Bigorexia appears to be on the rise, especially among young adults. Let’s take a look at the symptoms, risk factors, coping strategies, and treatments available for muscle dysmorphia.
Bigorexia is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) as a body dysmorphic disorder that triggers a preoccupation with the idea that your body is too small or not muscular enough.
When you have bigorexia, you are fixated on the thought that there is something wrong with the way that your body looks. That can influence your behavior.
Muscle dysmorphia can look like many things, including:
- spending hours at the gym, pushing your body far beyond its limits, then feeling compelled to return and do it again the very next day
- following diets on a path to cutting weight and adding muscle that never seems to end
- hating the body you live in and feeling like these perceived shortcomings of your body are equally clear to anyone who sees you
When left untreated, bigorexia can escalate and lead to:
Bigorexia is primarily a psychological condition, though it can appear in physical ways.
Someone with bigorexia might experience some of the following symptoms:
- obsession with appearance, sometimes called mirror checking
- a fixation on your diet and dietary supplements
- medication and steroid use related to physical fitness
- dissatisfaction with your appearance that leads to depressed moods or anger
Many symptoms of bigorexia may feel relatively normal. But when you are pushing your body to achieve fitness goals that always seem out of reach, there may be more going on than simply wanting to be in good shape.
It’s not always clear who will experience bigorexia.
As the Mayo Clinic points out, certain life experiences and underlying psychological factors may make you more likely to have body dysmorphia.
Both women and men can have muscle dysmorphia. Negative experiences during childhood, such as bullying or teasing about your size, may play a role in having this condition.
A 2019 study of over 14,000 young people found that 22 percent of males and 5 percent of females reported having disordered eating patterns linked to working out and getting more muscular.
The same study also found that having other mental health conditions can put you at higher risk for bigorexia. People into bodybuilding, certain sports, or wrestling communities are also more likely to have this condition.
If you have bigorexia, you may be looking for ways to control your symptoms.
While there are some things that you can do at home, you may need to seek a professional mental health provider to treat your condition.
You can start treating muscle dysmorphia today by making changes, including:
- limiting your exercise and weightlifting activities to 30 minutes to an hour per day
- stopping your use of steroids, protein shakes, and fitness supplements
- deleting calorie trackers and fitness apps from your devices
- identifying and addressing other behaviors that may play into your condition, including purging, binge eating, smoking, and heavy alcohol use
You may also want to start your treatment by calling or starting an online chat with the National Eating Disorder Helpline.
You may also want to speak to a mental health professional about your symptoms, especially if muscle dysmorphia is impacting your relationships and causing you to consider self-harm.
These treatments may include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to identify thought patterns and change your brain’s way of responding
- exposure therapy/ritual prevention (E/RT) to help you find alternative ways to cope with negative preoccupations
- perceptual retraining to change the way you see your body
If you have muscle dysmorphia along with other mental health conditions, your provider may recommend a medication like a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to help stabilize your moods during treatment.
Living with bigorexia means finding coping strategies that work.
These strategies can help you with your symptoms and give you a sense of control:
- Participate in recovery and support groups for people with body dysmorphia.
- Practice meditation and deep-breathing exercises.
- Spend your active time outdoors instead of in the gym.
- Keep a journal where you write down your symptoms and the way you are feeling.
- Identify triggers and avoid them whenever you can. A trigger can be anything from a movie where people look the way you think you should to a person who criticizes your body.
You’re far from alone in living with bigorexia, whether you or someone you know experiences these symptoms.
It’s now estimated that 1 in 50 people have some type of body dysmorphia. A documentary called “Bigorexia” has shed light on the way that muscle dysmorphia impacts the professional bodybuilding community.
Talking to a friend, family member, or someone else you trust about your experiences with bigorexia can be a helpful first step in taking control back of your life from an obsession with looking a certain way.
If you are having thoughts of self-harm because of bigorexia or any mental health condition, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to 741741 to speak with a counselor today.
Muscle dysmorphia is a real health condition, and symptoms can be difficult to manage.
More people are becoming aware of body dysmorphia and related problems since public figures, including Jane Fonda, Elton John, Princess Diana, Lady Gaga, Zayn Malik, and Taylor Swift, have grown honest about having body image concerns.
As more people speak out about living with this condition, the stigma and myths around it can dissipate.
There is help and support for you if you are living with muscle dysmorphia. A mental health provider can get you started on a treatment plan, and self-care changes can get your symptoms under control.