What causes a skin picking disorder and how to treat it


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We’re all guilty of picking at our skin every once in a while, like popping a pimple or scratching a bug bite. But consistently picking at your skin may be a sign of a disorder linked to mental health issues.

If you’re struggling with consistent skin picking, you’re not alone. In fact, about 1 in 20 people have skin picking disorder. 

Read on to learn about the disorder, how it stems from mental health disorders and potential treatment options.

The basics of skin picking disorder

Skin picking disorder, also known as dermatillomania or excoriation, refers to consistent picking, scratching, pulling or scraping of the skin. The picking is often excessive and may lead to tissue damage. 

Skin picking becomes a diagnosable disorder if the habit causes distress or interferes with your day-to-day lifestyle, such as work or social connections.

Symptoms include:

  • Open wounds on skin from picking
  • Compulsive urges to pick skin
  • Thinking that picking will cleanse your skin of impurities
  • Constantly feeling itchy

How mental health is connected to skin picking disorder

Skin picking disorder is known as an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder, as it’s a body-focused repetitive behavior caused by involuntary recurrent urges. The urge can stem from feeling stressed, anxious or shameful.

Sometimes known as an episode, people can spend several minutes up to multiple hours picking their skin with their fingernails, teeth or tweezers. It can cause mild to severe pain stemming from scars, sores or even potential infection.

Skin picking disorder can also co-occur with other mental health disorders, including:

5 ways to treat skin picking disorder

Not only does skin picking cause pain, but it can also escalate the anxiety or shame that causes the urges due to the visible signs of the disorder. The good news is that there are treatment options that can help. While some options are lifestyle changes, others are types of therapy that require the assistance of a professional mental health provider.

Five potential ways to treat skin picking disorder are:

  • Recognizing triggers — Many repetitive behaviors stem from a trigger that you can encounter in your everyday life. While some people with the disorder pick their skin when they have a negative emotion, others will do it from boredom. When you’re able to recognize your triggers, you can acknowledge them and increase resistance to the urge.

  • Preventive changes — If you use your nails to pick at your skin, make it harder for your nails to do so. This could mean cutting your nails to keep them short or wearing gloves when possible. It can also be beneficial to keep your hands busy, such as using a stress ball or a fidget toy.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy — One of the most effective ways to treat OCD spectrum disorders, such as skin-picking disorder, is with cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This therapy is often used by mental health providers to help you focus on how actions, thoughts and feelings affect each other. The goal of CBT is to help you learn how to alter the interaction between your thoughts and emotions that lead to skin picking.

  • Habit reversal training — Another type of therapy method that can be beneficial for the disorder is habit reversal training. It’s used to help treat body-focused repetitive behaviors such as skin picking as well as hair pulling (trichotillomania). The goal is to “unlearn” the repetitive habits throughout a series of steps such as replacing it with a less harmful behavior and learning to control potential triggers.

  • Comprehensive behavioral treatment — Comprehensive behavioral treatment analyzes what occurs internally and externally before, during, and after a repetitive behavior like skin picking. By figuring out the process of the body-focused repetitive behavior, your therapist can help you find alternatives that interrupt it to increase prevention

Lightfully Behavioral Health can help treat skin picking disorder

Skin picking disorder can be both painful and stressful, but there are treatment options that can help. And if your obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder is interfering with your daily life, it’s time to give us a call.

At Lightfully, we offer four programs that can help you address your skin picking disorder: residential treatment, Virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (vIOP), Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), and Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), also called our Day Treatment Program.

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step toward treating your skin picking disorder, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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