A GP’s guide to identifying and managing body dysmorphic disorder

6 min

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a chronic condition that affects approximately 1 in 50, or 2% of adults.  

This article guides GPs in how to identify BDD in patients and help them understand and manage their disorder, as well as when to refer patients to psychologists or other medical specialists.

What is body dysmorphic disorder?

BDD is characterised by a debilitating preoccupation with a perceived defect in one’s physical appearance. The physical attribute of concern may be non-existent or so minor that it’s unnoticeable to others. 

Behavioural characteristics of BDD — such as constantly checking one’s appearance, repeated attempts at correcting the perceived defect, or excessive exercising — can limit daily function.

Muscle dysmorphia is a form of BDD where there is a perceived lack of muscularity. Excessive exercise and specific dietary patterns are common behavioural consequences of muscle dysmorphia1. Misuse or abuse of androgenic steroids appears common in males with muscle dysmorphia2.

Males are more likely than females to have genital manifestations of BDD3.

BDD most commonly manifests in adolescence, with subclinical symptoms occurring for years before diagnosis4. There is no gender difference in the prevalence of BDD5 but muscle dysmorphia occurs much more often in males6.

BDD is distinct from gender dysphoria — the distress felt by people whose gender experience differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Although both may occur in individuals.

What causes body dysmorphic disorder? 

Body dysmorphic disorder is likely due to genetic, psychosocial and cultural factors7

Using social media, especially image-sharing services like Snapchat and Instagram, is associated with concern about body image8. But there is no high-quality evidence linking social media use and BDD diagnosis.

Body dysmorphic disorder comorbidities  

BDD can persist throughout adulthood and its influence on adolescent social and emotional development may have long-term functional consequences5. However, treatment can lessen the symptom severity and the negative functional impact of BDD3.

In males, BDD often accompanies depression, social and generalised anxiety, emotional and behavioural difficulties, problems with peer relationships, hyperactivity, drive for masculinity and low quality of life5. When these comorbidities occur during adolescence, they can have lasting deleterious effects on social functioning, romantic relationships, and educational and vocational achievements5.

People with BDD are more likely to have suicidal thoughts or behaviours than people without the disorder, with increasing severity and presence of comorbidities related to increasing risk9.

Screening and diagnosing body dysmorphic disorder

Only a minority of people with BDD are diagnosed10.

People with BDD may lack insight into their disorder, making them unlikely to seek direct help for the condition4. Moreover, some behaviours that accompany muscle dysmorphia, such as adhering to exercise routines and avoiding unhealthy foods, can be misinterpreted as beneficial and positively reinforced.

To increase the diagnosis and treatment of BDD, GPs should become familiar with the disorder’s behavioural characteristics and diagnostic criteria, as well as screening questions to ask patients.  

Behavioural signs

Screening questions

Diagnostic criteria

BDD occurs with muscle dysmorphia if there is a belief of insufficient muscularity or small build (with or without preoccupations about other body regions)2.

Insight into BDD2 is considered absent for people who are convinced their body dysmorphia beliefs are true, or poor for people who think the beliefs might be true. Good or fair insight into BDD is attributed to people who consider their body dysmorphic beliefs to be definitely or probably false, or may or may not be true.

Treating body dysmorphic disorder

Psychological and psychopharmacological treatment of BDD can moderate symptoms and improve functionality, but only a minority of people with the disorder receive therapy10.

Barriers to treatment include shame and stigma, a perception that psychological and psychiatric treatments are ineffective, and denial of the disorder (and hence, failure to seek treatment)10.

Many people with BDD seek cosmetic treatments to fix the perceived physical defect, but these procedures generally have poor outcomes11 and should be discouraged4.

People with BDD should be counselled about the likely futility of pursuing cosmetic outcomes, and the associated distress and cost that can arise4. People with BDD who seek referral for cosmetic procedures would likely be better served by discussion aimed at providing an understanding of the underlying psychological problem, and highlighting the benefit of appropriate treatment.

Cognitive behavioural therapy for BDD commonly consists of exposure with response prevention over 3-6 months. It seems effective at reducing symptom severity for some time, however, longer-term monitoring is recommended to detect symptom severity and relapse12. Telehealth and internet-based therapy shows promise in treating BDD13.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may take weeks to months to be effective for BDD, and are usually needed in a higher dose than for treatment of depression4. In cases where SSRIs are ineffective, the tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine may be used. Alternatively, off-label use of some antipsychotics may be considered4.

Find our online Clinical Summary Guide on Body Dysmorphic Disorder here and order a hard copy here.


Body dysmorphia
Body dysmorphic disorder
Health practitioners

Did you find this page helpful?

Information provided on this website is not a substitute for medical advice

Call 000 for emergency services

If you or someone you know needs urgent medical attention.

Call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 for 24/7 support

MensLine Australia is a telephone and online counselling service for men with emotional health and relationship concerns.

Sign up to our newsletter

We release two monthly newsletters – one written for men, family and friends, and another for health practitioners.

Your preferred mailing list

Your name

Your email

Stay up to date


Healthy Male acknowledges the traditional owners of the land. We pay our respects to elders past, present and future. We are committed to providing respectful, inclusive services and work environments where all individuals feel accepted, safe, affirmed and celebrated.


Healthy Male is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. This website does not host any form of advertisement. Information provided on this website is not a substitute for medical advice.

Trusted information partner of