Editor's Picks Mental Health

Self-Harming in the Form of Compulsive Skin Picking

skin picking and self harm
A form of self-harm that isn't really talked about but one that I have struggled with is skin picking - also known as Dermatillomania. As the name suggests, skin picking involves a compulsive need to pick ones skin.

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Self-harm is becoming more and more prevalent in our society.

Maybe it’s because people are to talking about it more or because more people are struggling with it.

But what exactly is classified as self-harm? Could you be harming yourself and not even realizing that you are doing it?

Self-harm is defined as the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue most often done without suicidal intentions.

This can be anything from cutting oneself to pulling out your own hair.

A form of self-harm that isn’t really talked about but one that I have struggled with is skin picking – also known as Dermatillomania. As the name suggests, skin picking involves a compulsive need to pick ones skin one way or another and the person doing it may not even realize that they are! With this form of self-harm, the face is the most common place where a sufferer would pick but a compulsive skin picker won’t stop at just the face.

I have struggled with skin picking since the age of 15, which was “coincidentally” around the same time that I developed an eating disorder.

However, I’ve picked the skin off of the edge of my thumbs for as long as I can remember. It started to get worse when I was looking in the mirror one day and noticed some blackheads and thought, “I wonder what would happen if I squeezed them?” Oddly enough, some sort of satisfaction came from picking my face and the obsession grew from there. It went from my face to the back of my arms and to my legs as well.

There usually is a reason for someone to resort to picking their skin. For me, this was due to anxiety.

I have only realized this in the later stages of my recovery, though. As I’ve been recovering from my eating disorder, I’ve been struggling with anxiety on top of that. And when I’m anxious, I feel panicky, upset, angry, sad, and I need something to do that will take my mind off of whatever is making me anxious – cue picking of the skin.

There are several reasons as to why someone would resort to skin picking of which I found from BrainPhysics.com:

  • Self-Soothing: When stressed, many people feel a need for self-soothing and find they feel better when they pick. Skin picking has a kind of soothing effect on their nervous systems and reduces levels of stimulation.
  • Stimulation: On the other hand, when people are bored or inactive, skin-picking may provide a needed level of stimulation for the nervous system. It may help keep a person alert or awake when they would otherwise become bored or distracted.
  • Perfectionism: Skin-pickers may stand for hours in front of mirrors closely examining their faces or other body areas for the tiniest irregularity and then try to fix it, in hopes of achieving a perfect complexion. Paradoxically, the skin-pickers always end up looking much worse in spite of their efforts, as a result of the damage that they do to themselves in pursuit of relentless perfectionism.

Skin-picking can result in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Picking may lead to shame and anxiety, which can result in more picking. Studies have found that skin picking is often observed in those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a quarter of those also struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This form of self-mutilation can lead to bleeding, bruises, infections, scarring or even permanent damage to the skin.

When it got really bad, my face would feel raw and it would hurt to touch it. My face would be red and blotchy and I would feel so self-conscious that it would give further reasons for me to isolate myself. I was so embarrassed about what I was doing to myself and all I wanted was to be able to stop! However, because I was anxious about my weight gain and moving away from my eating disorder, I would constantly get the urge to pick my skin.

After years of picking my face, arms, legs and thumbs, I have permanent skin damage. I have scars on my face from where I would pick it for hours on end, I have red thumbs, and I have permanently aching joints on my fingers because I would overuse them due to all of the picking.

Thankfully, I have found a way to manage it in a healthy way.

As I found ways to manage my anxiety, my need to skin pick decreased and I’ve gradually been doing it less and less.

I found that cutting my nails was really useful because the shorter my nails were, the harder it was for me to pick my skin. Also, every night I go into the bathroom and wash my face and because I did it with the light on, I got a very good close-up view of my face in the mirror, which is never good for a skin picker, so I’ve started washing my face in the dark whilst leaving the hall light on so I can still see what I’m doing. I have also taken mirrors down where there is good lighting.

Also, what you need is a distraction!

Distraction, distraction, distraction. Distractions such as the following can all help to reduce anxiety and the urge to self-harm:

  • Talking to a friend or family member
  • Writing
  • Drawing/painting
  • Listening to music
  • Watch the TV/put a movie on
  • Exercise such as going for a walk
  • Playing with a pet
  • Have a shower
  • Go on your computer
  • Watch a movie
  • Visit a friend
  • Bake or cook
You could try multiple different strategies and make a list of all the things that help to distract you from your self-harming urges and keep it with you so that when you are feeling the need to self-harm, you can pull out that list and go through your strategies.

In order to really get down to the bottom of why you are doing any kind of self-harm, you really need to think about why you are doing it in the first place.

Talk to a counsellor, a friend or someone you can trust. Reach out for help. There is no shame in asking for help even when people may not understand why you are hurting yourself. There are helplines and online support too! There is help whenever you need it.

If you or someone you know is harming themselves, please do not hesitate to seek help. Self-harm is a serious issue and should not be taken lightly.

 That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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Katy has an honours degree in meteorology and an undergraduate degree in geophysics and mathematics. Katy chose to recover from her eating disorder in May 2010 and has never looked back. Throughout her recovery journey, she has struggled with crippling anxiety, which she has now learned to manage and by writing at Libero, she hopes to help others to manage their anxiety, have fun with recovery and learn to live again.

SITE DISCLAIMER: The opinions and information shared in this article or any other Content on our site may not represent that of Libero Network Society. We hold no liability for any harm that may incur from reading content on our site. Please always consult your own medical professionals before making any changes to your medication, activities, or recovery process. Libero does not provide emergency support. If you are in crisis, please call 1-800-784-2433 or another helpline or 911.


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  • Thank you for being another brave soul seeking to understand compulsive skin picking and get a handle on it. Dermitologists seem perplexed by it, Psychiatrists are far too focused on psychotropic medications with concerning side effects, medical records that are grossly misleading, and social stigma that unfortunately cause more anxiety, so the best blessing I've found so far is a very supportive and accepting amount of talk therapy which has helped me start to develop a kinder feeling and approach to myself, self acceptance, and reduced anxiety. I look in the mirror every day and smile and say, " I love you , I am making positve changes in my life right now , I deserve to be happy and fulfilled". I also do Yoga exercise and meditation, and have a humble amount of faith in God which I do not try to define by means of any one religion.

    • It's so great that you can look in the mirror and say that you yourself! Be proud of yourself because not many people can truly do that and mean it.
      It is so important to find ways of calming yourself down and yoga and meditation are GREAT ways of doing that. I find doing yoga once or twice a month (as that's all I have time for!) really helps me.
      Take care, Jennifer xxx