Stress in the workplace or home can contribute to high levels of anxiety and create habits, sometimes physical, that are difficult to undo.
18.1% of adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Furthermore, many patients are misdiagnosed, or undetected, which brings the number somewhere closer to to 30%.
In all my naivety, I never found myself to be an anxious person. I am typically calm when things go awry. I have been called levelheaded. My childhood traumas do not keep me up at night. I never would have attributed my physical compulsions to my inner anxieties — matters and worries that I did not even know were lingering on my mind. Only recently did I notice the relationship between myself, my thoughts, and my skin.
I have suffered from Dermatophagia, a condition where an individual will pick or bite the skin around their fingers, for the majority of my life. Never a nail biter, always a cannibal. My anxiety and my inner uneasiness was not apparent to anyone, not even myself, but was physically exposed by hand to mouth.
Known as “wolf biters,” the act of biting or chewing the cuticle creates a calming effect, and sometimes, an individual may not even be aware of what they are compulsively doing. Dermatophagia has been linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because of the constant desire to repeatably and ritualistically pick and prod. Stopping is not an option for those with this condition. Once you start, it’s a downward spiral and with 3.3 million people in the United States suffering from OCD, physical patterns such as this are more common that we may think.
Therapy for dermatophagia includes artificial nails, talking to a therapist, or treatment by prescription of antidepressants. As I age, my condition fluctuates. Some days are worse than others. I have never found a reason to seek treatment; however, I do practice small steps such as moisturizing and painting my nails, anything to refrain from puncturing my skin any further.
For myself, I am not consciously focused on a stressful situation but am instead, sitting quietly at my desk, riding the train, or writing this article, fiddling with the skin around my nails. And while I want to refrain from the obsession, which is essentially what this has become, I am unable to stop the irreplaceable damage (i.e. scarring, discoloration, pain). The throbbing pain is constant, but hey, it always has been. The germs are unavoidable and infections are always a possibility. Unattractive to most, unsanitary to all, dermatophagia is an honest connotation of someone’s insides — their concerns, their questions, and their distress is publicly but silently displayed through the cracks and grooves on their skin.