Anxiety, Shame, And A Skin Picking Habit

"Trees lose their leaves in the fall, sleep in the winter, bud in the spring, and come alive in the summer. The sun comes out, followed by the rain, or snow, or more sun.”

Photo via @thegirlhabit


I read an article on Into The Gloss entitled "Diary of a Serial Nail Biter Who Broke the Habit." The writer, Eva Alt's vulnerability was very inspiring as I read it. So inspiring, the article followed with endless replies from fellow readers siting the same struggle and similar struggles such as Trichotillomania (hair pulling). Victoria Secret model Sara Sampaio has also been open about her personal struggle with Trichotillomania. The Obsessive Compulsive Disorders are common in young woman.

Eva shared her journey and explained how she first asked for advice from a manicurist and tried acrylic extensions to break the habit. Once her nails grew out, she got a gel manicure and reported a minor set back. She expressed she had more self control overall. Eva was on the journey to stop nail biting and with that comes ups and downs. No habit stops overnight when it is ingrained for a long period of time. Reading this made me want to send her the biggest proud hug because we've all been there with our own personal habits.

And its true! Scrolling through the replies from the article, many shared their struggle with cuticle picking and nail biting. Advice ranged from frequent manicures (professional or at home), Ritual vitamins to help nails grow stronger, therapy, wearing gloves, meditating, cuticle oils, hand scrubs, and habit blockers.

I myself have suffered from a similar obsessive compulsive behavior called Dermatillomania, which is a scary word for skin picking (clearly since this is personal I hold judgement toward the medical term). For almost a couple decades (yes, a very long time) I picked my skin compulsively.

I remember what triggered the first episode (the first episode I can remember). By episode I mean a span of time lasting anywhere from ten minutes to an hour where I compulsively pick. When I pick I go into a sort of dark hole where I get lost in the picking. Much like anyone would when they bite their nails or pull their hair. It is a trance-like state.

When I was in the 7th grade a boy had pointed out some bumps on my arm peaking out from below my uniform shirt sleeve. His disgust influenced me to form my own disgust for these unwanted bumps. I’m sure it was an insignificant and forgettable moment for him, but the embarrassment stuck with me. “Ugh bumps on my arm,” my thirteen year old self thought. It was mortifying and unbearable. I barely noticed them before, but now they were a huge flaw creating immense anxiety. As a young girl with perfectionist tendencies, I couldn't stand the idea of someone noticing something on my body, which I perceived as less than perfect.

I went home and picked at these little bumps. My upper arm was inflamed, red and swollen. I panicked and came up with the idea to then scrub the inflamed area with a luffa sponge in the shower. The bumps would surely disappear if I rubbed my arm raw right? Ouch! This is my first memory of compulsively picking my skin.

School, relationships and life further exacerbated my anxiety. Studying for tests, writing a paper or waiting for a phone call was a common thread to picking. Sometimes boredom was a trigger. I would search and feel around for bumps to scratch or dive me finger nails into. The tension in my body was pulsating in these moments. No part of my body or face were off limits. By the end of the episodes, I'd be bleeding or swollen and red in the areas I picked. The satisfaction I'd get from extracting a pimple was a momentary release. The result was a real life nightmare.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed. Not to mention the areas would be sore and uncomfortable. I'd wear certain clothes to hide the damage or cover it with my hair and makeup. In the mean time I'd apply products like Neosporin to heal the area that often was infected by my fingers.

It was a cycle. The healing process gave me something to do. I had to nurture my skin. The process always would take longer because I would continue to pick at the wound, thinking I'd make it better. Seeing or feeling the result was a constant reminder of what I had done. It was physically and emotionally painful, as I’d verbally beat myself up for picking. “What is wrong with you? Why did you do do this again? Why can’t you stop?"

