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Biting your nails or picking your skin can be indicative of a serious problem — here's why

INSIDER logoINSIDER 3/10/2018
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  • Body-focused repetitive behaviors cause you to harm yourself through certain compulsive actions.
  • BSRBs include behaviors like pulling out your own hair or picking at your skin.
  • There are a variety of treatments for BSRBs, and recovery is possible.

Body-focused repetitive behaviors, or BFRBs, are compulsive urges to touch your body in a way that damages it. These behaviors can include things like pulling out your hair, picking at your skin, or biting your lips.

But BFRBs aren't just bad habits - they're complicated disorders that can significantly disrupt a person's life. Fortunately, they are oftentimes treatable.

Here are a few signs you might be struggling with a body-focused repetitive behavior.

There are many different types of body-focused repetitive behaviors, and you could have one or several of them.

According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, common BFRBsinvolve pulling out head or body hair (trichotillomania), picking or rubbing at skin (excoriation), and biting nails past the nail bed or chewing on cuticles (onychophagia).

Other frequently diagnosed BFRBs include repetitively biting the inside of your mouth or lips, eating scabs, or chewing on your tongue.

You could have a BFRB if you are causing significant damage to your skin, tissues, or hair

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Though things like nail-biting and skin-rubbing may not sound particularly destructive, these behaviors can have extremely damaging consequences if performed on a daily basis.

"All of us do some skin picking or hair pulling, whether you're going to admit it or not, but the people who come in for treatment are the people who are seeing significant tissue damage or hair loss," professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School Dr. Nancy Keuthen told US News.

For example, the TLC Foundation reported that people with a skin-related BFRB might scratch, pick at, or dig into their skin to the point where discoloration, scarring, and severe tissue damage might occur. Some people even dig through their skin to the muscle, which could lead to infections and disfigurement.

Chronic cheek-biting can lead to oral lesions and sores, while compulsive hair-pulling can leave a person with bald patches or repetitive motion injuries to joints and muscles.

Another sign is that you've tried to stop, but can't

Everyone picks at their skin or pulls out a hair once in a while. The difference is that people with body-focused repetitive behaviors have tried to stop, but simply can't.

Most people with BFRBs "have tried repeatedly to decrease or stop. [Their behaviors] cause distress and impairment in functioning," Dr. Keuthen told US News.

BFRBs such as hair-pulling and skin-picking are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They're considered to be obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, but having BSRBs isn't the same thing as having OCD.

If you repeatedly promise yourself that you won't bite your nails or pull at your hair, only to find yourself relapsing soon thereafter, you might be dealing with a BSRB.

Your habit might be a BFRB if it's causing problems in your relationships or at work

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One hallmark of body-focused repetitive behaviors is that they make life harder for the person experiencing them.

"BFRBs become disorders when they cause distress and interfere with a person's work, family, or quality of life," professor of psychiatry, Tara Beris, wrote in Psychology Today.

That distress is what makes BSRBs different from normal grooming behaviors or harmless tics. They can strain relationships when people around the sufferer don't understand why their loved one is harming themselves.

Plus, it can potentially become an issue if you can't control your urges during work hours.

You might find yourself wearing certain clothing or canceling plans to conceal the evidence of your behavior.

A sign of having a BFRB is going to great lengths to hide the evidence of your compulsions, the TLC Foundation suggests.

This might mean wearing long sleeves or pants if you pick at the skin on your arms or legs, donning a hat in public if you pull your hair out, or simply not leaving the house because you're afraid people might notice and judge your behavior.

If you notice that you're changing your daily life to accommodate your body-focused behavior, it may be time to seek professional help.

People with BFRBs often feel ashamed or hopeless about their condition

It's common for BFRBs to affect a person's mental health. This is one clue that your "harmless" habit might be something more serious.

According to the TLC Foundation, "for many, shame and embarrassment … causes painful isolation and results in a great deal of emotional distress, placing them at risk for a co-occurring psychiatric disorder, such as a mood or anxiety disorder."

Keep a close eye on any emotions that arise before, during, or after you engage in any body-based habits. If you find that the behavior makes you feel bad about yourself, it may be a BFRB.

Treatment for body-focused repetitive behaviors is available, but there's no one-size-fits-all solution

The TLC Foundation advises that even though no single treatment has been found to be the answer for everyone, research into BSRBs is expanding and there are promising new therapies on the rise. Current treatments for body-focused repetitive behaviors may involve cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication.

"Recovery is possible, but you need to accept yourself and where you're at with picking or pulling. Loving who you are will enhance your life," Nova Scotia native and BSRB sufferer, Angela Hartlin told US News.

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