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Mental Health Awareness Week: 10 things students with body dysmorphic disorder want you to know


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The 13th-19th May 2019 is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, so we wanted to discuss some conditions that are less well known and raise some awareness about them.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental illness in which a person continually obsesses over perceived aesthetic flaws in their appearance. According to OCD UK, body dysmorphia symptoms often overlap with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sufferers may frequently check themselves in the mirror, try to ‘pick off’ imperfections like beauty marks or constantly ask friends or those around them for reassurance. According to the NHS, these flaws are often unnoticeable to others.

Image credit: Public Domain Pictures, via Pexels

So what are ten things students with BDD want you to know? 

1. The anxiety we feel about how we look goes deeper than a bad hair day.

Our constant worrying about our appearance often manifests itself in daily occurrences. At university, this is anything from not wanting to talk to the person next to you for fear of criticism about your side profile, not wanting to raise your hand to answer a question as any attention given to you leaves you vulnerable for judgment, or refraining from socialising with fellow uni students as the thought of inadequacy compared to others in the social group is far too daunting.

2. We’re not self-obsessed or vain

For those with BDD, it’s common to continually ask for reassurance from friends, family or those around us. Many seemingly small parts of life can be triggers, for example, passing a shop window and suddenly feeling like our nose is the wrong shape, our skin is bumpy, our eyes are wonky, our hair is too thin; we have noticeable bald sports, or we look abnormal. The obsession can lead us to feel extremely low and in a never-ending cycle of trying to fit in and look ‘acceptable.’ It’s not being superficial; it's continuously intrusive thoughts telling us we’re inferior and don’t deserve to feel confident.

In university, video projects can be a constant worry that often seems trivial to others. Watching yourself back tends to become a breeding ground for anxiety - picking out flaws with our looks, how our face changes when we speak, if we look over/underweight, if our skin looks unhealthy. The list goes on.

3. Having constant anxiety about our appearance can often make us feel uncomfortable or ‘out of place’ in social situations

Sometimes (if not all the time for certain suffers of BDD) social settings like university house parties, concerts or just a gathering with friends can be a source of great worry. Freshers too can be a total nightmare - many sufferers know the exhausting effort of having to pick out outfits or get ready, but always feeling like something looks wrong. The fear of being criticised or judged outweighs the fun, so it’s common to avoid these situations entirely.

To alleviate this apprehensiveness, maybe invite a BDD-suffering friend round to get ready with you. Later on, stay nearby in case they want to go outside with you to have some space to breathe and feel assured that everything is fine. It may seem unnecessary, but it can also prove beneficial to tell them they’re doing really well. If they decide to leave early as it got ‘too much’, let them know that this is okay and that it still showed progress that they were able to attend. Respect our boundaries - healing starts with baby steps.

4.Reassure your friend that you’re by their side when confronted with meeting new people

If you’re with a friend who has BDD and you’re in a setting where you’re meeting new people or there are unfamiliar faces, don’t take it for granted that your friend will have the confidence to introduce themselves. Ease them into conversation with people by introducing them to others, try ‘This is my friend… She/he studies…. You two have a lot in common, she/he also loves…’

 5. Asking you to delete or not post that picture isn’t just so we look good on social media

Something as insignificant as a bad photo of us can make us reassess how we look for days, in many cases leading us to compare ourselves to others and trying to reason why we look so atypical. If we don’t want you to post that picture, it’s to stop us from obsessing over how other people on social media sites will look at us and consequently, mock or judge us. No one wants to feel like their insecurities are being laid bare.

6. Overthinking is a constant battle

‘Is that person staring at my nose?’ ‘Are they laughing because my hair is thin? ‘Did they compliment me as a joke?’ Walk with your friend to the class, make sure they've not sat alone in the canteen and try to involve them in conversation. Overthinking can make sufferers feel extremely vulnerable and as a result, make them turn to isolating themselves. Showing they’re not alone could reinforce the understanding that their inadequacy is an illusion.

 7. Group chats set up like ‘buddy-systems’ can lessen the dread of socialising

After my own experiences with body dysmorphia where I felt paranoid that others around me were judging and criticising my appearance - from the way I walk, stand or look - small gestures of friendship go a long way. Walking into lectures alone was often unnerving - big rooms of people can be overwhelming, but creating a WhatsApp group with friends to ensure there’s always someone to go in with you can provide a level of comfort that gives you a boost of confidence. The BDD foundation says that "BDD usually begins in late adolescence (16-18 years)" around the time teenagers are being exposed to new situations and experiencing rapid change, so knowing there's a support system when things get 'too much' is beneficial. 

8. Some days we can love ourselves, but there will be low days - as a friend it’s important to support us during both of these mindsets.

This should speak for itself. A healthy friendship presents an ongoing support network. It is there for your good days and it should still be there on your bad days. It’s important to know that you are loved even when you don’t feel enough; it is also important to know that there is no shame in reaching out for help or advice. As an ally, check up on your friends who struggle with any mental health issues in general - the positive impact of this can truly make a difference.

It’s also important to know when to distance yourself from ‘toxic’ or overly negative friendships that are more detrimental to your mental wellbeing than uplifting. 

 9. Building and maintaining friendships and romantic relationships can be a struggle 

It’s extremely important to have a group of friends that bring love, empathy, and laughter into your life. Whilst dating apps like Bumble and Hinge have made the world of romance easier to access than ever, with looks being an important element to ‘swiping’ and meeting others, this can be a nerve-wracking concept. I have often felt that partners were lying when they said they liked how I looked or came across and as a result, always had low self-esteem in both platonic and romantic relationships. Although you can’t completely eradicate these sentiments, empowerment is key. Know that you don’t need to seek other’s validation to feel good about yourself. Find comfort in your quirks or differences.

Be yourself, everyone else is taken - Oscar Wilde.

10. Studies have suggested people with the condition have a much higher suicide rate than the general population.

Too many of us put off (and still do) the seeking of professional help for fear of being labelled as merely conceited. But the reality is, that body dysmorphic disorder is treatable with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) If therapy doesn’t work, you may be prescribed anti-depressant medication. At first, opening up to a friend, professional or family member can seem a daunting prospect- but the road to recovery starts with communication and the rejection of stigma.

For more information about BDD visit the NHS website. If you think you are suffering with the disorder please see your GP. 

Lead image credit: Public Domain Pictures, via Pexels

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