This Common Nervous Tic Could Be a Serious Mental Illness

August 11th 2016

We all have our nervous tics, but excessive skin-picking can indicate something more severe than an occasional bad habit.

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Skin-picking can be a sign of excoriation disorder, also known as dermatillomania. It is defined as "recurrent skin picking resulting in skin lesions," according to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. Excoriation affects up to 4 percent of the population, and potential health consequences can include "infections, skin lesions, scarring, and physical disfigurement," the DSM-5 reported.

The result for many suffering from dertmatillomania is splotchy or marked-up skin:

Skin-picking can be a reward-driven experience for people trying to eliminate any flaws they see.

That's according to Jon Grant, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

It can also be a stress reliever, according to Louise Hung, a woman who wrote in xoJane earlier this year about suffering from dermatillomania:

"For me, and I suspect that many skin-pickers/chewers feel the same way, when life gets really stressful and scary, there is relief in allowing your anxiety to literally tear at your skin — your skin shares the burden with your brain. You go on autopilot, it's soothing, unfeeling."

The effects of skin-picking are visible to others, and that can bring a sense of shame to victims of the disorder.

Laura Barton wrote an open letter earlier this summer in The Mighty to another woman at the mall who stared at her dermatillomania skin marks. Barton said that she is no longer bothered by people looking at her dermatillomania scars, but asked the other woman not to stare at strangers in the same uncomfortable way again:

"Next time you see someone with skin like mine, try not to stare or at least try to soften your gaze. If you have questions, gently ask. Not everyone will be comfortable enough to answer truthfully or even at all, but a gentle question is much better than sharp words and a harsh stare. Even a kind smile can brighten someone's day when they might not feel so confident about the state of their skin."

"I have dermatillomania. What can I do?"

Cognitive behavioral therapy is usually an effective way to deal with dermatillomania, as the condition is a compulsion like obsessive compulsive disorder, according to the OCD Center of Los Angeles.

"When treating dermatillomania with CBT, the two most useful techniques are habit-reversal training (HRT) and mindfulness-based CBT," the OCD Center of Los Angeles said on its website. "Increasing awareness of one's picking patterns is central to the process of habit reversal training and is generally done by keeping skin-picking logs."

People suffering from dermatillomania can also call the Self-Injury Hotline SAFE (Self Abuse Finally Ends) at (800) 366-8288.

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