Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)?

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Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a common yet underrecognized body image disorder. People with BDD perceive themselves as looking ugly, unattractive, abnormal, or disfigured. But in reality they look normal. There's a profound mismatch between how they see themselves versus how other people see them.

People with BDD may worry, for example, that they have severe acne or that their skin is terribly scarred, that they're going bald, that their head is too big or too small, their nose is too big or crooked, or their thighs are too big. Men with the muscle dysmorphia form of BDD are preoccupied with the idea that their body build is too small or not muscular enough. But people with BDD can worry about any part of their body; the concerns listed here are just some examples. The appearance concerns cause significant emotional distress or interfere with day-to-day functioning.

What Are Some Other Symptoms of BDD?

People with BDD perform repetitive behaviors (also called "rituals" or "compulsions") in response to the distress that their appearance preoccupations cause. Excessive behaviors (and lifetime rates) include:

  • Comparing disliked body parts with the same areas on others: 88%
  • Checking disliked body areas in mirrors or other reflecting surfaces: 87%
  • Grooming (for example, applying makeup or cutting, styling, shaving, or removing head, facial, or body hair): 59%
  • Seeking reassurance about the perceived defects (for example, "Do I look okay?"): 54%
  • Touching the disliked areas to check them: 52%
  • Changing clothes (for example, to camouflage disliked areas): 46%
  • Dieting: 39%
  • Skin picking to improve perceived skin flaws: 38%
  • Tanning (for example, to darken skin that's considered too pale): 25%
  • Exercising: 21%
  • Lifting weights: 18%

Other common symptoms of BDD include:

  • Camouflaging the disliked areas to hide them - for example, with a hat, hair, hand, make-up, clothes, body position
  • Embarrassment and shame
  • A belief that other people take special notice of the person in a negative way because of how they look (for example, stare at them or make fun of them)
  • Social anxiety and social avoidance
  • Anxiety and depressed mood
  • Low self-esteem
  • Use of alcohol or street drugs to try to cope with BDD worries
  • Suicidal thinking and behavior

How Is BDD Different from Normal Appearance Concerns?

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Here are some key differences:

  1. Preoccupation: People with BDD not only dislike how parts of their body look - they're preoccupied with this. They obsess about it. Typically, they think about their perceived appearance flaws for hours a day.
  2. Emotional Distress and/or Interference in Functioning: The preoccupation with perceived appearance flaws causes significant emotional distress, such as depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, or even thoughts of suicide. Or, the appearance concerns interfere with the person's day-to-day functioning -- for example, make it hard to be around other people and participate in social activities, go to class or work, or do other activities. Some people with BDD think they look so ugly that they won't leave their house because they don't want other people to see them.

How Common Is BDD?

According to the best research studies, between 1.7% and 2.4% of the population currently has BDD. This means that millions of people in the U.S. alone have BDD. BDD is about as common as obsessive-compulsive disorder and more common than anorexia nervosa. But BDD often goes unrecognized and undiagnosed.

Who Gets BDD?

Anyone can get BDD. This condition occurs around the world. It affects people of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities. BDD usually starts during early adolescence.

How Serious Is BDD?

BDD is a serious disorder. It's associated with high rates of psychiatric hospitalization, and it can lead to suicide. Available research studies indicate that suicidal thinking and suicidal behavior are common in people with BDD. The good news is that effective treatments are available.

What If I Think I Might Have BDD Except I Think I Really Do Look Bad?

This is a common situation: a person obsesses about perceived appearance flaws, which causes them emotional distress or interferes with daily functioning. Yet, the person thinks they don't have BDD because they think they really do look abnormal or ugly (even though they actually don't). These individuals actually do have BDD.

By definition, people with BDD have a distorted view of how they look. BDD isn't a problem with how the person actually looks; it's a problem with how they see themselves - with their body image. In this way, BDD is like anorexia, where people believe they're fat even though they're actually extremely thin. Most people with BDD think that their view of their appearance is definitely or probably accurate. But in reality, the appearance flaws they perceive are minimal or nonexistent.

If you think you look abnormal but other people say you don't, I encourage you to be open-minded and find out if you have BDD. There's no downside to doing this. If you're diagnosed with BDD, I encourage you to try treatments that are often effective for this condition (see below). These treatments often substantially - sometimes dramatically - improve symptoms, functioning, quality of life, and sense of well-being.

What Treatments Work for BDD?

