From skin picking to hair pulling – what your repetitive behaviours REALLY mean

MOST people have a bad habit, whether it's picking your skin, biting your nails or pulling your hair.

Some people develop these habits as children and carry them through to their adult years.

The older we get the harder it becomes to ditch these habits as they become part and parcel of your every day routine.

Experts have now warned that these habits could manifest into further health issues.

Speaking to The Sun Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and Clinical Director of Patientaccess.com said there is a big difference between someone who just bites their nails occasionally and people who are unable to leave the house without performing a certain action – such a flicking a light switch – a certain amount of times.

She said lots of things can trigger these habits, including acute stress that many people have experienced during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for this. The first thing to do is work out whether it's a bad habit or something else.

"If someone is having to wash their hands all the time for example then their concern might have grown during these times and it might have gotten out of hand due to Covid."

This she says might mean a person is suffering from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).

Dr Sarah said there are a range of therapies that can be used and the classic treatment is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).

She said another treatment that might also work for some is exposure therapy.

This is where a person experiences small parts of their repetitive behaviour but in a controlled environment.

Dr Sarah said most experts will try and avoid prescribing anti-depressants but added that some are licensed for treatment for OCD.

This sort of treatment would only be needed in extreme scenarios where the behaviour is taking over a person's life.

"These behaviours are compulsions and are common in some mental healthdisorders such as autism and Aspergers and it can sometimes be linked to anxiety", she added.

Accessibility is key

One doctor said that some repetitive behaviours are more common than others and added that it sometimes comes down to how accessible they are.

Speaking to The Sun doctor Emeka Okorocha said things like nail biting, fidgeting and hair twirling are the most common.

"This can stimulate the mind and most people do it when they are nervous/excited. It's a subconscious technique where people don’t realise they are doing it – mainly people with lots of energy.

"It can also become like muscle memory and trying to get rid of it can be difficult.

"It's ingrained, you won't see it as a habit if it's not negatively affecting you and the chances are you're less likely to have the will power to stop it."

Triggers

Dr Emeka said that usually a repetitive behaviour can be triggered by momentary stress.

"Things like hair pulling, sweating and shaking are all ways to tell if someone is nervous."

He said people develop habits for different reasons and said age and sex can also make a difference when it come to repetitive behaviours.

"Younger people are more likely to eat with their hands and put their hands close to their face, so in turn they won't think twice about biting their nails."

Dr Emeka added that when it comes to hair twirling, it's more likely that you will see women and girls with this repetitive behaviour.

"It's odd to see it in boys even when it’s longer than average, it's more effort for them. For girls it’s at the right point and many don’t notice they are doing it."

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, commonly referred to as OCD, is a severe anxiety disorder that affects 12 in every 1000 people

The disorder doesn’t discriminate between age, race or gender and according to the charity OCD-UK, it can be so debilitating that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has ranked OCD among the top ten when it comes to the most disabling illnesses of any kind – in terms of lost earnings and lessened quality of life.

There are two aspects to OCD – obsessions and the compulsions.

Obsessions are thoughts, ideas and urges which feel impossible to ignore by sufferers – and they can be very persistent.

Obsessions can cause a huge amount of anxiety, particularly if they are distressing thoughts about harm coming to someone you love.

On the other hand, compulsions are the ritual sufferers perform to rid themselves of the anxiety felt from the obsessive thoughts.

He also added that taller people with longer legs are more likely to have habits such as toe tapping.

"A lot of the time they have to be easy and accessible – if it’s right there you are more likely to do it.

"For example you're more likely to eat sweets if you walked past a sweet shop every day.

"Convenience helps increase them. What I advise people – and only if it’s not a mental condition, is that you can always try and get rid of a habit.

"Change your environment, if you bite you nails try and wear gloves when you can, or if you like eating sweets then move them to the other side of the room, it's the same for technology such as phones," he added.

Mental health links

Looking at the most common repetitive behaviours such as nail biting and hair picking, one expert said people need to keep an eye on them as they could become out of control – leading to infection.

GP and cosmetic doctor Jane Leonard said compulsive skin picking can be where people unconsciously, repetitively pick their skin and therefore injure it, making them open to infections.

Speaking to The Sun, Dr Jane said: "This could be anything from squeezing spots to picking scabs, or anything causing a break in healthy skin.

"This is known as compulsive skin picking disorder."

She said there is a strong link between mental health and subsequent actions involving picking the skin, hair or nails.

"The most common reason for this is stress and anxiety, so people that have this problem often have ruminating thoughts and follow through with these repetitive behaviours."

Dr Jane added that excessive hair pulling is often an emotional response to trauma, and can be associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, stress and anxiety.

She also said that it can be a form of self harm – where the person is harming themselves to release emotional stress or concerns.

"The main key signs of the behaviours getting out of control is if the skin becomes harmed or infected.

"For example with hair pulling, a bald patch could form. Damage to the nails or skin can lead to scabs, scarring or infections.

"This might also be associated with a deterioration in their mental health, so they might not be sleeping well, feeling stressed and using drugs and alcohol to mask symptoms, so it’s important with these patients to explore the deeper reasons behind these behaviours."

She was keen to highlight that there is a difference between hair falling out because of stress and it being pulled out.

"Some people can experience alopecia which can be either generalised or localised and the cause of this can be anything from an autoimmune disease or related to stress and anxiety.

"Excessive picking of the skin is almost always related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is a form of self harm to relieve emotional stress and trauma", she added.

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