You probably know the feeling: You see a hangnail lingering on your finger and have this intense urge to pick it. But you knowyou shouldn’t do it—and so you try to resist…only to do it anyway.
Predictably, it’s painful—but it also feels sooo good. The question, then, is this: Why? Why do we subject ourselves to such misery, knowing that (a) it will hurt, and (b) it will only make things worse in the long run? Knowing these truths, why do we proceed?
“One of the main reasons people have a compulsion to pick is that it feels very gratifying when the thing comes out,” says board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D. “Even though they know it’s not good for them in the long run, it feels like this huge release, and that momentary release can feel very good, so people keep doing it.”
Another reason people pick is that the thing being picked—whether it’s a hangnail, a scab, a pimple, or whatever else—actually hurts. Sometimes a lot. And picking it seems like a solution to that problem. “Depending on where the particular piece of skin is located, it can feel like there is pressure built up under the skin, and picking it can seem like a way to relieve that pressure,” says Bowe.
Lastly, anxiety could also be to blame. “When people have anxiety, they often feel like they need to do something to relieve that anxiety—and picking scabs may be one of those things,” says Bowe. Some people smoke cigarettes, some people twist their hair, some people pick scabs—but we’re all doing it as a reaction to a general feeling of unease.
Breaking the Bad Habit
Spoiler alert: It’s hard. After all, you wouldn’t do it in the first place if there weren’t some element of it that felt really—if weirdly—good. That said, it’s possible: The best thing to do is to replace the habit with another habit. “If you train yourself to do something else instead of picking, it will be easier to stop doing it than if you just order yourself to quit,” says Bowe.
Her suggestions: If you’re a compulsive skin picker, put a spot treatment on the wound—whether it’s a scab or a pimple—instead of getting after it. “You’ll still feel like you’re being proactive in helping yourself heal, but it won’t make things worse,” she says. Plus, gels and creams can feel really soothing, which will help calm your nerves (and possibly ease the pain).
If you’re a hangnail picker, Bowe suggests getting a really expensive manicure to help you quit biting. “Not only will you keep your cuticles from fraying, you’ll also feel bad about ruining the manicure you just paid for, so it’ll be easier to stop,” she says. And if all else fails? “Chew gum,” suggests Bowe.