Pulling hair, biting nails, picking skin – these behaviours are common, if frustrating, behaviours. But what do they mean for the people who suffer from them?
Researchers from the Institut Universitaire en Santementale de Montreal and the University of Montreal, Canada, investigated in a new study.
The researchers found that participants engaged in repetitive behaviours when under stress or when they felt bored or frustrated, but not when they were relaxed.
“Chronic hair-pulling, skin-picking disorder and nail-biting and various other habits are known as body-focused repetitive behaviours. Although these behaviours can induce important distress, they also seem to satisfy an urge and deliver some form of reward,” said principal investigator Kieron O’Connor.
O’Connor and colleagues studied 24 individuals with these repetitive behaviours and compared them with 24 control subjects who did not have body-focused repetitive behaviours.
The participants completed questionnaires to assess emotions such as boredom, anger, guilt, irritability and anxietyand also took part in a clinical evaluation.
Next, the participants were exposed to different experimental situations, each designed to stir one of four emotions:
The team found that, during the boredom and frustration experiments, subjects with a history of body-focused repetitive behaviours reported a stronger desire to engage in the behaviours. However, participants were not more likely to pull their hair, bite their nails or pick their skin during the relaxation experiment.
According to the authors of the study, these results confirm that participants engage in these behaviours when under stress or when they feel bored or frustrated, and as such are not simply “nervous” habits.
O’Connor explains the study’s findings:
“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviours may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform tasks at a ‘normal’ pace. They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom.”