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What is Dysmorphophobia?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Dysmorphophobia is a mental health disorder characterized by fears and obsessions about body image. Specifically, sufferers are overly concerned about particular elements of their appearance or anatomy. A person may focus on his or her hair, nose, eyes, buttocks, genitals, or any other part of the body. What sets dysmorphophobia apart from self-consciousness is the fact that defects are entirely perceived; blemishes are almost always minor or do not actually exist at all. Psychological counseling can help many people overcome their anxieties and learn how to enjoy daily life.

Experts are not certain about what causes dysmorphophobia. Most psychologists believe that the problem is likely caused by environmental factors, such as a person's culture, home life, and childhood experiences. People who were verbally or physically abused as children, teased at school, or taught that appearances are everything are at the highest risk of developing issues as teenagers or young adults. There is also research to suggest that an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin plays a role in the development of dysmorphophobia.

Dysmorphophobia can manifest differently for every person. In public, an individual might go out of her way to cover up a perceived defect with clothing or makeup. She might avoid social interaction or act very nervously when confronted by a friend or stranger. In private, it is common for a person to obsessively check her appearance in the mirror and complain constantly. Some people become so preoccupied that they decide to undergo unnecessary, expensive cosmetic surgeries in hopes they will feel better about themselves afterward.

Major body image issues can lead to other extreme problems. A person might withdrawal completely from friends and family and slip into a state of major depression. She may develop an eating disorder or turn to drugs and alcohol to numb her negative feelings. Work and school performance can suffer intensely as well. In severe cases, a person may develop suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

People with dysmorphophobia usually do not realize or accept that they have mental issues. Most only seek treatment after pleading from friends and family or instructions from concerned doctors. When a person is ready to get help, he or she can turn to trained psychologists and support groups. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven especially effective at helping patients recognize their behavior problems and take active steps to remedy them. Medications that stabilize serotonin levels in the brain are frequently prescribed as well to help with anxiety and depression issues.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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