently seek the opinion of others but could just as easily go to great lengths to cover over or distract attention away from the offending body part. Some go as far as having cosmetic surgery to correct the perceived problem, despite the fact that some other feature might appear to others to have a more obvious priority - if at all.
"This problem can affect all aspects of life, work, studies and love and family relationships," says O'Connor. "It can stop someone from going out, or at least hiding the body part about which he or she is obsessing."
What might be regarded as normal dissatisfaction with physical appearance generally seems to affect women more than men. In the case of dysmorphia, equal numbers of men and women seem to be affected.
One example of male dissatisfaction is seen in a condition called muscular dysmorphia. Sometimes called ‘bigorexia', this is a condition thought to affect many thousands of men. The condition is associated with anxiety, low self-worth and lack of self-confidence. Men will bulk up their muscles by spending hours at the gym and using every moment of their free time to exercise.
As the condition progresses, men become more preoccupied with diet, drinks and lifestyle. They will spend many hours checking their physique in the mirror. However, this is not for vanity as it relates to an acute dissatisfaction with the physique. The body is not shown off in the way a body-builder or weight lifter might, but is hidden away. Such is the preoccupation with physical development that it takes priority over personal relationships, work and social activities.
Dysmorphia is often a hidden problem but those who turn for treatment will probably undergo some form of cognitive therapy. Professor O'Connor uses this to focus on the reasons why a person is so critical about aspects of their appearance. Whilst it is important to minimize the anxiety associated with the condition it is a central concern of therapy to confront the beliefs that underpin and maintain the problem.