anxiety · bad habits · social anxiety

Compulsions Born From Anxiety

When I first started this blog last year, I really and truly thought social anxiety was the only main factor having a negative influence on my life. I was wrong. I have realized through blogging that some of the things I blame on social anxiety is actually a mix of both social anxiety and anxiety in general. And looking back to the earlier parts of my life, I’m sure I already had anxiety problems from a very young age except I wasn’t fully aware of it, partially because of ignorance about my own mental health because I didn’t have proper information to know what I was experiencing was an actual issue or because I had some knowledge that what I was doing/feeling was interfering with my wellness but I didn’t know how to stop. One outlet for anxiety was a number of compulsions I either have had or still have.

As a child, I used to bite the grown out, white parts of my nails until they were worn down enough that I could gnaw off parts of them with my teeth. It’s difficult to remember what specifically made me anxious enough that I’d be sitting or standing and chewing on my nails absentmindedly. Whether real or imagined, my memory is of feeling anxious but being quite disassociated from my own emotions. Like feeling anxiety because of something or someone and having a reaction due to it yet not fully processing it in my own mind. This habit lasted all throughout grammar school on and off.

In junior high school, a new and darker compulsion took hold. At the time, I didn’t think of what I did as an act of self-harm but maybe it is. Junior high school was a painful time for me. Before I talk about the compulsion itself, I feel the need to explain what led up to it. I had lost my best friend from grammar school, who moved away and got accepted to a different junior high school. Besides her, I had hung out with her group of friends then but I remember I was very shy around them and hardly spoke. I loathed being called on during class to answer a question. Most of the time if I didn’t know an answer, I felt too self-conscious (with everyone staring at me expectantly) to admit that I didn’t have the answer. What usually followed was a brief silence before another student would comment something like, “Oh, she’s really shy”, and the teacher would try to engage with me (in front of everyone) and I’d give some pitiful response (or no response at all) before the teacher would move on to the lesson. I remember some of the boys in the class started harassing me or throwing comments my way because they knew I wouldn’t say anything back. Conveniently it was always when the teacher wasn’t around. Or if it was, it was during the times I wouldn’t have an answer when the teacher called on me and then someone would say in passing, “She never talks” or “I’ve never heard her talk before”. I heard those kinds of comments a lot in school. Maybe those people said such things without realizing how it affected me, but it was those remarks that made me even less self-confident about myself. At home, I was unhappy and constantly dreading the next day of school because it meant I’d have to see faces of people who were going to make fun of me again.

I did not confide in my parents. Many times before when it was known by them that I was being mocked by classmates or having someone bother me, my mom would be the one to tell me that I needed to speak up for myself or tell the teacher. And you know what? That didn’t do shit. In 5th grade, some guy in English class messed around with me by hiding my pencil box repeatedly. I finally had enough and told the teacher. The teacher was useless. She didn’t even check his desk to see if he was hiding it and only asked him point blank if he took my pencil box. I was close to crying at this point because it took so much courage out of me to even get the teacher’s attention and she believed him when he said he didn’t do anything and she just walked away.

There was one day in junior high school where I had reached my limit with my mental anguish. The stomach-clenching feeling of fear and humiliation every time one of the bullies said something unkind to me, and the embarrassment and shame I’d feel every time I couldn’t bring myself to retort back and instead would just bow my head and hope they’d go away. I actually remember thinking, This is it. I’ve had it. At that point, I wanted to get back at them in any way possible. I couldn’t do it with words so instead, I opted for a strange and unconventional method. I chose to steel myself from them in the only way I knew how which was to not betray any emotion on my face if I could help it. I imagined myself to be a statue that couldn’t feel a thing and that if I did feel, I could force myself out of feeling anything at all. This method started to bleed into other parts of my life, though. I began to use it to cope with other anxiety-inducing situations, where my default was to pretend like I wasn’t being spoken to and/or couldn’t be bothered to hear what the person was saying. In truth, trying to give the impression that I was essentially made of ice and felt nothing in my heart was a failed endeavor. I might have looked that way on the outside but inside my turmoil was building. My feelings, without an outlet to unleash them, caused me to self-harm.

