App for better body image? A few minutes of mobile therapy can rewire the way you think

HERZLIYA, Israel — Everyone is their own worst critic, especially when it comes to their looks. People with poor body image issues tend to talk badly about themselves in their own heads. However, researchers have found that a couple of minutes of daily cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on a mobile app can make a significant difference in how people view themselves and overall body satisfaction.

“Considering the effectiveness of the application in reducing negative body image, the time saved, and the potential widespread applicability of this type of intervention, the findings of this study are promising,” says study co-author Guy Doron, a professor at Reichman University , in a media release. “Its results indicate that even brief, daily cognitive training by using this app may lead to a significant reduction in symptoms related to body image distress.”

Beauty is subjective. Yet society has made it easy to categorize oneself as “pretty” or “ugly” in comparison to the features of models and celebrities. With many people feeling the need to present their best self on social media, it can be difficult to turn away from air-brushed filtered standards of beauty. Compounding the issue is the aging process. As you reach your thirties, people’s bodies begin to change as your metabolism slows down and the weight starts to pile up in some undesirable places.

A common problem contributing to poor body image is a person’s inner dialogue, say researchers. When thinking about how your body looks, people often catch themselves in a vicious cycle of self-loathing with phrases like how they “hate their bodies” or “nothing looks good on me.” CBT is effective in dealing with negative self-thought, but it may not be the most accessible due to the high cost and the stigma of going to therapy.

How does the app work?

In the current study, the researchers explored the effectiveness of a mobile health app developed by the team and the company “GGtude.” A mobile app might be a more appealing option to young adults, the authors argue, because it is inexpensive, accessible, and allows for anonymity.

Researchers recruited 95 young women between 20 and 30 for their study because of this demographic’s high risk of developing body image disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder or eating disorders. The team divided them into two groups, with one group immediately using the “OCD.app – Anxiety Mood & Sleep” and the other group waiting 16 days before using the app.

The mobile app is designed to provide three to four minutes of CBT for two weeks with the end goal of changing the dialogue of their inner thoughts. The session involves statements that support or contradict their negative perception of their bodies. These include statements such as how you look affects your academic, professional, marital, and family success, along with that your self-worth is based on your appearance.

Users then have to pull sentences that challenge negative body attitudes like “an imperfect body is a real body” or “even internet celebrities have wrinkles” towards themselves. They also do a daily exercise rejecting sentences reinforcing negative body perceptions that can range from “imperfection is a failure” or “people are always looking for my flaws.” If a person agrees with one of the negative statements, the app would provide users with feedback pointing out their unhealthy thoughts and encouraging more positive and constructive thinking.

How well did the app work?

Women who started using the app immediately reported fewer thoughts and behavior that would point towards poor self-image and body dysmorphic disorder compared to the group that started the therapy later. What’s more, the first group felt less self-conscious and negative about certain body parts such as the stomach, thighs, and butt. Once the second group of women started using the app, their body satisfaction increased as well.

The study authors reported a 34.7-percent improvement in body satisfaction after using the app for 16 consecutive days. This persisted for two weeks after discontinuing the CBT training. One caveat is that the app did not have a profound impact on symptoms related to eating disorders, including bulimia and obsession with weight loss. There was slight improvement in eating disorder symptoms in 13.68 percent of the participants.

The study is published in the journal Body Image.

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