The psychological impact of cosmetic surgery

In an article published in this month’s The Psychologist, the journal of the British Psychological Society, the impact of cosmetic surgery on a patient’s wellbeing was discussed. A new specialist interest group are campaigning for more involvement for psychologists in the decision-making process and aftercare provision. “Psychology is to plastic surgery what physiotherapy is to orthopaedics – you wouldn’t give someone a joint replacement without being clear you had physiotherapy lined up and someone engaged in their aftercare.”

Other recommendations include advertising bodies and social media firms to take a more responsible role towards reducing body image anxiety. Screening measures for body dysmorphic disorder or BDD were also discussed. Certainly, more research into the psychological effects of plastic surgery would be welcomed – at the moment there is much coverage in the media of the impact that botched plastic surgery has, but understanding the effect that a ‘successful’ procedure has is also important.

The benefits of cosmetic surgery

In an article entitled ‘Well-Being from the Knife? Psychological Effects of Aesthetic Surgery’ published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science in 2013, a study of 544 patients who underwent aesthetic surgery compared to a group of participants who were interested in surgery but did not undergo it, results revealed positive outcomes across all areas including anxiety and depression, body dysmorphia, quality of life, satisfaction, mental and physical health and self-esteem.

Realistic expectations from cosmetic surgery

Understanding people’s motivations for considering a cosmetic surgery procedure is key and part of the training and experience of a good cosmetic surgeon is being able to identify these in the consultation. For patients with unrealistic expectations of what cosmetic surgery can achieve, even the most ‘successful’ procedure will often satisfy them.

Interestingly, in the long-term and large-scale study mentioned above, Professor Dr Jürgen Margraf, Alexander von Humboldt Professor for Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum, discovered that most patients do not expect the impossible. Using a psychological instrument known as the ‘Goal Attainment Scaling’, researchers examined the stated goals of the patients. Included in the questions were two that were clearly very unrealistic and only 12% of respondents specified these goals. When asked to give their own reasons, patients used positive language, such as wanting to ‘feel better’ or ‘develop more self-confidence’.

Enhancing or altering your face and body to fix a relationship, find more friends, advance your career or change your life, is never advisable. However, if your motivations are realistic and healthy, you are more likely to be highly satisfied with your surgical experience.