Bigorexia, also known as muscle dysmorphia, is a condition which typically occurs in men, though women may also be affected.
According to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, bigorexia symptoms include a preoccupation with muscle size and a compulsive need to “bulk up”, always feeling muscular build is undersized and underdeveloped.
As with most body image disorders, bigorexia treatment can be complex and some individuals may battle with this condition their entire lives.
What is bigorexia, exactly?
According to the Adler School of Professional Psychology, approximately 45 percent of men are unhappy with their body image, which can put them at-risk for muscle dysmorphia.
It doesn’t take long for an obsession with body image to turn dangerous, and individuals familiar with other body image disorders can attest to that fact.
Think of bigorexia in the same context as anorexia but in reverse form. Anorexia is the more common condition associated with a fear of weight gain. Both conditions are body image disorders, but individuals with muscle dysmorphia are less worried about overall weight and more worried about increasing muscle mass and bulking up – even if they are already extremely muscular.
Make no mistake, individuals exhibiting bigorexia symptoms don’t want to look out of shape, so they, too, practice extreme forms of dieting as do people with anorexia.
What are bigorexia symptoms caused by? Experts are unsure.
Like many other body image disorders, bigorexia symptoms are likely the result of biological, psychological and social factors, though some men may be genetically predisposed to the condition.
This lack of precise cause is another reason why bigorexia treatment is complex. For many of these individuals, obsession with physical appearance began early on.
“It takes over your life. Every decision you make becomes the workout and how your body looks,” personal trainer Alfonson Moretti told CBS New York.
“I used to track and weigh every single ounce of food that went in my body. I used to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning to drink protein shakes. I never missed a workout, ever, ever, ever. I can remember as young as 13 or 14, looking at some of these muscle magazines, and I was conditioned to think that’s what a man looked like. Big shoulders, big legs, just big muscles with veins everywhere.”
Knowing the symptoms of bigorexia is one of the keys to timely treatment.
Often a person with bigorexia does not know they have the condition and sees nothing wrong with his or her behavior — interpreting as a natural desire to be fit.
Common bigorexia symptoms include:
- Extreme exercising, especially weight lifting and resistance training.
- Excessive time spent exercising (hours at a time and repeated visits to the gym on the same day).
- Constant mirror-checking and checking out muscle growth.
- Avoiding social situations where more muscular individuals may be present.
- Extreme attention to diet.
- Exercising even when injured.
- Exercising despite injury risk.
- Extreme anxiety when a workout is missed.
- Neglecting employment and relationships in order to exercise.
- Use of steroids to increase muscle mass.
- Obsession with trying the latest and greatest in muscle-building routines.
- Overdosing on supplements.
- Overspending on workout and diet related products.
“This obsession can start quickly or it can begin over a period of time. We see psychological abnormalities including irritability, angry outbursts, which sometimes people would call a ‘roid rage,’ we see depression sometimes mania,” Dr. Michele Kerulis, the director of sports & health psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, told the Daily Mail.
People at most risk for developing bigorexia symptoms include:
- Individuals from troubled families.
- Individuals under extreme stress.
- Individuals who have been bullied.
- Individuals with low self-esteem.
- Individuals with chemical abuse issues.
Health risks of bigorexia
Like other body image disorders, bigorexia affects both the physical and mental well-being of an individual.
The McCallum Place, an institute for treating eating disorders, indicates bigorexia symptoms can lead to the following health complications:
- Frequent injury due to over-exercise.
- Complications related to steroid use (mood swings, shrunken testicles, facial hair growth, heart attack, stroke).
- Permanently damaged joints, muscles and tendons.
- Suicide attempts.
- Inability to maintain relationships.
Bigorexia can often coincide with other body image disorders, and people with this condition may also take part in self-harm rituals as a means of coping with stress.
While someone exhibiting bigorexia symptoms may seem in love with his or her appearance, self-loathing can be just beneath the surface, adding to the level of stress these individuals feel.
Bigorexia treatment and recovery
The Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders (ANRED) organization indicates bigorexia treatment begins with first convincing the affected individual he or she needs help.
Many of those affected by muscle dysmorphia are content with how they are living their lives and are fearful if they stop what they are doing, everything they have accomplished will go away.
Often the key to convincing an individual to begin bigorexia treatment is to point out all the negatives, such as job loss, alienation, family stress, and excessive costs. Even then, it may not be possible to encourage a person with bigorexia to seek care.
For those who do enter bigorexia treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy is best when combined with medication. Many of these individuals also battle with depression, and medication can help alleviate feelings of despair. In order for a person to overcome bigorexia symptoms, he or she must improve perception of self.
The Pratt Institute indicates bigorexia treatment can vary significantly from one individual to another, but almost all cases require long-term psychological care. Support from family and friends is important, and bigorexia treatment ultimately depends on how receptive the individual is to care.