Once my skin started to look better, as the dark spots faded and scars healed, I would hyper focus on "perfecting" my skin. Applying product religiously and over attending to it. I actually believed I could make my skin "perfect." Blame it on the airbrushed magazines or an image of flawless skin I had in my head, this created intense anxiety and unrealistic expectations. I couldn’t stand the thought or surfacing of a single blemish. Therefore leading to more picking.

In my own personal values, perfect skin is no where on the list. I value the kind human I am and take pride in being warm and positive. I’m a good friend and daughter. Whats wrong with a blemish? I would never be mad at someone I love in my life for getting a blemish? Or even picking it! We are human, but some how in my mind I couldn’t be.

I'm a model and actress and I am constantly being analyzed by others and myself. The industry is full of highs and lows. Waiting to hear if I booked a job or for auditions to pick up created anxiety. Picking was a way of self-soothing my anxiety. Before and during a shoot I would hope no one noticed the bump or scab I created. Makeup artists would cover these marks, but the whole time they did, I wanted to run away and curl up in a ball. I smiled through it to mask my sheer panic. Every time this happened I would tell myself, “You are never picking again." A demand I could never keep. Romantic relationships also became troublesome at times as I didn’t want my significant other to notice areas of my body where I had picked.

Skin picking has been a frustrating and debilitating habit. Filled with shame. To me, nail biting was a "normal" compulsion. An accepted one at that. I read Eva's article with no judgement and so I asked myself, "Why haven't I shared my habit?" Dermatillomania and other OCD’s need more voices. You can always comment below or email me privately.

Once I realized I couldn't stop picking on my own and believe me, I tried many times, I searched for help. First leading to hypnotherapy, which unfortunately did not instantly "cure" me like I hoped it would. I tried acrylic nails and after countless google searches about Dermatillomania, I found therapy treatment at the OCD Center of Los Angeles. The therapy sessions taught Mindfulness and Cognitive-Behavioral therapy. The sessions were usually very emotional. I had so much shame surrounding picking, I buried myself in it. Despite the pain, I looked forward to the sessions and felt safe to express my darkest secret. I attended the sessions for about a year.

I never talked about my habit with anyone, except for my mom and that was only when she noticed I had been picking. Now I have discussed my habit with my best friend and you! Mindfulness, part of the therapy, is something I practiced in yoga, so it made sense to start becoming more aware of what I'm feeling in my daily life and in the moments before I pick. Today I’m constantly reprogramming my mind to change the way I speak to myself, especially after I pick because that is when I’m the hardest on myself. Yoga is an important part of my life as it releases my anxiety (like most sports) and constantly teaches me self acceptance. We all have negative thoughts floating our way and it is just a matter of catching them and saying "Thanks mind. That is not helpful," and replacing it with a positive thought. Habit blockers are also a great practice. I discovered Bucky Balls to keep my hands busy, as well as finger cots and gloves. I always recommend them.

Books by Brené Brown were life changing, including the Gift of Imperfections, Daring Greatly, and I Thought it was Just Me. She also has a talk on Audible about Shame. Another book I recommend is The Untethered Soul. I've realized picking was never my problem to begin with. It was deeper. I hadn't learned how to handle my thoughts and feelings growing up, so picking was how I coped with anxiety. Reversing the habit of negative self talk and releasing the shame is life long. As long as I accept this, picking no longer has the control. I continue to learn how to accept my anxiety as it comes and goes. Sitting with an uncomfortable feeling is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Meditation is a way for me to still my mind.

Fortunately no feeling lasts forever as I've learned over and over again. Feelings pass like the weather. I recently read Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life by Gisele Bundchen. She wrote, “Trees lose their leaves in the fall, sleep in the winter, bud in the spring, and come alive in the summer. The sun comes out, followed by the rain, or snow, or more sun.” There is a natural rhythm to everything and the cycle repeats itself throughout our lives. Our biggest growing experiences come from pain. Heartbreak and disappointment has taught me how strong I am. In darkness there is always light. Breaking a habit is challenging but very possible. So breathe and let go my loves. If you fall, so what, get back up and try again. You're not alone. I’m falling all the time!