person coping with body dysmorphia

Body Dysmorphic Disorder: How BDD Can Trigger Substance Abuse


Sober Recovery Expert Author

person coping with body dysmorphia

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental disorder that affects a person’s perception of themselves. Focusing on and critiquing a physical “flaw” that is typically invisible or unnoticeable to others is commonplace for people coping with this condition. This often involves obsessing over skin imperfections, hair, facial features, body weight, and image, muscles, and more.

People with BDD may feel overwhelmingly concerned with how they perceive a blemish, the appearance of their stomach, or the size of their musclesto the point where their mental health suffers and subsequently wreaks havoc on other important areas in their lives. While pinpointing an exact catalyst that triggers body dysmorphia has eluded professionals thus far, the existence of social media has been increasingly investigated in its correlation to the disorder.

What is body dysmorphia? And how does it relate to social media, mental health, and substance abuse?

Social Media and Body Image

The accessibility and popularity of social media give these platforms the power to influence millions—or even billions—of lives every day. Social Media is used to spread news, maintain relationships of any and every variety, influence voters for political campaigns, as well as sell products and even lifestyles. Since social media is such an effective medium for connecting with others, it is ideal for marketing and advertising.

Advertisers often use good-looking people with enviable features to sell products such as bathing suits, shampoos and conditioners, and dietary supplements. These social media campaigns are based on the perception that these products will enhance or improve one’s appearance. Tall and thin women might be used to advertise bikinis, crop tops, and other clothing, which may play at the insecurities of female consumers who have negative perceptions about their bodies. As a result, this may subconsciously convince consumers that weight loss is required to look good in such clothing. Overly muscular men might be used to sell protein powder or gym equipment, which may cause men with lesser muscle mass to feel inadequate, as well as a need to be noticeably strong in order to be desirable.

Image-conscious advertising can trigger consumers to compare themselves with models via platforms that have the capabilities to edit, airbrush, and filter photos. Therefore, BDD can be exacerbated by comparisons to people whose appearances have been significantly altered. As well, even if the photos are unedited, this advertising tactic feeds on unnecessary comparison—inviting consumers to critique parts of themselves to which they otherwise might not have ever paid attention.

BDD and Mental Health

People who suffer from BDD are often so fixated on their perceived flaw(s) that symptoms of other mental illnesses can intermingle with their preexisting disorder. Affected individuals tend to be so overwhelmed and encapsulated by the way they perceive themselves that they may not feel comfortable being seen in public. They may develop anxiety, which can negatively affect important aspects of their lives—including job performance, health, and relationships with family and friends. Neglecting or avoiding participation in these typically fulfilling areas of one’s life can also trigger or mimic symptoms of depression.

BDD and Substance Abuse

Body dysmorphia can be so hard to cope with that people may turn to unhealthy practices or substances just to deal with the perpetual negativity marinating in their brains.

Addictions can be formed to substances or habits that ease this condition in any capacity. Alcohol is often abused to hinder inhibitions and provide comfort when being in public and socializing with others. Certain drugs may be abused for mood improvement, as pleasant feelings often elude sufferers of BDD. Stimulant drugs may be frequented (often by women) to limit appetite and avoid eating in the hopes of losing weight. Women might also develop eating disorders for this reason. Steroids, or even time in the gym, can be addicting for someone desperate to increase muscle mass.

The overuse of any of these coping mechanisms (among others) can lead to mental and physical instability and chemical dependencies that end up causing more harm than good.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder Treatment

While the exact cause of body dysmorphia and ways to completely derail it remain relatively elusive, there are several treatment options that have proven to be effective. Due to a lack of awareness and perhaps an unfortunate feeling of shame associated with the illness, many health experts concur that a copious amount of cases go undetected, undiagnosed, and untreated. However, as awareness is made and research is conducted, people with BDD have increasingly better chances of receiving effective treatment and subsequently improving their mental health.

BDD can be treated through therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Dual diagnosis treatment programs are recommended as an option for simultaneously treating a coinciding substance abuse disorder, as well as the following approaches:

  1. Challenging assumptions, or analyzing toxic/self-deprecating thought patterns and working to discredit, invalidate, and dismantle them.
  2. Thought acceptance, or accepting that these negative thoughts come and go, and working toward preventing these thoughts from eclipsing any positive ones.
  3. Trigger identification, or learning what sparks or exacerbates BDD and working toward limiting those interactions.
  4. Increased exposure, or trying to avoid ritualistic behaviors that only help a person cope with his, her, or their “flaw” by trying to minimize the attention drawn to it.

While there is still much to figure out about body dysmorphic disorder, there is enough information to help diagnose and treat people in need. Becoming familiar with associated symptoms and behaviors is important to make sure if you or someone you love is able to receive the necessary help.

If you or someone you know is seeking professional help, please visit our directory of mental health resources or call 800-891-8171 to start the path to recovery today.

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