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Bigorexia: How to Recognize Muscle Dysmorphia in Teens

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

In today’s time, where social media is all the craze, we are bombarded with images and videos of “models” and the concept of having a “perfect body” online, which can lead to things like bigorexia and muscle dysmorphia.

If you search online, it is easy to find tips on how to attain a certain physique, such as different types of diets and workout routines. But extreme diets and workout regimens can be unsafe for some teens’ physical and mental health.

And let’s face it, mental health is a major issue these days (not only for teens but adults as well).

Bigorexia — or muscle dysmorphia as it is medically called — is a worrisome condition that some teenage boys and adult men face. It is a health condition that makes you constantly think about building muscle. For many, they will look in the mirror and think they aren’t big enough. They will continue to strive to add more and more muscle but will never be fully satisfied with the amount of muscle they possess and, in their head, will view themselves as small and lacking muscle mass.

Bigorexia is mainly found in young adults. All teenagers are at risk of some degree of body dissatisfaction. It is linked with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substant abuse, and problems with work, relationships, and school.

What is Bigorexia?

Bigorexia is a type of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is a mental health condition in which someone becomes obsessed with flaws in their appearance, such as a perceived “defect” in their physical features. They may spend hours each day focusing on this perceived flaw and worrying about it.

BDD can lead people to engage in compulsive behaviors, such as excessive grooming or exercising. They may also seek cosmetic surgery or take steroids to try to improve their appearance.

Bigorexia differs from anorexia because people with bigorexia are concerned primarily with their muscularity rather than their weight. However, they may still be concerned about how much they weigh (such as wanting to be as heavy as bodybuilders or fitness models they see online).

Research shows that 25% of teen males worry about insufficient muscle mass. Another study involving 149 boys aged 11-18 found that close to one-third were not satisfied with how their bodies looked.

The Symptoms of Bigorexia

The main symptoms of bigorexia include:

  • Obsession with appearance, often called “mirror checking”
  • Medication and steroid use to help improve muscle growth
  • An obsession with nutrition and supplements
  • Discontent with appearance can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders

The Causes of Bigorexia

Bigorexia, or muscle dysmorphia, was first recognized as a disorder in a study of bodybuilders and mental illness in 1993. Bigorexia or any other self-image issues can be triggered by many causes. Some of the most common causes of bigorexia are:

  • Childhood trauma, belittling, teasing, or berating linked to one’s physical appearance
  • Genetics can play a role if you have a family who suffers from body dysmorphia, bigorexia, or OCD
  • Disorders like depression, anxiety, or OCD
  • Parental or societal pressure to have that “perfect body” to be accepted by society
  • Personality traits like perfectionism

The Treatment for Bigorexia

Recovering from bigorexia and muscle dysmorphia takes time and effort, but it is not impossible. The best way to start treatment is to go to therapy, and it can include some medications.

Some of the treatment options for bigorexia are:

1.      Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that can help you challenge your negative thoughts and beliefs. This treatment can help you learn to be more flexible, change the way you think about yourself, and set new goals for yourself.

Cognitive behavioral therapy uses a combination of techniques to help you identify and correct distorted thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It can also be used to help you cope with any anxiety or depression that may be associated with your bigorexia.

2.      Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors

SSRIs, a group of antidepressants, can be used to treat body dysmorphic disorder. They’re not intended for weight loss and aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this purpose. However, they have been used off-label to help people lose weight.

While SSRIs can help relieve some symptoms of bigorexia, they won’t cure it on their own. This condition requires psychological therapy to address the underlying reasons why you have concerns about your body image or size.

3.      Well-being support

Support from friends and family members is also important when it comes to recovering from bigorexia. People with bigorexia often find it hard to accept their body shape and size, so talking about this with others can help them feel better about themselves.

4.      Perceptual retraining to change the way you see your body

Perceptual retraining works because it changes how you perceive your body. When you look in the mirror, instead of seeing a person who looks like they have an overly muscular physique, you’ll start to see someone with more normal proportions. The idea behind perceptual retraining is that when your mind thinks that what it sees in the mirror isn’t right, and then it will trigger negative feelings and anxiety about your body image.

 

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