“How can a therapist help with a physical problem? Why should I go to a mental health professional instead of a medical doctor or cosmetic surgeon?”
It may seem counterintuitive but mental health professionals, such as therapists and psychiatrists, are very helpful in dealing with the way you see yourself.
Understanding Body Image
Your body image is the picture you have in your mind about the way you look. It includes your beliefs, thoughts and assumptions about your appearance and develops and changes throughout your lifetime. It’s a complex phenomena that can also be influenced by many factors. You may have noticed that the mental picture you hold of yourself can change with your moods and thoughts. For example, on days when you feel better you may think you look better or when you give less importance to the way you look, you may feel better. On days when you are feeling depressed or have more stressed, you may judge your reflection in the mirror as more negative.
The Role of a Mental Health Professional
You probably have gone to dermatologists (to exam your skin) and perhaps even seen a cosmetic surgeon without much success. Research shows that most individuals with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) have been seeing a dermatologist for almost ten years before they finally visit a therapist. They do everything a dermatologist tells them to do only to find out it doesn’t help them feel or look any better. Many hope to get surgery, others see it as only a dream and still others are wondering if that is their only choice. For those who have gone through surgery, they know that it has not helped them to feel any better. They have wasted money and hope for a better life, only to find themselves in the same situation, if not worse. Most individuals with BDD seek treatment from other professionals before psychological or psychiatric therapy is recommended.
The importance of psychological and psychiatric treatment is that it can be helpful in shifting the way you think, feel about yourself, and behave. Ultimately, it can change the impression you have about your appearance. Both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications specific for body dysmorphic disorder can help.
What to Expect From Treatment
Getting help does not mean accepting feeling bad about the way you look. It does not mean walking around feeling “awful” and “horrible” about yourself. It does not mean accepting viewing yourself as “ugly” or “unattractive”. Nor does it mean living a meaningless life. On the contrary, cognitive behavioral therapy means learning ways to help you view your life and your appearance differently. It means empowering you to create a different life for yourself. It means helping you see and imagine a different way of living, achieving your goals, and living your life according to your goals. Medications that are recommended for BDD can also help you view your appearance more accurately and improve your quality of life.
You may wonder, how can I ever achieve my goals if I look the way I do? CBT will help you to emphasize your goals and achieve them, be it school, work, dating or playing an instrument. It does not matter what you want out of life, you will get closer to it by therapy. CBT will teach you to face your fears slowly, in a manner that you can handle. It will help you challenge your thoughts and get you to think more flexibly and adaptively.
Medications can also be helpful by helping you to help yourself. Medications make it easier to cope with life’s difficulties. It helps you handle what is being asked of you in CBT. Some people do well with both.
Whatever it is you choose to do, CBT is a core part of achieving your goals.
by Fugen Neziroglu, PhD