Trigger warning: this post may be a trigger to those suffering from body image issues or body dysmorphic disorder.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
It was a warm spring morning, last year.
I was in my little unit in Brisbane getting ready for the day ahead.
Working from home that day, I sat down at my wooden dining table, the smell of instant coffee lingering in the air.
I powered up my MacBook and the monitor attached, clicked on the little Zoom icon at the bottom of my screen … and then … like hit by a tidal wave, I was thrust into a spiral of uncontrollable, almost-obsessive anxiety.
Having turned on Zoom in preparation for an interview I was doing that morning, I saw myself – specifically my face – staring back at me on the screen, in all its lopsided glory (well, lopsided to me).
The first time I started noticing significant differences between the left and right sides of my face was after losing a bunch of weight while training for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2018.
And while I realise (after relentlessly Googling the topic) that we all have differences between the left and ride side of our faces – that’s completely normal – for me … facial dysmorphia (that’s what it’s called) hit me hard.
I felt like a freak and became trapped in an obsessive, compulsive, anxiety-ridden cycle of checking and rechecking my face, afraid to show my face to the world, comforted by the fact that we were still in mask mandates, and I could hide what I thought was my freakish appearance from everyone I encountered.
“I’m like the Phantom, from The Phantom of the Opera,” I remember saying, half-jokingly (but mostly seriously) to J that day last year, tears welling up in my eyes from the paralysing anxiety, while he was trying to do anything he could to make me feel better.
The anxiety, obsession, constant checking, touching to see: “Has the left side of my collapsed?” came to a head soon after that Zoom encounter.
I decided to Google (Google is not your friend in these cases … but it’s a temptation too hard to resist at times) and convinced myself I must have Parry-Romberg syndrome, the “rare, acquired disorder characterised by slowly progressive shrinkage (atrophy) of the skin and soft tissue of half of the face”.
Of course, that’s not what I have.
But I remember messaging my mum that morning – I think, it was 5 AM or some hour equally as ungodly – convinced I needed to see someone … a plastic surgeon, perhaps?
“No, my sweet girl,” she responded. “You need to see a psychologist, to get a handle on this. Before it eats away at you … and everything you’ve worked for.”
Frightened by the paralysing spiral, and knowing my mum was completely right, I arranged to see a healthy psychologist soon after that.
As it turns out, I’m not alone when it comes to body (or in my case facial) dysmorphia.
Reading an article in the May 2022 issue of US Elle – ‘Help, I Can’t Stop Staring at My Face’ by Aubree Nichols – it turns out that many people suffer from this condition.
And for a lot of people, this has all been made worse by our constant presence – and constantly seeing our reflections – on Zoom (a Covid-work-from-home necessity).
“In Zoom after Zoom, I found myself confronting a litany of internal critiques: The right side of my mouth is slightly downturned […] When did my right eyelid get so droopy? Faced with such thoughts, I would often decide I was too grotesque to be seen and keep my video off. My Self View, however, was always on,” writes Nichols.
Quoting psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, the article goes on to explain that “facial dysmorphia involves an obsession with ‘defects’ in one’s appearance that results in dysfunction in work, social, or home life that is disproportionate to the perceived ‘defect’”.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s a “subset of the mental health disorder known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)”.
The treatment? The Cleveland Clinic article suggests Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or ‘talk therapy’ with a psychologist.
“A therapist or psychologist [will] help you take a closer look at your thoughts and emotions. You’ll come to understand how your thoughts affect your actions. Through CBT, you can unlearn negative thoughts and behaviours and learn to adopt healthier thinking patterns and habits,” the Cleveland Clinic writes.
CBT is exactly the type of work that I did with my therapist. And while I still have good and bad days, things are a lot better compared to the way they were last year.
I once read a quote that has stuck with me:
“Don’t believe everything you think – or feel.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
The weightlessness that comes from deeply understanding that and learning to retrain your thoughts is like nothing else.
In her Elle article, Nichols also goes on to write about another type of therapy called ‘mirror work’.
It’s “a practice, introduced by self-help pioneer Louise L. Hay’s 1984 best-selling book You Can Heal Your Life, [that] was designed to cultivate self-compassion”.
“All that’s required is a bit of time, a mirror, and positive affirmations,” writes Nichols.
The aim of mirror work, she writes, is to “reprogram the critical eye by creating new neural pathways, or thought patterns, that become dominant over time and improve your relationship [with] yourself”.
Not a cure-all, but it’s a start.
“Robbins has her own version of mirror work in which she encourages people, right after they brush their teeth in the morning, to look at themselves in the mirror, set an intention for the day, and then give their reflection a high five,” writes Nichols.
So, it’s time to head into the bathroom, brush those teeth … and spend a moment high-fiving yourself in the mirror.
It’s going to be a great day ahead.
And if all else fails, as Nichols writes, ending her piece: “[…] just ‘Hide Self View’ and call it a day.”
For anyone who needs extra help with mental health concerns, reach out to your nearest healthcare provider or contact: