Imagine not being able to leave your house because you are terrified that people will stare at you. Imagine that you genuinely believe in your heart of hearts you are the ugliest, most repulsive person alive. Imagine seeing your own worst nightmare when you look in the mirror every day and having to find a way live with that – because that’s what people suffering with Body Dysmorphic Disorder have to go through every day.
BDD is a mental health disorder affecting 1/50 people. A person with BDD experiences extreme distress about their appearance because they believe they have highly noticeable flaw/s, even though to other people they look ‘normal’. It has been shown that people with BDD even process visual stimuli differently – they really aren’t seeing what you are! BDD can stop people from being able to live a normal life, go to school, work, form and maintain relationships, socialise, or even leave the house. As a former sufferer I have experienced firsthand how the disorder can be misunderstood which as you can imagine puts even more of a burden on the sufferer that the intense anxiety they are already experiencing.
If you know someone with BDD (and you probably do even if you dont know know it!) here are a few simple things you can do to make their lifes just a bit easier:
Research the condition
Many people don’t know anything about BDD even though it is a common and serious mental health condition. 2/ 100 people are estimated to have the disorder and of those diagnosed one quarter will attempt suicide. If you want to help someone with BDD the first step is to understand what you’re dealing with. A good website to start off with is the BDD Foundation which is a British charity founded to help people with BDD. Watch documentaries, read articles and people’s personal experiences- I particularly recommend The Broken Mirror by Katherine A. Phillips. Even if you mention Body Dysmorphic Disorder in conversations you may find someone who can tell you more about it! Education is power.
Ask For Permission Before Taking Photographs
Having someone point a camera towards someone with BDD can be one of the worst anxiety-provoking things you can do to to them. As the feature/s people with BDD are concerned about and the severity vary, some people with BDD may be okay with being photographed but it’s better to always ask first. Seeing certain photographs of myself have even triggered suicidal thoughts and induced panic attacks before so please don’t say things such as ‘you’re ruining the fun!’ or even a kind ‘but you look so pretty/handsome/attractive’. Respect their wishes – you have no idea how much distress a photograph could be causing your loved one.
Don’t just dismiss their feelings by saying ‘you look fine’
Some people with BDD may be very uncomfortable receiving compliments whilst others might not mind. But if a person confides in you that they find a body part distressing, telling them you like that part of them isn’t going to fix them. What is reassuring is telling them that you value them as a person regardless of what they might think of their appearance. A better thing to say might be:
‘I genuinely want to compliment your *feature* but I know that no matter what I say this is about your relationship with your body, not mine. I just want to remind you that I’m not seeing things the way you are seeing them and regardless I love you as a person and for your *insert awesome qualities they possess here*’
Some people with BDD might repeatedly seek assurance about their body part and it’s important that you don’t encourage this safety behaviour either. Again, reminding them they are valued for aspects other than their appearance is a good idea.
Understand that sometimes your loved one might cancel plans because doing that activity/ seeing those people is too much
It’s not because they don’t want to see you, rather they don’t want you to see them! A person with BDD may think they look so disgusting that if you saw them like this that you wouldn’t ever want to speak to them again! They fear intensely that you would find them so grotesque or may not want you to feel really sorry for them for ‘being so ugly’ and don’t want to be pitied. They might be too anxious to leave the house because they can’t stop thinking about their ‘defects’ or be unable to stop performing rituals much as looking in the mirror for hours, measuring body parts or retouching hair or makeup over and over. Accept that it’s not personal and they just have too much to deal with right now. If you can see them in an environment where the BDD sufferer is more comfortable with, that would be awesome! But don’t push it if they’re not okay with a situation. A qualified therapist can help to set goals to slowly expose sufferers to uncomfortable situations at a suitable pace for them as in individual.
Encourage them to talk if they want to
On some occasions BDD sufferers will want to be distracted, for good reason – the cage of BDD is like a prison and forgetting about the extreme and all consuming worry even for just one minute is such a relief – but also ignoring the condition isn’t very helpful. Often people are scared to say the wrong thing and don’t realise that they make sufferers feel worse by pretending their feelings don’t exist. Just letting them know that if they want to talk that you are there to listen can help enormously. Also, if your loved one isn’t getting professional support, suggesting that they do and offering to help them seek it could be life-changing. Because people with BDD think they are ugly they don’t want to be seen as vain or feel they are wasting their GP’s time (coupled with finding being around people really stressful) so many go without the support they deserve.
Half of the struggle of BDD is the misconceptions and the stigmas surrounding it so taking these steps into consideration could really make a difference to someone’s day!