If you have a compulsive habit, like nail biting, hair pulling, or skin picking, then you’ve probably been told that it’s a symptom of the stress you are under and the associated anxiety you’re likely feeling. Many people simply think it’s a nervous habit that occurs seemingly randomly, oftentimes they don’t even realize they’re doing it, and so it’s just a trait they have to live with.
While stress and anxiety certainly have something to do with compulsive habits, an interesting study has shown that there is much more to it than what most of us assume. Instead, having a perfectionist type of personality may be a stronger underlying cause of these compulsions.
The original study titled “The impact of emotions on body-Focused repetitive behaviors: evidence from a non-treatment-seeking sample” was published in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry by Dr. Kieron O’Connor. He is a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and the lead author of the study which found that perfectionism is a major driving force behind compulsive habits.
For the study, researchers divided participants into two categories, those with body-focused repetitive disorders and those without them. They were then asked about their organizational habits and how often they experienced emotions like boredom, guilt, irritability, anger, and anxiety. Afterward, each subject was placed in situations that were designed to elicit particular feelings which included boredom, stress, frustration, and relaxation.
The results showed that the group of people with disorders engaged in their compulsive habits and behaviors during every situation except for one, the scenario designed for relaxation. That means when subjects were feeling stressed, bored, or frustrated, they all had the urge to bite their nails or pick their skin. The urge disappeared when they were feeling relaxed, so stress and anxiety were not the only trigger. Dr. O’Connor wrote that:
“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform tasks at a normal pace.”
As such, they bite their nails in an attempt to redirect their focus and energy in a more productive type of manner. It helped them cope and deal with the boredom and frustration of not being in control or able to do something.
Perfectionism may sound like an appealing trait to have, but the obsessive compulsive side effects of it are most certainly not. In the future researchers want to look more into the link and develop treatments to help stop the urges from happening. It’s interesting stuff, especially if you’re a nail biter!