Constant Zoom calls are worsening people's body dysmorphia

A few months ago, most of us had never heard of Zoom. Now, stuck in lockdown, the video conference platform has become the main way we stay in touch with friends, attend work meetings and attempt to recreate our day-to-day interactions.

While Zoom has been a great tool for us to stay connected, some people are finding these video chats to be triggering their body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

BDD is a mental health condition that causes people to see themselves in a distorted way; excessively worrying about flaws in their appearance that are often unnoticeable to others. About 1 in 50 people have the condition.

29-year-old Rosie has struggled with BDD and panic attacks for most of her life, but Zoom calls in particular are worsening her symptoms.

‘Video calls are some grey cloud hanging over me constantly, just knowing that damned meeting is in my calendar,’ Rosie tells ‘I am an incredibly self conscious person, having previously, years ago, been housebound due to panic attacks ignited by the idea of other people seeing me. I was so fixated on my own repulsiveness and size.’

Those with BDD often engage in time consuming compulsive rituals and behaviours such as mirror checking, excessive grooming and reassurance seeking.

They will also compare their looks to other people and grow anxious about perceived flaws, spending hours trying to conceal what they believe is a defect.

This makes Zoom chats, where we can see ourselves speaking in the corner of our eye, a nightmare for those struggling with BDD. Laptops are re-angled, lighting dimmed or skin and hair nervously touched. The image on the screen becomes another way to obsessively check and fixate on facial features, all the while fuelling comparison with others on the call.

‘Both my jobs require frequent zoom calls and I find it hard to see how everyone else appears, singing and dancing with their well-groomed demeanours,’ says Rosie. ‘It makes me feel like even more of a failure in comparison.

‘I’m paranoid about angles, where to put it, constantly aware that I am being looked at, whereas before [lockdown] you never had that direct pressure of a conversation solely focusing on your face.’

Jade is 34 and is also struggling with work video calls, having avoided being in photographs since she was 14.

She tells us: ‘I only use mirrors that I’m ‘friends’ with, so ones that I’m used to, otherwise I feel completely worthless and depressed. Now, as lockdown requires me to use video, I am unable to get away from myself, which has been really difficult.’

Things got so bad for Jade that she had to ring her boss and request not doing Zoom calls anymore.

‘It was causing me to binge eat and not step outside because I felt so ugly and disgusting. I have had to go back on antidepressants,’ she says.

While video calls are a main trigger for those struggling with their self-image during quarantine, there’s the added impact of isolation and reduced mental health services.

Being at home with little social contact has left those with BDD more stuck inside their own heads than ever, free to obsess and reinforce safety behaviours.

Kitty Wallace, Head of Operations at the BDD Foundation, tells us that she’s been getting emails everyday during the lockdown from those struggling with their body image and seeking support. Some are desperate, even suicidal.

‘There are so many nuanced issues to this lockdown but the biggest one has been the isolation and people having more time on their hands with which to fixate on their appearance and ruminate and worry,’ says Kitty. ‘That is hands down the biggest issue.

‘We’ve also got some people who try and venture out. Then, when they do, people are crossing the road to avoid them or giving them suspicious looks because of the virus, but the BDD brain can twist that and go, “those looks and that avoidance from others is because of how you look”.

‘So even when people are trying to continue their CBT [during lockdown], they are finding added challenges to that.’

For now, Jade is getting by through using avoidance techniques, such as hiding mirrors and even taping up the one inside her wardrobe. Rosie, on the other hand, writes to-do lists on the days of video calls to make it feel more manageable.

Most of those struggling are left in a state of limbo, just trying to cope as best they can.

‘There are some potential techniques that we’re trying to encourage people with BDD to use,’ says Kitty. ‘Initially, for people who are too scared to put their camera on all together, find a friend or a family member that you feel more comfortable with and try practicing some video calls with them. You can start off with lower light and work your way up.’

There’s also the option to turn off the self view on Zoom by right-clicking your video then choosing ‘Hide Myself’.

‘I understand this could be anxiety-inducing because there is some comfort in being able to see yourself. But really, it’s just focusing your attention on your appearance,’ says Kitty.

The BDD Foundation has been creating some great resources to help people through quarantine (and beyond). There are free weekly Wednesday night webinars, which feature different experts discussing certain aspects of BDD in the lockdown.

Kitty says: ‘The first one we had was by Dr Rob Willson, a specialist in cognitive behaviour therapy, and it was about attention refocusing and some of the exercises you can do. Each webinar is uploaded to our YouTube channel afterwards.

‘Besides us, the OCD Action charity also has a helpline, both on phone and email, where you can find emotional support. They are trained in BDD and understand the pathways to treatment on the NHS and privately.’

Whether you were diagnosed with BDD before the lockdown, or are worried you’ve developed it since, don’t be embarrassed to talk to others about how you feel.

If Zoom calls in particular are causing you a lot of anxiety, try reaching out to your boss to ask if you can keep your video off during calls.

Most importantly, if you think you need professional support, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your GP. We may be in the midst of a global pandemic, but your mental health is just as important as ever.

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