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How to Manage Intrusive Body Image Thoughts

If you are experiencing intrusive body image thoughts—whether occasionally or on a daily basis—these research-backed tips can help you break the cycle.

DETAILS

By Ziya Jones

Bodies aren’t always easy to live in—they never quite look or act exactly the way we want them to. Most of us have at least one feature or body part that causes us to feel insecure, and we inevitably get self-conscious about our appearance from time to time. Low body confidence is all too common: a 2019 survey by the Mental Health Foundation in the U.K. found that one in five adults feel shame about their bodies. About one third of respondents said they felt down or low, and 19 percent felt disgusted in relation to their body image. Unrealistic beauty standards perpetuated by the media, misinformation about weight and health, and the endless airbrushing of filters and editing apps have created a culture where anything less than “perfection” can lead to shame.

For some, intrusive body image thoughts can cause significant distress. People with Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD), for example, experience negative thoughts about their bodies so intensely and frequently that it reduces their daily quality of life. BDD exists on the OCD spectrum and usually develops during a person’s teenage years. It occurs in about 2.5 percent of men, and in 2.2 per cent of women. Those living with BDD tend to fixate on a specific small or imagined flaw like their weight, facial features or skin.

If you are experiencing intrusive body image thoughts—whether occasionally or on a daily basis— we’ve outlined research-backed tips below to help you break the cycle.

HOMEWORK

Identify your triggers

Pinpoint the situations and contexts that trigger concerns about your appearance, then limit your exposure to them. When negative thoughts come up, write down what you were doing, thinking or feeling before your concerns arose in order to identify your triggers. Common triggers include stress, lack of sleep and physical isolation. 

Too much time on social media is also frequently a culprit. Studies have shown that when participants view edited selfies of themselves or others,  they report lower levels of self esteem. The pandemic may have worsened these outcomes – during the months we were stuck inside, we missed out on interacting with real life people and their real life bodies. We got used to seeing curated and airbrushed versions of others instead. If looking at photos of your mutuals leaves you worried that you don’t stack up, remember: what you’re seeing on social media is usually a highly curated, and sometimes filtered, version of real life. 

Challenge—and reframe—your thought patterns

Distorted thinking happens when our minds try to convince us of something that isn’t true. Often, it serves to reinforce critical ideas we have about ourselves or our worth. You may have an intrusive thought like, “My skin is always horrible, no one will ever want to go out with me.” This is an example of black and white thinking (thinking in absolutes rather than seeing life as uncertain and constantly changing) and fortune telling (trying to predict the future).

When these negative statements come up, challenge them. Using the previous example, you might challenge the fortune telling aspect by saying, “I have no way of knowing whether people I am interested in will turn me down based on my appearance—I can’t predict the future.” Or you might challenge the black and white thinking by reminding yourself of moments when your negative thought wasn’t true, like when you took a selfie last week that you liked (skin and all). 

From there, try to reframe the thought in a way that’s less extreme. The goal is to arrive somewhere more moderate, such as: “I feel bad about my skin today, but I have no way of knowing that will stop future partners from finding me attractive. I’ve felt good about my appearance before, and I will get to that state again.” 

Be kind to your body 

Set aside time every day to do at least one thing that makes your body feel good. Activities can vary from day to day, and they don’t have to be complex. You might decide to take a warm bath, stretch, go for a massage, take a mindful walk, dance around your room, do yoga, drink a calming tea or have a nap. Listen to your body and show it compassion and care by giving it what it needs in the moment. These activities (and the structure that comes from scheduling them once or twice a day) can also reduce anxiety and provide distraction, two strategies that can help disrupt negative thought cycles. 

When to reach out for extra help 

If intrusive body image thoughts are causing you significant distress, it may be worth reaching out to a counselor, doctor or therapist for further support. If you spend hours a day fixated on negative thoughts, or if dysmorphia is interfering with your day to day life—preventing you from going to school or work, or causing you to want to isolate yourself socially, for example—a healthcare professional can help determine if you qualify for a BDD diagnosis. 

A professional can help to build a management plan that works for you. This may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you reframe negative thought patterns and lessen anxiety. It may also include a technique called exposure and response prevention. ERP requires you to confront your fears: a therapist may suggest you slowly face situations that would normally trigger intrusive body image thoughts and anxiety, and then help you find strategies to manage the negative thoughts and feelings that come up for you in those situations. 

While individual therapy can be expensive, group therapy can serve as an affordable way to learn CBT and ERP techniques. You can search for in-person support groups via The International OCD Foundation or try an online support group from The BDD Foundation and The Anxiety & Depression Association of America.

Cite Your Sources

“5 Tips for Managing Negative Body Image Thoughts,” Oliver-Pyatt Centers 

“Experiencing Body Dysmorphia Right Now? Here's Why And How To Deal,” Huffington Post

“Accept, distract, or reframe? An exploratory experimental comparison of strategies for coping with intrusive body image thoughts in anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder,” Psychiatry Res.

“Understanding Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD),” Anxiety and Depression Association of America 

“A Therapist’s Guide for the Treatment of Body Dysmorphic Disorder,” International OCD Foundation 

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