How often have you heard people say they bite nails when they are in stressful situations? Definitely quite often.
Well, researches suggest otherwise – nail-biting and other repetitive body-focused behaviors are due to boredom and frustration and not because of being nervous. Surfacing evidence reveals that people who compulsively bite their nails, pull their hair or pick their skin are often perfectionists. They involve themselves in these bodily behaviors out of boredom, irritation and dissatisfaction.
You know as many as one in 20 people suffer from such body-focused recurrent behaviors until they injure their appearance or cause pain to oneself. All of these disorders are associated with tic disorders and more distantly with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Once a habit, such repetitive behaviors are extremely hard to give up and people who indulge in them seem to think that they do so because they are nervous, deeming oneself as weak-willed to overcome it.
One of the studies provided a proof for this theory that perfectionism drives these habits rather than stress. The research had 48 participants of which half had these disorders and half didn’t. All of them were surveyed on organizational behavior and their ability to manage their emotions.
The participants who had disorders scored as organizational perfectionists, demonstrating a predisposition to over-plan and overwork themselves. They also displayed getting frustrated quickly without being too active.
Researchers took this study a step ahead and put the participants in four different situations drafted to incite four different emotions:
– A movie of a plane crash was shown to provoke feelings of stress
– Relaxation was promoted by making them watch a video of waves
– To evoke feelings of stress, they were presented with a difficult puzzle but told otherwise.
– Making the participants sit alone in a room was supposed to elicit boredom
Going back to the earlier results, what do you think would have happened? Indeed, participants who had the disorders indulged in body-focused behaviors across all the situations except for when they watched the video of the waves. This study has important implications for psychologists today.
Since it is now becoming a popular opinion that stress might be far from the sole cause of these compulsions, why are that boredom and frustration are considered more important triggers?
Well, perfectionist personality is very well indicated by the presence of these two emotions. Earlier researches concluded that people involve in scratching or biting because it actually helps them feel better and this may be satisfying for a perfectionist – they might feel satisfied by following their urge to do something rather than sit idle. Although it is relieving initially, pain, shame and humiliation follow.
Now, a perfectionist would probably feel irritated or frustrated on top of feeling these negative emotions and the body-focused behaviors continue to repeat – it is an unending vicious cycle.
These findings have real repercussions for the therapists. Understanding the cause of these compulsions will help them treat patients better. Studies have revealed that their behaviors can be eased using the cognitive-behavior therapy. With the right kind of treatment, these patients can be made to learn to think and act differently when the tension builds up. It will help them end the urge before it arises.
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