The research showed that volunteers who gazed at their reflections for up to ten minutes at a time gradually became more and more anxious and depressed about their looks - even if they were perfectly happy with them to start with.
Scientists admitted that the findings were surprising because they had only expected prolonged mirror gazing to adversely affect volunteers in the experiment who had already been diagnosed with the condition Body Dysmorphic Disorder - where sufferers permanently worry about their looks or shape.
In fact, even "healthy" participants started to show signs of distress and anxiety about their own body image after staring at their own images for several minutes at a time. "Gazing in a mirror triggers an increase in distress (among BDD patients)," the Daily Mail quoted the researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry in London as saying.
"Interestingly, healthy participants experienced a similar response to gazing at their reflection," they said. In the latest study, psychologists set out to establish to what extent mirrors were a trigger for anxiety and stress in patients with BDD. The condition, which affects around 600,000 people in the UK, is characterised by excessive worry about one or more parts of the body, even if it appears perfectly normal.
The cause is not known but it is more common in people with a history of depression. Many people wear thick make-up and heavy clothing to disguise the perceived flaws and repeatedly seek reassurance by looking in the mirror. Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry wanted to compare the effect of mirrors among BDD patients with healthy volunteers who had no hang-ups about their appearance.
They recruited 25 sufferers and 25 'controls' and put them through two tests. Half were female. The first test involved just glancing at themselves in the mirror for 25 seconds, before and after which they were assessed on their bodily satisfaction using a tailor-made questionnaire. In the second test, all the recruits had to look at themselves for a minimum of ten minutes, before being assessed once more.
As expected, the results showed patients with BDD became increasingly distressed about their appearance and looks, even after seeing their reflection for just 25 seconds. But against expectations, those in the "healthy" group also started to display signs of anxiety and distress when they were left to gaze for ten minutes.
Researchers said this may be due to the fact that although everyone loves to glance at themselves from time to time, most healthy people do not normally spend such long periods analysing their own features. "People without BDD experienced more distress when looking in a mirror for a long period of time as opposed to a short period," the researchers said. The study is published in the journal 'Behaviour Research and Therapy'.
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