Health Library
Health Library

    What Does Gender Dysphoria Feel Like?

    Updated 22 February 2022 |
    Published 17 December 2021
    Fact Checked
    Medically reviewed by Casey Tanner, MA, Certified sex therapist, author, founder, The Expansive Group, New York, US
    Flo Fact-Checking Standards

    Every piece of content at Flo Health adheres to the highest editorial standards for language, style, and medical accuracy. To learn what we do to deliver the best health and lifestyle insights to you, check out our content review principles.

    Lots of people have heard the term “gender dysphoria,” but aren’t sure what it means or what it feels like. Here you’ll find info from the experts, plus a firsthand account of what living with gender dysphoria is really like

    Gender identity is connected with how you experience your gender inside. You might identify as a woman, man, be fluid, or fall somewhere in between.

    For some people, their gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth but for others, it doesn’t — and that’s completely normal. 

    While some people sit within the strict classification of man or woman (known as the “gender binary”), others identify as transgender or non-binary. It’s all about how you see yourself and being who you are. And society’s reactions to this can impact how you feel, especially if the sex you were assigned at birth and your gender identity don’t align, triggering gender dysphoria for some. 

    So, what exactly is gender dysphoria?

    Imagine, for example, being assigned male at birth but knowing you are a woman. You might feel uneasy, stressed, and anxious about what this means and how you are perceived, especially because society often expects us to conform to stereotypes of what constitutes femininity or masculinity, such as subservience in women and leadership in men. These feelings of unease are what’s known as gender dysphoria.

    “Over the last five years, there’s been a massive step forward in trans communities gaining a platform,” Dr. Helen Webberley, a gender dysphoria expert at Gender GP, tells Flo. 

    “However, that has also led to a lot of political emotion and hatred. Just because someone’s sex that they were assigned at birth doesn’t match their gender doesn’t necessarily have to be distressing. It should just be something that we note and move on from. Dysphoria and deep unhappiness comes from society’s reaction to trans or gender non-conforming identities.”

    In fact “gender dysphoria” is a relatively new term in medical texts, first appearing as “transsexualism” in American Psychiatry in 1980, although it may have been used within the community much earlier.

    In 1994, in a bid to reduce the stigma attached to the diagnosis, transsexualism was replaced by “gender identity disorder in adults and adolescence.” Then, in 2013, “there was a move away from the diagnosis ‘gender identity disorder,’ which was affirmed not to be a mental illness,” Michael Beattie, a psychologist at Chartered Counselling, explains. “‘Gender identity disorder’ was then replaced by the term ‘gender dysphoria,’ which is no longer recognized as a sexual and gender identity disorder. It’s a diagnostic category that people can work through in order to access health care.” 

    What causes gender dysphoria?

    Often, the way you feel about different aspects of your identity are rooted in what is seen as “normal” or “good.” If you’re told repeatedly growing up that only women have periods; a man and a woman is the ideal relationship foundation; and cervical screening is a women’s health issue, it’s hard to unlearn those teachings. 

    Words have immeasurable power over the way you perceive yourself — and Dr. Webberley explains that this is where gender dysphoria can take root. “If you look at resources on offer about menopause, it’s all about women,” she says. “The language is explicitly aimed at women, and women do experience menopause, but so do other people, [so] it’s important to start changing the language that we use. All that will do is inform all identities that it’s okay to be trans; it’s okay to be a man who has a cervix or womb; and it’s okay to be a man [or a non-binary person] who gets pregnant.” 

    Exclusive language that rejects and ignores trans and gender non-conforming identities can have very real health impacts on the communities that are being erased. For example, almost half of 28,000 people questioned by the 2015 US Transgender Survey said they had been verbally harassed in the year prior to the survey taking place. Ten percent had been physically assaulted.

    Similarly, the Youth Chances Survey 2014 that looked at the experiences of young trans people in the U.K. found that 83 percent have experienced name-calling or verbal abuse. The LGBT in Britain: Trans report conducted by Stonewall also found that 48 percent of trans people don’t feel comfortable using public toilets through fear of discrimination or harassment and 44 percent avoid certain streets because they don’t feel safe there as an LGBTQ+ person.

    Feeling rejection or a lack of safety in medical settings and beyond can increase dysphoria and lead to people feeling further isolated.

    “If you’re a man who has a uterus and you’re going through menopause, for example, what message does it give when all it talks about is women? It denies your whole identity,” Dr. Webberley explains. “Are we celebrating that trans identities do exist, and we should validate them as just as ordinary as anyone else? Or are we saying that they should have separate websites and services? This is what leads to minority stress and discrimination. 

    “When we talk to young people about periods and contraception it’s not going to apply to everyone in the same way based on the sex they were assigned at birth. We need to start getting the language right.” 

    What are the signs of gender dysphoria?

    Understanding gender dysphoria can be extremely difficult if it’s something you’ve never experienced before. However, the NHS explains that there are some key signs to look for. 

    They include:

    • A strong desire to hide any tell-tale signs of the sex you were assigned at birth, such as binding your chest
    • Sensing or feeling sure that your gender identity and the sex you were assigned at birth are not the same 
    • Not feeling like yourself when adhering to the gender roles of the sex you were assig