The first time was an accident, I think. I grew out my hair very long in those days and often had trouble combing through all of it without getting snags and having to undo the bunched up hairs by hand. I took to combing my hair during the evenings in my room. I hit a snag as I was raking the comb through one section of hair. Again, my memory here is failing me as I don’t remember what my state of mind was at this exact moment. The little bit I do recall is a sudden overflow of anger, frustration, and sadness over whatever I was thinking about and suddenly the snag in the comb seemed so insignificant and stupid that I just didn’t care anymore. I forcibly ripped the comb through the snag, which pulled off a portion of the knotted hair as well as some hairs right from the scalp. It hurt badly but at the same time, it was like I needed the pain. I wouldn’t say I went for my comb every time I was feeling anxious and wished for some kind of outlet but I certainly willingly subjected myself to pain (on multiple occasions after the first incident) that came from ripping through the hair snags. I believe I was depressed. I started taking long showers, with the water being very hot, almost as if I was testing my own endurance to see how high I could go. I also took to blinking rapidly if I was feeling extremely anxious. One of the worst pieces of “advice” my own father gave me then was to tell me that I shouldn’t blink so much because it looked “ugly/unattractive”. This really hurt my feelings. It’s true he didn’t know that my frequent blinking was a habit formed from heightened anxiety, but at the age I could barely communicate with him because of the language barrier factor since my Mandarin language skills at this time in my life was terrible and he spoke broken English, so how could I even tell him this?

It was also in junior high school that I got quite self-conscious about the fact I wasn’t a pretty white girl with manicured eyebrows and blonde hair. I would say television influenced my views then. Besides school, I spent most of my time on the computer or watching tv and was often left to my own devices since my parents worked a lot. I overplucked my eyebrows in an attempt to fashion them into the thin eyebrows I desired. After this embarrassment, I went a long time with no plucking to allow regrowth. The extremely hot showers led to bad scalp health. The result? I had a lot of dandruff and scratched often. An aunt of mine who was tutoring me in math on some nights noticed this. I did not tell her about my hot showers, but she suggested I ask my mom for a wide tooth comb so I could comb out dandruff if I needed to. She even drew me a picture of what the comb looked like since I didn’t have a clue. I showed it to my mom and explained what my aunt advised. This is one of the few times I felt like I took the initiative for once and it really made me feel ignored when my mom shut things down immediately by professing that I didn’t need a comb like that and I just needed to scrub my scalp harder when washing it to ensure my hair got clean. She even demonstrated this by washing my hair for me. Her hands grating on my scalp were like rocks scraping against my skin. I was almost afraid she’d draw blood. Instead I said nothing all throughout it, even when it hurt, and afterward, when she asked me if it was better, I nodded rather than try to argue with her.

Between junior high and high school was when I developed dermatillomania. I started picking healing scabs on my back, with some of the scabs having formed from popped pimples or from repeated scabbing once I picked off the last scab that was originally there. This is why I can’t wear those backless tank tops or dresses that show off my upper back because there is a ton of dark spots from scarring. I don’t know where, to begin with this disorder. For myself, I definitely feel the dermatillomania is interlinked with insecurity about my looks, using picking as an inappropriate self-soothing method for anxiety and boredom, and the general dissatisfaction with feeling something bumpy and ugly on my skin that I want to get off asap. The skin on my face, for the most part, was largely untouched by acne for the duration of high school, so I didn’t have a reason to pick my face then. It was the college years that I broke out A LOT which led to lots of picking. I still have some scarring on my face from it.

In high school, I also didn’t like how straight and limp my hair was. I grew obsessed with my split ends and used scissors to cut them off frequently. Once I saw a split end that was higher up on a strand of hair so instead of cutting it off I pulled out the whole strand from the root in the scalp. Unlike the hair ripping with the use of a comb, which was to allow myself to feel a physical pain to match the mental pain I felt, pulling out my own hair by hand made me feel in control and powerful. It was like a high that was temporary but I kept doing it in order to fulfill myself. I didn’t even consciously notice the downward spiral I took until I was at the bottom. I was pulling out hair during free periods and would be sitting in a cubicle at one of my school’s many “resource centers”, where students could get help with homework. In my own self-delusion, I had actually convinced myself that I was pulling out my hair to make myself look better or getting rid of “defective” hair. Even when I looked down on the floor and saw the small pile of hair strands that were mine, I saw it as being rid of things I didn’t need.

