Muscle dysmorphia (MD) is characterized by a hyper-vigilance for muscle mass, patterns of extreme weight lifting, dieting, and even the use of steroids or other drugs to suppress appetite and enhance muscularity. Some existing research has linked MD to psychological problems that result in negative affect, including obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. Feelings of low self-worth, hostility, and even guilt can increase negative affect, which could in turn increase motivation for change. When someone does not like their own body image, the negative feelings associated with that could be the impetus for behaviors that might ultimately lead to MD. Another psychological issue that has also been suggested to be associated with MD is depression. The link between eating and food problems and depression has been well established, and therefore, it is not unrealistic to theorize that depression could be a pathway for MD.
To test this theory, Dr. Frederick Grieve of the Department of Psychology at Western Kentucky University recently conducted a study involving 100 male college students. The students were assessed for depressive symptoms and were asked to report how often they lifted weights. Grieve found that the students that exhibited symptoms of MD were more likely to have symptoms of depression than those without MD. Grieve does not find this surprising, as MD can manifest in ways that are similar to depression. People with MD tend to put exercising before social activities, which can lead to isolation. Additionally, the negative self-image they may have and high levels of body dissatisfaction can increase negative affect, which is also common in depression.
Overall, this study clearly provides evidence that depression and MD share certain characteristics, and may have predictive qualities. He believes that individuals, and especially males, at risk for depression may be particularly vulnerable to MD. His study did not examine this relationship in women. Because of the high rates of eating issues in college aged women, future work should look at depression, MD, and eating problems in young women to determine if there is a similar link. “For now, the results of the present study indicate that there is a moderate relationship between symptoms of depression and symptoms of muscle dysmorphia,” said Grieve.
Grieve, Frederick G., and Michael D. Shacklette. Brief report on men’s bodies and mood: Correlates between depressive symptoms and muscle dysmorphia symptoms. North American Journal of Psychology 14.3 (2012): 563-67. Print.
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