Is Dermatillomania an Addiction?

Tasneem Abrahams
Dec 23rd, 2014

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Dermatillomania has recently been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM5) as a Body-Focussed Repetitive Behaviour (BFRB), within the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Spectrum. This suggests that while the behaviours of compulsive skin picking are related to OCD, it is not an OCD in itself, but is better defined with similar conditions in its own category. BFRBs are characterized by repetitive, direct body-to-body contact, which unintentionally causes physical harm to the body. While the urge to engage in these behaviours are defined as compulsions, some have described the inability to stop picking and the irresistable nature of the urge to be similar to addiction. An estimated 25% of people suffering from a BFRB are also addicts. And, since underreporting is an unfortunate but very true phenomena in both dermatillomania and addiction, it’s likely these numbers are even higher. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that dermatillomania, nor any of ther other BFRBs is an addiction, it only points to a high comorbidity, which can be influenced by many other factors. To understand the connection, one needs to first understand what what an addiction and a compusion is.

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What is addiction?

Most will agree that an addiction constitutes a dependence on something that causes the addict to act beyond reason or without cares for their own self-preservation in order to satisfy the addiction. Compulsion, on the other hand, implies something that is done out of an overwhelming urge that the person feels they cannot control, and although functioning is negatively impacted, there is no dependency on the behaviour. Often, compulsions are a part of addiction, though not always: OCD, for example, involves many compulsive behaviors which would not be considered addictions. Likewise, an addiction might become a compulsion when the activity or substance no longer provides pleasure – only an escape from the desire to continue engaging in the activity or substance.

The Difference Between Addiction and Compulsion

Another key disticntion for whether something is addictive or compulsive is insight and awareness. Although dermatillomania is largely undiagnosed, this is more becuase there is lack of awareness by the general public that it is a known clinical condition and because the embarrassing nature of the behaviour often results in people suffering in silence. However, people who engage in compulsive skin picking are highly aware that their behavior is harmful to themselves even while engaging in the behaviour. In fact one of the DSM5 criteria for a diagnosis of dermatillomania is that the individual will have attempted on more than one occasion to stop picking and failed. One could argue that addicts also make attempts to stop engaging in their addictive behaviours. However, this level of insight usually only comes after extensive damage to both self and social circumstances, with input from those around the person with the addiction. In general, people with addictions tend lack awareness that there is a problem or of the harm their behaviours or actions are inflicting on themselves or those around them with their actions, particularly while they are experiencing the urge to succumb to their addictions or while engaging in the behaviour. 

Is Dermatillomania an Addiction or a Compulsion?

With dermatillomania, the line between addiction and compulsion is even fuzzier, with varying opinions from skin pickers themsleves and experts in the field as to the difference. Some major studies have revealed that dermatillomania may be more closely linked to substance abuse disorder than to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Research has showed that more females present with dermatillomania than males, which goes against OCD trends. Furthermore, the element of pleasure that is often found in skin picking is completely lacking in OCD, and the obsessive thoughts that are the hallmark of OCD are rarely found in dermatillomania. Instead, dermatillomania hits some of the major signs of substance abuse disorder and other addictive personality patterns: engaging in something harmful despite being aware of its negativity, feelings of inability to control oneself, the overwhelming urge to pick at skin, and pleasurable or relieved feelings that accompany and follow the act. In fact, 97% of people report that they experience physical and mental pleasure during their picking ritual, which would put most people under the “addiction” rather than “compulsion” category.

The personal experiences of skin pickers often closely mirror the personal experiences of habitual substance abusers, as well. Testimonials from people with dermatillomania often involve feelings of intense shame, embarrassment, and self-hatred or anger associated with picking. Many people with skin picking disorder will say that they are only going to pick a few scabs, then find themselves hours or more later picking at many different places on their body. They report feeling intense pleasure in the moment followed by feelings of grief and shame. These feelings are not only similar to the feelings of substance abusers, they’re nearly identical. Imagine the alcoholic who swears to only have one drink, only to end up blacking out and waking up with a hangover and feeling guilty and embarrassed.

Photo: María del Mar Rodriguez Carnero of Chambao


For Pleasure not Pain

If pleasure is one of the defining characteristics that make dermatillomania a possible addiction, where does that pleasure come from? Dr. Joseph Shrand, of Harvard Medical School, CASTLE, and High Point Treatment Centers, offers one explanation: any sort of physical pain, including picking or pinching one’s own skin, releases a certain amount of endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are similar to morphine and offers the same sort of pleasurable experience; any sort of self-injury is likely a habit formed based on the desire for endorphins. But can you really be addicted to endorphins, one of our body’s natural hormones? Likely so; consider the addictive properties of gambling, which also requires no outside chemical or hormone, or the addictive properties of “thrill seeking”, in which people can become addicted to the release of adrenaline. Endorphins give us relief from the emotional pain we may be feeling – if only temporarily – while also numbing the physical pain in the immediate moment.

Why do we need to know?

Being able to treat dermatillomania as an addiction rather than as a part of OCD or as an Impulse Control Disorder can open up new treatment options and paths to recovery: the more knowledge and awareness we have of this often-overlooked condition, we can do more specific research and employ more experimental medications and treatments. For anyone suffering from dermatillomania, this can make the difference between continuing to suffer with the condition and finding an alternative treatment option that might work for them once and for all.

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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