Muscle Dysmorphia and Substance Abuse

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muscle dysmorphiaA regular weightlifting routine can be remarkably healthy. Pumping iron can help to obliterate excess body fat, and using muscles to resist the force of gravity can help the bones to thicken and become resistant to breakage. Weightlifting can even help to produce a bit of a high, as muscles that are in use tend to boost the brain’s production of chemicals associated with pleasure.

However, for some people, weightlifting is neither pleasant nor healthy. These people might have muscle dysmorphia, and sometimes that leads to the concurrent use and abuse of drugs.

An Excess of Muscles

According to research quoted by ANRED, people with muscle dysmorphic disorder (MDD) have abnormal activity in the portion of the brain that controls body boundary mapping. People who have this disorder feel as though they’re freakishly small, underdeveloped and weak. Some even believe that the people they meet are judging them for their tiny muscles and shrunken frame, and they may use words like “frail” to describe their bodies. It’s a disease of perception, as people who have MDD often have bodies that are covered in muscles. To others, they’re strong. But in their own minds, they appear weak.

Research suggests that about 90 percent of people who have muscle dysmorphic disorder are men, and most are between the ages of 16 and 35. It’s easy to see why this group of people might be impacted by MDD, as popular culture demands muscles on young men. If these people want to conform to a standard expression of masculinity, they feel that they must lift weights in order to do it.


Exercise plays a big role in the day-to-day life of someone who has MDD. In fact, exercise is often at the center of life for people like this. They might:

  • Lift weights several times throughout the day
  • Feel anxiety or depression when they must skip a workout
  • Continue to work out, even when ill or injured
  • Neglect other responsibilities in order to work out

Some use public gyms for their workouts, but it’s not unusual for people with MDD to conduct most of their exercise sessions at home. This allows them to work out without being exposed to other bodies that seem stronger and more powerful, and it allows them to perform extreme maneuvers without arousing the suspicion of trainers or other gym professionals.

While people with MDD feel dependent on their workouts, they might not enjoy them at all. They’re using the workouts to correct a deficiency that simply cannot be amended through weights alone. It’s an uphill battle, as the brain constantly tells these people that they’re not big enough and not powerful enough. They might feel as though their workouts are a necessity for survival, but they might not feel as though their work with weights really produces any kind of benefit at all.

Long-Term Risks

MDD is an incredibly difficult issue to deal with, as people who have this particular disorder often have a number of other psychiatric issues in play at the same time. For example, in a study in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry, researchers found a link between compulsive weightlifting and a prior history of sexual abuse. People like this are attempting to medicate a prior trauma with weights and muscles, and rather than feeling improvement, they’re feeling nothing but augmented pain.

Steroid abuse can only worsen that distress, as these substances can make people feel:

  • Impulsive
  • Angry
  • Depressed
  • Anxious

Steroids and vitamin supplements can also impair the function of the kidneys, meaning that people who abuse these substances might be dealing with an intense amount of toxins swirling through their bodies, and that might also lead to impulsive behavior and a sense of impending doom.

All the while, people who have MDD feel weak, inferior and puny. They might even feel unable to handle the disorder, since they’re unable to gain control of their bodies and gain the weight they think they’ll need in order to survive.

Finding Healing

finding healingIt’s a difficult problem, and families impacted by this issue should proceed with caution. The concerns that people with muscle dysmorphic disorder have might not be visible to the family at large, but the problem is real and it is damaging. A person like this should be approached with sensitivity and understanding, and a professional might provide vital help. An interventionist can help the family to understand what living with MDD is like, and this professional can help the family determine just what words and phrases might motivate the person to enroll in a treatment program. When the talk begins, the interventionist can provide support and guidance, and when the talk is through, the interventionist might deliver the person to a treatment program that can help.

According to a report published in the Journal of Athletic Training, there are no treatment programs that have been specifically developed for people who have muscle dysmorphic disorder. But people who have the disorder can often improve through a combination of antidepressant medication and talk therapy.

The medication helps to soothe chemical imbalances inside the brain, while therapy allows people with MDD to discuss the traumas that might impair their ability to see their bodies clearly. Therapy can also help people to develop a healthier body image and a more respectful relationship with exercise and weights. In some therapy sessions, the pressures placed on men by fashion magazines and societal influences could be discussed, and that might also produce a profound sense of relief and understanding.

People who abuse steroids might also need medical management so they can undo the damage that’s been done through their drug use. Tests to check for liver, kidney and heart damage might play a role, as might therapies to amend the cholesterol changes a steroid problem can bring. Since some health changes caused by steroid abuse can lead to fatal conditions, it’s vital for people to get this help from a qualified medical health professional.

If someone you love is dealing with muscle dysmorphic disorder, please contact us. We can help you to find an interventionist, so you can discuss the issue in a safe and controlled manner, and we can help you to connect with a treatment program that could provide real help and healing. Please call us, and we’ll tell you more about who we are and how Foundations Recovery Network programs could help your whole family to heal.

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