Skin picking or other Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs) can occur when a person experiences feelings such as anxiety, fear, excitement or boredom. Some people report that the act of repetitively picking at their skin is pleasurable. Many hours can be spent picking the skin, and this repetitive behavior can negatively impact a person’s social, work, and family relationships.
Though skin picking often occurs on its own-unconnected to other physical or mental disorders-it is important to identify whether or not skin picking is a symptom of another problem that needs treatment.
Skin picking could be a symptom of illnesses such as dermatological disorders, autoimmune problems, body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse disorders (such as opiate withdrawal), developmental disorders (like autism), and psychosis.
Skin Picking: What are the Causes?
The cause of this disorder remains a mystery. However, research shows that some animals also pick or chew at their bodies, causing great damage. Because of this similarity, and the fact that in some women skin picking can fluctuate with the menstrual cycle, many believe that skin picking has an underlying genetic or biological cause.
Skin picking may also serve as an emotional outlet for some people. Repetitive skin picking appears to be a way for some people to increase their activity levels when they are bored, or to control their emotions when they are feeling anxious, tense or upset. The fact that some individuals can actually regulate their emotions by picking their skin may be why they develop this problem in the first place. Skin picking may cause a person to “numb” or “zone out” as a way of dealing with feelings that seem overwhelming. However, this has not been scientifically proven.
Is skin picking a self-injurious behavior, like cutting or burning yourself?
No. Chronic skin picking can sometimes be confused with self-injurious and self-mutilating behaviors like cutting or burning of the skin because of the appearance of skin wounds and the fact that skin picking is self-inflicted. However, it is very important to distinguish between these two types of behaviors. People with CSP do not wish to cause themselves pain in order to relieve a sense of numbness or to assert a level of control over their bodies like those who cut or burn themselves. While people who pick their skin may find picking to be a pleasurable act, the aftermath is actually one of distress and remorse.
How does chronic skin picking start?
Skin picking can begin in a number of ways, but two in particular are quite common. First, a person may experience an injury to or disease of the skin. When the wound starts to heal, a scab forms and sometimes starts to itch. This may lead the person to pick or scratch at the scab. Unfortunately, with further trauma, the skin never completely heals. This can result in repeated scabbing and itching, which is then relieved with further picking. In other cases, people with chronic skin picking report that picking began during, or soon after, a very stressful event in their lives. The person slowly learns that skin picking can work to control their feelings and emotions and they continue to pick in the future.