Mental Health

Study links frustrated psychological needs to muscle dysmorphia in male bodybuilders

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A study published in Motivation and Emotion offers evidence that unmet basic psychological needs may be linked to the drive for muscularity in some bodybuilders.

Studies suggest that bodybuilders are particularly likely to experience muscle dysmorphia, which refers to the preoccupation with thoughts that one’s body is too small, despite being of a normal build or even quite muscular. Muscle dysmorphia has been linked to serious mental health consequences including anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse.

Previous research has explored body image concerns as a consequence of unmet basic psychological needs, but the vast majority of studies have focused on female samples. Study author Kerim Selvi of Eskişehir Osmangazi University aimed to see if Ryan and Deci’s (2000) Basic Psychological Needs Theory could help explain the drive for muscularity and muscle dysmorphia among male bodybuilders.

“Although muscle dysmorphia, a pathological disorder, has received some researchers’ attention in recent years, its etiological factors have not been understood very well,” Selvi told PsyPost.

“To contribute to this gap in the literature, my co-author and I examined whether the frustration of three basic needs (autonomy, competence, and autonomy) might be related to muscle dysmorphia symptoms. According to the Basic Psychological Needs Theory, the frustration of these needs might lead individuals to develop two maladaptive strategies; substitution of the needs with extrinsic goals (such as perfect body) or engagement in compensatory behaviors (such as rigid behaviors patterns).”

“However, as these strategies are not effective to satisfy the needs, they might lead to psychopathological conditions in the long term. Adopting this theory, we decided to investigate the association of frustrated needs with muscle dysmorphia (an indicator of both compensatory behaviors and a pathological consequence) via drive for muscularity (an indicator of extrinsic goal),” Selvi said.

A study was conducted among 245 male bodybuilders of an average of 22 years old. Subjects completed questionnaires that measured their drive for muscularity by addressing their muscularity-oriented attitudes, workout behaviors, supplement use, and eating behaviors. Symptoms of muscle dysmorphia were also assessed, with questions concerning subjects’ bodybuilding dependence, muscle checking, muscle dissatisfaction, injury, and substance use. Finally, participants completed a measurement of satisfaction and frustration with the three basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Results showed that subjects’ overall need frustration scores were indirectly related to each symptom of muscle dysmorphia (i.e. bodybuilding dependence, muscle checking, muscle dissatisfaction, injury, and substance use) through their drive for muscularity. In other words, subjects’ need frustration predicted their drive for muscularity, which, in turn, predicted their muscle dysmorphia.

When it came to specific need frustration scores, only the need for relatedness — or connectedness to others — significantly predicted muscle dysmorphia through the drive for muscularity.

“Efforts to overcompensate the frustrated needs, especially frustrated relatedness by attaining a muscular body, are associated with pathological conditions such as muscle dysmorphia,” Selvi said.

The authors suggest that these findings point to the desire for muscularity as a maladaptive response to unfulfilled needs, saying “to cope with need frustration, individuals may be oriented toward extrinsic goals such as perfect body, fame, and wealth” and that participants experiencing such need frustration “might have aimed to reach a hyper-muscular body (need substitute) and engaged in rigid behavioral patterns such as strict workouts and diets (compensatory behaviors) to compensate for their frustrated needs.”

The authors address how this drive for the ideal muscular body can create a vicious cycle. Men who pursue such beauty standards and come across setbacks likely experience an unbearable low. “On the other side, if they reach these standards,” the authors add, “they are likely to settle more difficult ones, which in turn, may lead to relentlessly rigid desires and behaviors to meet constantly updated standards.”

In the current study, subjects may have “constantly raised their standards and this might have contributed to the belief that they are small and thin even if they are more muscular than an average man” — in other words, subjects’ desire for muscularity likely fueled their muscle dysmorphia.

The study suffered several limitations, including that the design was cross-sectional and researchers could not infer causality. Additionally, the authors suggest that future research should explore muscle dysmorphia and need frustration among males who participate in sports other than bodybuilding.

“The findings of the study do not imply that bodybuilding is unhealthy. The critical thing seems the motivation behind bodybuilding activities. Given that the intrinsic goals are effective to satisfy the basic needs, it can be speculated that bodybuilding activities oriented to achieve internal goals such as being healthier may not result in psychopathological consequences, on the contrary, will increase well-being conditions,” Selvi explained.

The study, “The dark side of bodybuilding: the role of bodybuilding activities in compensation of frustrated basic psychological needs”, was authored by Kerim Selvi and Özlem Bozo.