8 Expert-Approved Strategies To Finally Stop Picking & Biting Your Cuticles
Confession time: I've picked my cuticles raw since I was in elementary school. In second-grade reading class, I vividly remember my friend Katie looking at me in horror while pointing to my thumb, which was dripping blood. My face flushed, and I was overcome with a level of deep shame only an awkward, misunderstood 8-year-old could understand.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and I'm a 31-year-old professional woman who mostly has her shit together...and yet I still gnaw and pick at my cuticles. I mean, manicurists have basically yelled at me upon seeing my hands, yet time and again I find myself picking, often without even realizing it until I've done some damage.
Turns out, I'm not alone in my bad habit. Cuticle picking (and all forms of skin picking) affects around 2 to 5 percent of the population, and of these people, 75 percent are women. Typically, the behavior starts in childhood, and it can arise for a whole bunch of different reasons.
As a person with loads of anxious thoughts, I know there's probably a powerful psychological component to all of this picking; so a few weeks ago, in an effort to finally break the habit, I reached out to a variety of experts to ask why some people can't stop picking and how the heck to break the habit. Here's what they had to say:
What prompts someone to keep picking their cuticles?
"We don't know the exact causes, and it may differ for different people, but one theory is that picking is a self-regulating behavior—it stimulates us when we are bored or sedentary (watching TV, at the computer, talking on the phone), and calms us when we are overstimulated (whether by negative emotions or stress, or positive excitement)," says Jennifer Raikes, executive director of the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.
Things like past trauma, a history of addiction, and even certain medications may also prompt someone to pick. "A lot of people take ADHD medications, which are stimulants, and stimulants are known to increase picking behavior," says Amy Wechsler, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist.
Whatever the reason, identifying what triggers your picking is a great first step in identifying strategies that will help you stop, says Raikes. Do you pick during particular activities? Times of day? When you are in a particular mood? Start noticing these things and writing them down, and then work on actively trying to halt the behavior.
What are the risks of chronically picking your cuticles?
In addition to your fingers looking pretty nasty, chronic cuticle picking, especially at the base of the nail, "can damage the nail beds, which causes permanent indentations in the middle of your fingernails," says Dr. Wechsler. There's also the risk of an infection called paronychia, which causes your cuticle and the surrounding area to become red, hot, sore, swollen, and filled with pus. You may even end up with a fever and need antibiotics.
8 strategies to stop cuticle picking for good.
When you've been picking as long as I have, experts agree that a multi-pronged approach may be needed to address the problem—since it's now an ingrained behavior. Typically, this involves taking steps to physically heal damaged cuticles and address the root cause of picking:
1. Create a physical barrier.
Attempting to stop picking with sheer willpower is definitely not a good approach, and you'll only set yourself up for disappointment. But there are some very practical things you can do to heal damaged tissue and help break the cycle—like wearing a bandage over the cuticles you tend to pick. "If something is covered, then it's hard to access, and when you try to get to them but can't, that's enough time for you to think, Oh, I shouldn't be doing this," says Dr. Wechsler. "Sometimes my patients will be walking around with lots of Band-Aids, but it's the only way to heal things."
2. Keep your cuticles hydrated.
If you're anything like me, the slightest frayed cuticle may trigger an all-out picking binge. (At first I tell myself I'm just "just smoothing things out," but it rarely stops there.) To reduce the likelihood of this, both Dr. Wechsler and dermatologist Lisa Airan, M.D., recommend using an oil to keep your cuticles hydrated and prevent the rough or frayed skin that may prompt picking. Any oil will do, but Dr. Airan is partial to Goē Oil, a semi-solid blend of 28 plant, fruit, and flower oils that, she says, "is super hydrating and an ideal solution for dry, cracked cuticles."
3. Move your body.
If you tend to pick more during stressful events or periods in your life (like me!), any means of lowering your cortisol levels and increasing endorphins and other feel-good, healing molecules can help bring you relief and curb your urge to pick, says Dr. Wechsler. This can be accomplished with anything from stretching to jogging to yoga to visiting a friend to having sex. Basically, to pick less, move your body more.
4. Notice (and release) negative thoughts and sensations.
If your picking habit is a conscious behavior that happens when you experience intense negative emotions, "try to understand that something is affecting you in the moment that needs to be released," says Michaela Chatzimanoli, a clinical psychologist at SkinPick.com. "Bring your attention to your body, then breathe in deeply through your nose and breathe out slowly through your mouth, allowing this release to happen in a different, more caring way."
5. Find a healthier way to keep your hands busy.
For people who tend to pick mindlessly, and not necessarily as a result of obvious negative emotions, a good strategy is to "do something else that involves the same muscle as the skin picking behavior," says Chatzimanoli. For example, instead of moving your fingers toward your cuticles to pick, try clenching a specific object like a stress ball, digging your fingernails into Silly Putty or a piece of clay (which is surprisingly satisfying) or applying pressure gently on a specific part of your body to reduce the urge to pick. If you tend to bite your cuticles as well, try chewing gum or always having a drink to sip on.
6. Try an N-acetylcysteine supplement.
While there's no magic pill for cuticle picking, one supplement may help. A 2016 study found that taking a 1,200-mg daily dose of N-acetylcysteine (NAC) significantly improved skin picking behavior in 47 percent of patients with excoriation (or skin picking) disorder, likely due to NAC's ability to affect mood-regulating neurotransmitters.
"Due to its beneficial actions on glutamate and dopamine, NAC can be an effective part of treatment for behavioral disorders," integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., told mbg. "I often see improvement in irritability and aggression as well as impulsivity and even depression. It's also been used in autism, OCD, and anxiety."
7. If things don't improve, consider cognitive behavioral therapy.
"If someone is maiming themselves, scarring themselves, having multiple bouts of infections, and still can't stop picking, then that's a problem. There's a positive feedback loop in your brain that has to be broken," says Dr. Wechsler. Severe picking can be considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder called excoriation or dermatillomania. In these cases, a more significant intervention may be needed, and all the experts I spoke with agreed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was it.
In broad terms, CBT involves working with a practitioner to identify the thoughts you're having while picking or engaging in any unwanted behavior and replacing them with healthier thoughts. "But it only works if you're motivated," says Dr. Wechsler. To find a therapist, search the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors' database.
8. Reward yourself with a manicure.
Once you start making some progress, rewarding yourself with a manicure can actually be a pretty effective strategy, says Dr. Wechsler. Seeing those smooth cuticles and polished nails might be just the motivation you need to keep up the healthy habits.
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