Scientific research studies have shown that two kinds of treatment are often effective:

  1. Medications called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (also known as SRIs, or SSRIs): These are medications that help stop obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors; they also often alleviate depression, anxiety, and other symptoms. They're usually well tolerated and are not habit forming. Often, higher doses are needed than are typically used for other conditions such as depression or anxiety.
  2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This "here-and- now" practical treatment helps change problematic BDD thoughts and behaviors. It's recommended that therapists use a CBT treatment manual that research studies indicate is effective and that's specifically tailored to BDD. Two such treatment manuals are available:
    1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Body Dysmorphic Disorder: A Treatment Manual, by Sabine Wilhelm, Ph.D., Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., and Gail Steketee, Ph.D. Published by Guilford Press, New York, NY, 2013
    2. Body Dysmorphic Disorder: A Treatment Manual, by David Veale, M.D., and Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D. Published by Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK, 2010

Medications and CBT are effective for a majority of people with BDD. These treatments usually improve appearance preoccupations and compulsive behaviors such as mirror checking and comparing. These treatments also usually help people feel more comfortable in social situations and less depressed and anxious. Some people improve when they're treated with an SRI alone or with CBT alone, whereas others benefit from receiving both treatments at the same time.

A majority of people with BDD get cosmetic procedures, such as surgery, dermatologic treatment, and dental treatment, for their BDD concerns. However, these treatments appear to almost never be helpful for BDD. Cosmetic treatment can even make BDD symptoms worse. Thus, cosmetic treatments, including surgery, aren't recommended for BDD.

What Causes BDD?

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The cause of BDD isn't yet known, but research studies suggest that BDD probably results from a complex combination of genetic predisposition/neurobiologic factors as well as life experiences and cultural factors. Brain imaging studies show that people with BDD overfocus on tiny details of a visual stimulus (such as a face) and have trouble seeing "the big picture." This may help explain why they zero in on tiny or even non-existent imperfections in their appearance that look horrible to them but minimal or non-existent to other people.

Hope for People With BDD

BDD can be severely distressing and impairing, to the point where some people commit suicide. But there is hope for people with BDD! Over the past 25 years, research scientists like myself have identified and developed treatments that help a majority of people get better. If you're diagnosed with BDD, I encourage you to try medication and/or therapy. These treatments can free you from your appearance obsessions and compulsive behaviors, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms.

For More Information About BDD

Please visit my website at RhodeIslandHospital.org/bdd and the website of the International OCD Foundation at https://iocdf.org/.

My books on BDD and on obsessive-compulsive and related disorders provide in-depth information about BDD:

Understanding Body Dysmorphic Disorder: An Essential Guide, by Katharine A. Phillips, M.D. (Oxford University Press, 2009): http://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Dysmorphic-Disorder-Katharine-Phillips/dp/0195379403/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1446415057&sr=8-1&keywords=katharine+Phillips

The Broken Mirror: Understanding and Treating Body Dysmorphic Disorder (Revised and Expanded Edition), by Katharine A. Phillips, M.D. (Oxford University Press, 2005): http://www.amazon.com/Broken-Mirror-Understanding-Treating-Dysmorphic/dp/0195167198/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1446415057&sr=8-3&keywords=katharine+Phillips

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Body Dysmorphic Disorder: A Treatment Manual, by Sabine Wilhelm, Ph.D., Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., and Gail Steketee, Ph.D. (The Guilford Press, 2013): http://www.amazon.com/Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy-Body-Dysmorphic-Disorder/dp/1462507905/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1446415057&sr=8-2&keywords=katharine+Phillips

Handbook on Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, edited by Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., and Dan J. Stein, M.D. (American Psychiatric Publishing, 2015): http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorders-Katharine-Phillips/dp/1585624896/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1446415057&sr=8-5&keywords=katharine+Phillips

The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys, by Harrison G. Pope, Jr, M.D., Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., and Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. (The Free Press, 2002): http://www.amazon.com/Adonis-Complex-Identify-Prevent-Obsession/dp/068486911X/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1446415800&sr=8-6&keywords=katharine+Phillips

Contact Me

I've spent the past 25 years evaluating and treating people with BDD and conducting research studies on BDD. This includes numerous treatment studies (both therapy and medication studies). If you'd like to see me for a one-time evaluation so I can give you treatment recommendations, or if you live in the New York City area and would like to see me for ongoing outpatient treatment, please contact us.

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Photo credits: Luigi Morante (woman fixing her hair), Fixers UK. Foter. CC BY-ND (young man in mirror), Gagilas (woman in mirror)