I can't stop picking my skin! 3 ways to start your recovery

Many of us have picked at a scab or a spot at some time in our lives. It’s a natural behaviour and for many kids, it’s a part of discovering what your body does and how it reacts. The vast majority of us don’t do this very often and as an adult, we know it’s better to let our skin take care of itself. It is its own efficient healing machine.


For some people, however, skin picking or dermatillomania can become a compulsive behaviour that takes over your life and makes you feel terrible about yourself. This BFRB (body-focused repetitive behaviour) just as hairpulling, cheek chewing or the more commonplace nail biting is thought to affect between 1 and 6% of the population at some stage in their lives.

When you have a skin-picking compulsion you can waste many hours picking, scratching squeezing and digging at your skin, often alone, sometimes in front of a mirror and sometimes using tools such as tweezers or pins. Some skin pickers concentrate on one part of their body others move from one to the other.

When you're in a skin-picking mindset, you might want your skin to feel smooth and dig at any perceived bump/spot/insect bite you feel on the surface. You may want to get rid of any rough patches or flakey skin. This in turn makes the problem worse as your behaviour creates broken skin and then scabs which will in turn be picked at. A never-ending destructive cycle.

You may feel very absorbed and interested, almost excited at what you find as you pick and dig. The products are observed with a feeling of relief, release and satisfaction. You’ve ‘got it out’, you can now get on with your day… until the shame and embarrassment of what you have just done replace any ‘positive’ feelings.

‘It gets under my skin’, takes on a new meaning and ‘feeling comfortable in your own skin’ feels further and further away from your own reality.

Why does this behaviour get so out of hand?

It often started as an unconscious coping mechanism. It’s now something you do when you feel over-stimulated (angry, frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed, unsettled in some way) or under-stimulated (bored, unsure of what to do next, procrastinating or tired ). You unconsciously use it as a way of distracting your attention away from what is really bothering you. Again unconsciously, this gives you the feeling that you are in control. It‘s as if you say to yourself that you can’t control what is happening around you or how you feel, but you can control what happens to this bit of skin, to this spot.

This coping mechanism has now taken on a life of its own and has become a problem that takes up much of your time and energy.

This is not self-harming behaviour, your thoughts are directed towards making your skin better, clearer, smoother, blemish-free, less clogged up, free from impurities, you want to help your skin. The damage is a result of this 'crooked' thinking. In fact, you are dismayed at what you see once you are no longer in a picking daze and then spend time covering up and ‘healing’ the wounds.

You know that this compulsive behaviour is not a healthy way to deal with uncomfortable feelings or negative thoughts and yet you can’t seem to stop. The lure of ‘it all being better once you’ve got that spot or that bump out’ takes over.

Picking creates physical damage but also psychological distress as work, personal relationships, and your family life can suffer as a result. Your self-confidence can hit rock bottom as you feel more and more unable to stop. You may disengage from social activities, sports or exercise, that you used to enjoy. As you go out less, you pick more and the vicious cycle increases.

Skin picking is a difficult behaviour to stop on your own. It’s an intermeshed muddle of pure habit and routine, your automatic response in and to certain situations has now taken on a life of its own.

However, there are steps you can take that will help you. Below are three essential steps to take.

Three steps you can take

1. Understand your behaviour

Stand back from it. Observe as if you were in the audience of your own life. If you don’t have a clear idea of when you pick, where you pick, what time of day you tend to pick more at, what your mood is before, what you enjoy about it, how you feel afterwards etc. you cannot deal with it and put in place effective strategies.

Although this is something that you do every day maybe for many hours, it may never have been something that you have sat down and identified patterns for… All self-help literature or therapists will use this as a starting point. Know your enemy to be able to fight it!

Big breath – get a notebook – small so that you can pop it into any bag and start to note down your observations.

2. Believe that you can stop

Believe you can stop and that you will find your way to limiting the impact this has on your life. Be open, be curious and expect to find solutions.

Total 100% never ever picking again may not happen and that is OK. The principal concern of any therapist will be to give you coping strategies so that even if you find yourself picking, you can a) stop easily and ‘naturally’ and b) you can get on with your life without still thinking about what might be under there that needs to be ‘out’.

3. Create a mantra

Create your own positive, affirming mantra and use it frequently. Words are powerful! The thoughts and images that words evoke can change how you feel and behave.

How cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy can help

A cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist can be your expert partner and guide on this journey. Initially, they will help you understand your picking. They will help you discover the links between your mood and your actions and how you can control them instead of the inverse.

They will then help deepen your own healing ability during hypnosis as they take you on an exploratory journey using your imagination to steer you towards solutions, strong positive images and powerful suggestions that will overcome and overpower the imposter that skin picking has become in your life.

When you use CBT hypnotherapy as part of your recovery your power is twofold. On the one hand, you learn practical, easily applicable changes to routines, situations, and ‘traditional’ cognitive responses that will disrupt and distract you from skin picking. And on a deeper level, in hypnosis, you feed your unconscious mind or internal guide with strong positive imagery to root the change you are making in your life.

Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy is not something that ‘is done’ to you, but rather a healing tool that is used in partnership with your hypnotherapist.

You are always in control of your recovery, which strengthens your confidence. You can now use different skills and strategies to respond to challenging feelings or situations in more helpful ways and you know how to react if there is any future tendency to pick.

It is no longer an insurmountable awful problem. It becomes a minor nuisance, a throwback to something you used to do but don’t anymore.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Teddington, Middlesex, TW11
Written by Morag Stevenson, Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist
Teddington, Middlesex, TW11

Morag Stevenson is a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist who specialises in helping people overcome and manage stress and anxiety.
She's particularly interested in BFRB's (Body-Focused Repetitive Disorders). She works using CB hypnotherapy, mindfulness and relaxation techniques.

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