How To Stop Compulsive Skin Picking, Scratching, and Hair Pulling
Everyone pulls off the odd bit of skin or squeezes a random pimple. But for
some people the squeezing, scratching, or picking becomes an absolutely
monstrous compulsive behavior that threatens to take over their lives.
Concealing what they are doing and its impact, can trigger desperate attempts at
camouflage and the avoidance of activities and relationships.
As a practicing skin psychologist for 30 years, I have seen a huge recent
increase in people coming in with skin picking and scratching problems. Some
have an underlying skin disease, but the behavior itself may be the whole story.
Feeling great shame, people become isolated, rarely talking to friends and
neighbors about their problem. This makes it hard for them to connect with
others for support. The Internet may become their key source of support and
Pickers and scratchers range from very emotionally troubled, to otherwise quite
healthy and successful people. Picking problems that look the same from the
outside can be very different on the inside. Treatment needs to be carefully
individualized--simple formulas and stock programs are often not enough. The
treatment approach MUST be matched to both what is fueling the picking and the
individual’s personal psychology.
Many different paths can lead to a picking problem. Any area may be the target,
some people use tweezers or nail files and produce deep permanent scars. Many
people describe looking for self-soothing, and go into a trance-like daze when
they pick. Some people do most of their picking when they are bored, reading,
or watching a movie, and little is going on. For others as the stress ratchets
up, so does their picking. For yet another group, what starts as a well-intentioned
attempt to smooth out or improve an area of skin may quickly turn destructive
when it combines with a relentless perfectionism.
Deep guilt and shame can easily compound the problem. Sarah G. told
me, "Over the years I have gradually shared all my secrets with my
husband except one. Ever since college I have been disappearing into the
bathroom to tear at my skin. I don't know if he suspects or not. I
feel like a freak, I know I should tell him, but..." For her, ‘coming
out’ was a critical step. Probably no treatment approach would have worked
Not seeing their problem as a serious "real" disorder, some deny themselves
serious treatment. Picking can become a major focus of life and can
seriously erode relationships, work, and leisure and really make people feel
crazy and out of control. People who are hard on their skin are typically also
hard on themselves about it. Fiona O. put it sharply, "I'm doing it to
myself, so I deserve what I get."
When Julia B. got out her magnifying mirror and bright light she knew trouble
was coming. Deep scaring, recurrent skin infections and and an
overwhelming sense of shame were no match for her compulsion to keep digging
deeply at the skin on her arms. At first picking would bring her a blissful,
trancelike sense of peace, and then as the blood flowed this would change into
revulsion and self-reproach.
Intriguingly, a high percentage of pickers I’ve work with were
picked on by others when they were growing up. They may have been
scapegoated at school or the the victim of critical, perfectionistic parents. Being
picked on then becomes a pattern that people loyally continue by internalizing
the problem and picking on themselves.
Emma L. described her erratic parents and chaotic childhood, "Picking
was the one stable thing I could depend on." As she was able to build a
more solid identity and sense of herself in therapy, she was able to let go of
Natalie M.’s focus on her picking as part of a lifelong pattern of
obsessions and compulsions let her use medication and behavior therapy very
effectively. The very specific prescriptive style worked very well for her. In
contrast Brent L. came to think of his picking as an “addiction without a
substance” and adapted parts of the AA 12-step approach. He found he could
stop picking if he was able to focus on, and sit with, the emotional pain that
it was masking.
For others really pushing to get at the emotions that are lurking when picking
starts is key. Picking can be an angry act, as I suggested to Brad K., if
he did to someone in the street what he did to himself, they would put him in
jail. Anne R. usually picked only in private, but when she got a cell
phone call in a crowded car telling her that her boy friend was also dating
someone else, the picking started and her blood started to flow. Her skin took
the beating she wished she could have delivered to him. People like Anne
and Brad need help to feel their feelings in their hearts instead of in their
Treatment: What Works
I have been most impressed with the effectiveness of three treatment tools:
1.) MEDICATION: Antidepressants (SSRI’s) and mood stabilizers have been
very helpful for some of my patients, and a disappointment for others. If you
want to go this route it is important to be persistent and expect to experiment
with different drugs and dosages.
2.) PSYCHOTHERAPY: With literally hundreds of different approaches, it is hard
to be an educated consumer. Look for good personal chemistry: someone you feel ‘gets’
you. Look for a depth of experience working with picking and scratching. Someone
can be a great therapist for people with other problems, yet ignorant and
ineffective in this area. Ideally a therapist should be competent to address
behavior change, cognitive (thinking) issues, and also the emotional side of the
problem. A therapist who is too strictly committed to one approach or technique
may have major blind spots.
3.) HYPNOSIS and SELF-HYPNOSIS: These adjunctive techniques are best taught by a
qualified psychotherapist. With an impressive record of success for habit
control, these approaches are especially useful for people who go into a spacey
trance state when they pick. You can learn to turn this “inadvertent
negative hypnosis” into an effective treatment technique
To learn more about Dr. Grossbart and see what the media are saying about him see The Skin Deep Home Page.
For more information see the Skin Deep chapter: Breaking The Itch/Scratch Cycle