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Mental Health Awareness Week: What it's like living with a skin-picking disorder as a student


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The 13th-19th May 2019 is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, so we wanted to discuss some conditions that are less well known and raise some awareness about them.

OCD Action describes Compulsive Skin Picking as ‘the repetitive picking at one’s own skin to the extent of causing bleeding or damage to the skin to relieve anxiety or urges.’

Image credit: Elisa Riva, via Pixabay

What is Compulsive Skin Picking?

A quick search of the internet shows that there isn’t much information out there about skin picking disorder. It’s known by multiple names: dermatillomania, excoriation disorder, or compulsive skin picking - and there is much more to it than picking a few spots here and there. The disorder is a Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviour and comes under the umbrella of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Aside from its impact on mental health, sufferers of compulsive skin picking are left with physical symptoms, too - open sores that often become irritated and inflamed to the point of bleeding, infection and scarring over time.  

How does the disorder effect student life?

I suffer from skin picking disorder myself - I have specific areas that I focus on, such as my chest, face, shoulders and back. I even use a specific mirror and pick more at certain times of day, such as just before bed, many days I spend over four hours picking. I’ve struggled with it for around 13 years but have only recently begun to understand what it is and why I do it. It sometimes gets so bad that I’ve used pins or scissors to try to get rid of what I see as an ‘abnormality’ in my skin, despite other people not even noticing.

Like many compulsive behaviours, the strong urge to pick or itch skin typically becomes heightened under stress, tension or anxiety. I've found that my compulsions have become increasingly worse whilst studying at university; I have more free time and more academic pressures, which make the picking worse.

Another student, who wishes to remain anonymous, also told us about their experience with skin-picking:

“I didn’t realise I was doing it for years. It started out with just picking acne, or scratching, but has gotten progressively worse. My worst areas are the skin around my nails, my face and my legs. I spend hours looking for ingrown hairs on my legs with tweezers. My skin is quite sensitive, but I want to cover up the scars on my face during lectures, so it just becomes a cycle of bad skin, pick the skin, cover the skin, continue to have bad skin. I feel so bad about myself and don’t tell people because I’m scared they won’t understand”.

How can you manage the disorder?

Over time, I've developed a few strategies which the NHS website also recommends if you think you’re struggling with this:

  1. Keep your hands busy – try squeezing a soft ball or putting on gloves. But this could involve anything such as colouring in, playing video games, (which is my favourite distraction), or whatever you enjoy.
  1. Identifying when and where you most commonly pick your skin and try to avoid these triggers. I often pick with a handheld mirror so I try to avoid these as much as possible.
  1. Try to resist for longer and longer each time you feel the urge to pick. This one is definitely easier said than done, but you may be surprised with how long you’re able to do this for.
  1. Care for your skin when you get the urge to pick, such as applying moisturiser. I also include trimming nails in this one to try to avoid infection or more serious injuries.
  1. Tell other people so they can recognise when you’re picking. I find this one very difficult, I often feel ashamed if other people notice so generally pick when I’m on my own. But telling someone who you can trust will likely help and make you feel better.

GP appointments are also helpful; doctors will usually check to make sure you’re free of infection and may refer you for talking therapy or a dermatologist if there is an underlying skin condition. 

Overcoming the disorder 

Skin picking disorder is poorly understood, even by many professionals, so it’s important that you raise any issues you may have. Skin picking can also have a very negative effect on self-esteem and may be linked with body issues such as Body Dysmorphia, as the act of picking can be an attempt to make it ‘smooth and perfect’. In some cases, the skin defects that are being attacked are not visible to non-sufferers.

However, you don’t have to suffer alone. There are plenty of people who are willing to help - this can include talking therapy and habit reversal therapy or even medication. There are support groups and Facebook groups with others who have struggled so you can build yourself a solid support network. This is so important, since the disorder is so difficult to talk about. This highlights the necessity of opening conversations around skin-picking; there is nothing to be ashamed of. 

If you suffer from Compulsive Skin-Picking, make an appointment with your local GP or university well-being service. To find out more information, visit the NHS website

Lead image credit: Ximena Mora, via Pexels

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