Emotional Health and Skin Picking

Tasneem Abrahams
Nov 28th, 2016

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We operate in a very medicalized model of health and wellness. This is partially the reason mental health has suffered such severe stigma for many, many years. We tend to discount the intangible, including the influence of the mind and our emotions on our well being. However for many people with compulsive skin picking disorder, the onset and continued struggle with the disorder is linked to their emotional and psychological health. While there may be neurological or physiological explanations and descriptions available for how the brain or body functions during times when the urge to pick is high, it still does not answer the why. Dr Joy Saville, a doctor with the Tibb Ibn Sina Institute believes that we need to look at wellness holistically in order to combat ill health. Dr Saville is passionate about health and wellness, and is particularly interested in the marriage btween ancient and modern systems of medicines. She has shared her insights with us in this guest blog:

What is Tibb?

Tibb is an ancient, traditional system of medicine dating back many thousands of years and is based on the principles and philosophies of the founding fathers of medicine like Hippocrates, Galen and Ibn Sina. Tibb is also known as Unani-Tibb which directly translates to Greek medicine, where Unani is a Persian word meaning Greek and Tibb is an Arabic word which means medicine. Tibb is arguably the foundation of modern western medicine and was the mainstay of medicine till the 1700’s.

The Six Causes

According to Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, he describes 6 main causes which underlie the onset of most illness conditions (this does not include congenital defects or chromosomal abnormalities). These causes are also known as the lifestyle or governing factors. Included are environmental air and breathing, food and drink, exercise and rest, sleep and wakefulness, elimination and retention, and the emotions. The role that the emotions play in health cannot be understated. The ancient Greeks considered the health of the mind to be just as important as the health of the body.  Their ideal of health was expressed in the maxim, Mens sana in corpore sano, or, "A sound mind in a healthy body."  Tibb is holistic in that it views the mind and body as being interconnected, and essentially one. More recently, the centre for disease control and prevention (CDC) stated that 85% of all illness conditions have an emotional element. 

There is much to be discovered about how the emotions affect the body. In Tibb everything in the universe is assigned qualities of heat, cold, moistness and dryness. When you get angry, you feel hot, hence the derivation of phrases like “hot headed” to describe someone who expresses their anger often. Therefore, anger is linked to qualities of heat and dryness (excess heat dissipates moistness). Likewise, every emotion has a qualitative effect on the body. In addition, every temperament, that is your unique constitution which includes personality, displays characteristic emotions. For example, the bilious temperament often displays anger, irritability, and impatience, whereas the melancholic temperaments are more likely to display anxiety, worry, and depression. Emotions affect our organs depending on the nature and function of that organ. The liver which produces bile is most negatively affected by excessive anger, and worry can often be felt in your stomach.

The Physiology of Emotions

Molecules of emotions is a term coined by Dr Candace Pert who describes the physiology of emotions. She deduces that every emotion is a peptide ligand. A ligand is essentially a key which when bound to a lock or receptor site changes its shape on the cell resulting in a cascade of events instructing that cells function. She also states that every emotion has a unique peptide, much like an endorphin brings us happiness and joy. What is more interesting to note is that Pert and her team found receptors on immune cells for almost every peptide found in the brain. This is the basis for the study of psychoneuroimmunology. We know that dysfunction in the immune system largely underpins the development of various illness conditions including cancer.  Another discovery made by Pert and her team are neuropeptide rich nodal points found along the longitudinal axis of the body. The discovery of these points are significant as it highlights that emotion rich peptides are not only isolated in areas like the amygdala in the brain, but also in the rest of the body.

Managing Emotions

Managing our emotions are as critical as wearing your safety belt. A healthy balance must be established to ensure healthy and constructive expression of our emotions. Both the overexpression or suppression and repression of emotions can have detrimental effects on our health. Below are a few practical tips on how to manage your emotions:

  • Recognise the symptoms of emotions - this may include feeling hot and flushed, an increased heart rate and breathing rate, with your body becoming more tense. Acknowledging these feelings of distress and discomfort is often the first step in properly dealing with and overcoming your emotions.
  • Breathe – proper breathing can help overcome negative emotions. There are various breathing exercises that can assist the body to better deal with emotional imbalances. A good starting point is slow and deep breathing exercises, focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. That is distending your stomach upon breathing in and pulling in your stomach on breathing out.
  • Exercise helps to release pent up frustration and also releases endorphins.
  • Follow a healthy diet – our molecules of emotion are greatly influenced by the types of food we eat. Getting adequate sleep is also crucial in maintaining a positive mood.
  • Express yourself - Expressing your feelings can be a fantastic way of releasing built up tension, increase mood and giving you the space and time to think more clearly. You can express yourself in a variety of different ways such as painting or dancing or by simply writing about what is making you feel the way that you are feeling. Writing is an excellent way to purge your feelings.   You might also find talking to your friends and family a useful tool to help you get a different perspective on a situation.
  • Get help from a professional – You may need the support of a professional to help you change certain core beliefs that have resulted during early childhood development resulting in negative emotional behaviours.
  • Change your thinking – Something that is very close to my heart is the way in which we think about ourselves. We are often so self-critical. “I am not good enough.” “I am not smart enough.” “Oh my gosh, I am so fat.” “I am not beautiful”. It would be unacceptable for us to say things like this to others, yet we internalise these thoughts and words daily. Dr Masaru Emoto did a water crystal experiment where he exposed water to either positive or negative words, images or music. Upon freezing this water, he would view the water crystals under the microscope. The water crystals which were exposed to positive influences produced beautiful crystals, whereas the ones exposed to negative words and imaginary produced haphazard shapes and structures. Dr Emoto believes that if human beings are composed of 60% water, we can only imagine the impact that our words and thoughts have on health. We need to love ourselves. We need to look in the mirror daily and like a mantra speak life back into our lives. Loving yourself breaks the cycle of fear which subsequently allows us to freely express ourselves.

“Kind words are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

- Mother Theresa


Tasneem Abrahams

Tasneem is an Occupational Therapist, and a graduate of the TLC foundation for BFRBs professional training institute. Her experience in mental health includes working at Lentegeur Psychiatric hospital forensic unit (South Africa), Kingston Community Adult Learning Disability team (UK), Clinical Specialist for the Oasis Project Spelthorne Community Mental Health team (UK). Tasneem is a member of both the editorial team and the clinical staff on Skinpick, providing online therapy for people who suffer from excoriation (skin picking) disorder.

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