Who among us hasn’t picked at a scab or a particularly juicy whitehead before? As isolated incidents, they’re not usually cause for alarm, but when the picking and prodding becomes habitual, that’s when things can lead to long-term skin damage.

To help us understand why we pick at our skin (and find some preventative solutions), we spoke with Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYS licensed neuropsychologist in New York.

Meet the Expert:

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What causes people to pick at their skin?

“Chronic skin-picking is also known as ‘excoriation disorder,’” explains Dr. Hafeez. “This is a mental illness coinciding with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Common triggers for skin picking could be boredom, stress, guilt, blemishes and anxiety. When people undergo stressful times, they are more inclined to pick their skin, pull their hair and bite their nails to ‘relieve the stress.’ Psychologically, this may offer a temporary form of relief, but it’s a dangerous habit that can cause physical problems. This repeated picking results in swelling and broken skin, which can cause tissue damage, infection and scarring,” she adds.

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What are some ways to stop yourself from picking at your skin?

According to Hafeez, there are three main things to consider when treating this disorder: identifying triggers, addressing the behavioral issues and managing symptoms of underlying medical conditions. To that end, she recommends seeking therapy.

“CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is often prescribed to treat skin picking,” she tells us. “CBT helps identify the contributing factors that causes picking and gives the patient various alternatives to combat this urge like solving complex puzzles, squeezing a ball, drawing and other activities that keep their hands occupied.”

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Other methods of healing that Hafeez recommends include yoga, meditation, using topical ointments on the spots (i.e, aloe vera gel), exercising consistently and covering the parts of your body where you see blemishes. “If the excoriation disorder worsens, your doctor may prescribe medications that help block the urge to pick and the OCD/anxiety that precipitates it,” she adds.

Is picking your face a form of anxiety?

Dr. Hafeez tells us that picking at your face does often correlate with symptoms of anxiety. People may pick at their skin to cope with other problems they might be battling internally (and they may not even realize they’re doing it). This constant picking provides short-term relief; however, guilt and shame often follow.

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