How to Stop Skin Picking for Even Just a Second

Grace Cary/Getty Images/Amanda K Bailey

When I get super anxious, like right before a date (or…during a date), it’s hard to resist picking at my cuticles or fiddling with bumpy patches of skin on my arms. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and skin picking is a pretty common symptom. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), just over 2% of adults in the US have a skin-picking disorder, which is clinically known as excoriation or dermatillomania. But you don’t have to meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder or another mental health condition to mess with your skin or nails when you’re worrying, or even just because. You might bite your nails or play with a few strands of your hair when you’re stressed as all get-out, or simply out of habit.

Skin picking is a type of body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB), which can also refer to hair pulling and nail biting. It’s not just a one-off case of idly messing with a zit or scratching an itch—think more along the lines of repeatedly picking and pulling at your skin.

Triggers for skin picking can vary. Some people do it in response to a skin issue. For others, looking in the mirror can spur it. It can sometimes (but not always) be a response to boredom or an uncomfortable emotion like anxiety. Research suggests that shame is another big trigger, and might also get in the way of someone getting help, according to Steffen Moritz, PhD, a researcher studying BFRB and head of the clinical neuropsychology working group at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany, tells SELF.

If your urge to bother your skin is getting out of hand (like you really can’t seem to stop, your skin is visibly damaged, or your picking is causing you more stress), consider reaching out to a therapist. If it’s more of a little annoyance that you’d prefer to handle solo: Fortunately, there are ways to stop fiddling with your skin—even if it’s just for a moment. (And good news: Sometimes a moment is all you need to help you avoid messing with yourself for a longer period of time too.)

1. Retrain yourself to do literally anything else with your hands.

Let’s say you’re waiting for your turn to speak in an important work meeting. You’re getting more anxious with each passing second, and you get the urge to pick. Instead: You make a fist.

This tactic is called habit reversal training (HRT). This form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the top treatment for BFRB. Becoming aware of your picking and coming up with a competing response—the behavior that you replace your picking with—are the main tenets of HRT, John Piacentini, PhD, a board-certified clinical child and adolescent psychologist specializing in BFRBs and OCD, tells SELF. Getting support from others is another big aspect of HRT. (When I was struggling, attending support groups really helped—knowing I wasn’t alone was super validating.)

If you have one handy, you could always play with a fidget spinner or another little toy that keeps your hands busy and wait until the urge to pick goes down, Nathan Peterson, LCSW, a therapist specializing in obsessive-compulsive disorders and BFRBs, tells SELF. (Bonus tip: To avoid messing with your skin, finding a fidget toy that feels a bit bumpy might help simulate the rough patches you tend to seek out, says Peterson.) Twirling your pen between your fingers or even just lightly stroking your sweater’s fuzzy fabric can help. You’re not distracting yourself—you’re finding another solution, and you’re choosing to sit with the feeling while you’re waiting for the desire to pick to dissipate, Peterson says.

2. Tell yourself you’ll put off the picking until later.

When you get the urge to pick, delay it for another time. By putting the picking off, you’ll get the chance to pause and think about whether you really need to pick or not, says Dr. Piacentini. In other words, you’re buying yourself some time and giving yourself an opportunity not to pick. In this window, you can choose to stop picking—at least for a little while. After the time you set passes—let’s say you tell yourself in the morning that you’ll pick in the evening—you might not even want to pick at all, Dr. Moritz says.

Anecdotally speaking: I’ve found this technique useful whenever I realize I’m nibbling on my cuticles. For instance, I’ll give myself permission to bite them in 20 minutes. The next thing I knew, an hour had passed, and I didn’t even think to gnaw at my skin.

3. Remind yourself why you want to stop picking.

If you do start picking, think of your reasons for wanting to break the habit in order to help you stop, says Dr. Piacentini. For instance, I told myself that I no longer wanted to be self-conscious about shaking hands with people I’d just met, and that kept me motivated to curb my picking. If skin picking is really starting to affect your life—say, you don’t want anyone to see your hands because they’re peeling—you can remind yourself that the goal is not having to worry about who’s going to notice and to feel more at ease as a result.

This is a very tough habit to break, so don’t be too self-critical, says Peterson—instead, these redirections “are helpful to remind the person that they are stronger than the urges,” he says. And you are! Make a list of all the ways in which you know you’re strong. (Bonus: Writing this down will keep your hands busy.) What are you really good at? Do people think you’re a great listener? Are you the person your friends always go to in a crisis? Reminding yourself that you’re strong might give you a mental boost to help you stop picking too! Thinking about this long-term can help you regain perspective about not picking in the moment.

I still pick at my skin every now and then—especially when I start stressing out about my finances (student loan payments are really kicking my butt right now!) or dwell on a silly argument with my sister. When I notice I’m pawing at myself, I quickly squeeze my hand into a fist or skip to a different song on my Spotify playlist—anything that blocks me from picking. There are a million other things to do with your hands—and with a little focus and effort, you’ll find what works for you too.


Originally Appeared on SELF