Body Dysmorphia and the Limbic System




Published on

December 6, 2023


Updated on

April 4, 2024

Medically Reviewed by

Ben Ahrens, HHP

Other Conditions

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), also commonly known as body dysmorphia, is a condition that involves body image misperceptions whereby the person focusses obsessively on perceived flaws, which can be extremely debilitating as well as life-altering. Body dysmorphia is considered a mental health disorder, similarly to obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD and eating disorders, and it can be brought upon or triggered in a few different ways.

This article will cover:

  • Signs and symptoms of BDD
  • The brain’s role in body dysmorphia
  • Similarities and difference between BDD and anxiety disorder
  • Perfectionism and other commonly associated personality traits  
  • Uses and limitations of various interventions such as
  • cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT
  • Antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs
  • Neuroplasticity brain retraining

What is the Limbic System?

The limbic system is a critical region in the brain that is responsible for maintaining homeostasis, solidifying memories, and enacting the instinctual processes that help keep us safe when confronted with a threat. However, the limbic system can also become stuck in a negative feedback loop long after the event that provoked it has passed, and when this happens, a person can be met with overwhelming stress, anxiety, and depression, among other negative symptoms. In this article, we’re going to have a more in-depth discussion about BDD and how it relates back to limbic system impairment, as well as how implementing brain training exercises can help diminish the symptoms associated with BDD. Through strengthening the neural connections in the brain regions that are correlated with this disorder, it may be possible to overcome BDD.

What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder is commonly characterized by false perceptions of one’s body image, and it is often paired with intrusive and obsessive thoughts regarding how one looks. This disorder is unfortunately common, affecting both men and women equally, and at least 5 million Americans each year suffer from it[1]. People that struggle with BDD are typically heavily fixated on certain body parts or general aspects of their physical appearance such as: weight, skin, hair, and facial features. Even though others do not necessarily notice any of these aspects that someone with BDD is very aware of, it’s not uncommon for the person that is struggling with this disorder to isolate themselves socially.

Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder

While everyone’s experiences with BDD are unique to themselves, some of the most frequently experienced symptoms of body dysmorphia include:

  • Obsessing over the “perceived defect” of a particular body part
  • Low self-esteem
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Repetitively checking mirrors or avoiding mirrors at all cost
  • Impacted work, social, and home life because public and social settings may often be avoided altogether, similar to somehow struggling with social anxiety disorder
  • Skin picking
  • Attempts to cover and hide the body
  • Relentless exercising
  • Attempting to alter appearance through various means including cosmetic surgery

It’s easy to see how BDD can be completely overwhelming and how it can start to consume one’s life when not addressed. These symptoms can create the vicious cycle that ends up enabling and worsening other symptoms, making the obsessions and stress more severe[2].

Causes and Risk Factors of Body Dysmorphia

When it comes to body dysmorphia, a mixture of different factors are generally at play that end up causing this disorder. It’s believed that genetics, the environment, and overall psychological aspects are the key influences of body dysmorphia[2]. There is no single known cause, and each person with this disorder will have a completely different background and circumstance than someone else. History of BDD within the family, experiences during childhood, societal factors (such as media exposure), as well as brain chemistry can all be determining factors associated with this condition.

Diagnosis and Treatments for Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia, unfortunately, goes undiagnosed in many cases, even though it is prevalent across various demographics. The reason for this may be due to the fact that when someone is struggling with the highly negative perceptions of their appearance, they are much less likely to reach out for help[3]. There are therapies and medications available to help regulate the symptoms of body dysmorphia, but the most constructive course of action is to address the problem at the source, which is oftentimes an impaired limbic system.

Brain scans done on individuals with BDD have indicated that there is abnormal brain connectivity present in the white matter, and have also suggested that there seems to be a link between severity of symptoms and volumes of brain matter in critical components within the limbic system[4].

It’s understood that a large aspect of body dysmorphia is related to weak neural connections in significant regions of the brain, which can result in the misperceptions and obsessions over one’s appearance. Neuroplasticity training programs, such as education and guidance we offer at re-origin, can aid in identifying the specific issues at hand and help rewire and train the brain to no longer zero in on and obsess over the aspects of one’s appearance.

Body dysmorphia, along with other mental disorders and chronic illnesses, can be eased significantly through science-backed neuroplasticity training. There is indication in [5] that visual-based neuroplasticity training may help alleviate BDD, especially when used in conjunction with other therapies. An overstimulated limbic system can unfortunately create a host of health problems that put the body and mind through undesired stress, but always keep in mind that it’s not you, but rather a temporary brain state, and we are here to help you every step of the way in regaining your health and mental wellbeing back to where it should be.

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