I took a lot to keeping letter penpals during high school as I thought it was the only way I could have friends and communicate with people. I clung to these friendships with an almost fervent clinginess by writing letters often. I became somewhat aware of my own unhealthy madness when a friend (who went to a different school) noted that I had written to her a lot about another friend of mine. The answer was right there in front of me but I dared not speak it out loud. It was clear I was very lonely and socially anxious. The hair pulling in the cubicles turned into hair pulling sometimes during class if it was a class I didn’t particularly like or sat in my seat perpetually worried about anyone as so much as looking at me or if the teacher would call on me to answer a question I wasn’t paying attention to.

What ended this particular compulsion was strangely cathartic because it happened so quickly. I must have taken out at least three strands of hair by the time I pulled out another. As I let it drop to the floor, I glanced to the side and saw a female student observing me. I immediately realized she saw what I did before I sheepishly turned away. I don’t know if it was that I wanted to get caught or simply needed to become aware that my hair pulling was not a good habit to continue on with. Prior to this incident, it never entered the spectrum of my mind that other people may have seen me pulling out strands of hair because I was so self-absorbed in the compulsion itself. Some time after, it could have been perhaps weeks or months later, I looked in the mirror and saw for the first time the slight thinning areas where I had pulled out my hair. I felt embarrassed but also shocked to see the evidence of what I’d done. All that time and I had been self-harming. If you’ve read up to this point, you’ll notice I haven’t used the medical term for hair pulling. Trichotillomania. I did this on purpose since the word itself is scary and writing it is pretty jarring. Out of all my past and present compulsions, trichotillomania is the one I’m most ashamed of. Even those closest to me in real life don’t know about this part of me.

I have not pulled out my hair anymore since high school although the dermatillomania still persists today on a lower scale. To be honest, I only recently learned the term for the condition and having this knowledge has aided me in becoming more aware of when I’m getting fidgety and about to pick. Sometimes I can stop myself from going anywhere near my healing scabs before I have an episode. Other times I’m already in the process of picking when I have to make myself snap out of it by physically getting up and finding another distraction to keep my hands busy. What helps is knowing that the consequence of taking off a scab that isn’t ready to come off yet will cause the skin to scar over from the repeated trauma of not healing properly. I still hate the feeling of bumpy skin from scabs but there’s no way around that except to let it do its thing. If all else fails, rubbing some Neosporin and sticking a band-aid over the scab keeps me from touching it as well.

If you’re willing to share, what’s your story? Do you have a compulsion due to anxiety that you are currently struggling with or trying to overcome? What thoughts, if any, do you have about what I’ve shared in this blog post?

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4 thoughts on “Compulsions Born From Anxiety

  1. I think I’ve always had anxiety, I even asked my therapist if that was possible. I remember when I was a (very) young child hiding, cowering behind my bed. I heard each step of my mom coming down the hall and felt the crushing weight of impending doom. I’ll never forget her face and reaction to me. She was utterly confused and distressed at my behavior. What was I afraid of? Why was I cowering from her? I have no idea honestly. Maybe it was after I accidentally dropped a plate and broke it? Why would that cause me to feel like it was the end of the world and I would surely die? I can’t imagine what my mom thought.

    Another time the cat had died. I saw it in the yard hidden in a grove of trees. For a week my mom wondered where he was but I was too terrified to tell her. When I finally did, meek as a mouse, she asked why wouldn’t I tell her. It wasn’t my fault. I vaguely remember feeling like I would be blamed. I felt like that about everything and was extraordinarily sensitive to criticism and correction. Sensitive meant feelings of dread and overwhelming fear.

    I can go on. Looking back I suspect what I called fear was anxiety. I was super shy so going to school initially was torture. I finally made friends which helped me ease out of shyness but I never really felt a part of any crowd. My mom didn’t help with dressing me differently than others and cutting my hair out of style. Eventually she got me into a children’s musical theater group, dance classes and so forth. That inadvertly taught me how to function in the world using acting skills. However, playing a role wasn’t enough and I developed an ED to numb overwhelming emotions and anxiety.

    Now, at 53, I suddenly have to deal with overwhelming anxiety. I am not successful at this. Most of the time anxiety attacks end in disastrous results. I hate anxiety more than anything else in my life.

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    1. I have a theory that people can be more susceptible to anxiety if it’s both inherited genetically and that it can increase in early childhood depending on environmental factors. I think that’s true for myself. Sometimes I think, “why me?” when I look back on my childhood and all the times I was experiencing full on anxiety when I didn’t recognize it as such then. I often wonder also if something profound or traumatic happened to me when I was very little that ultimately affected me badly and that although my mind didn’t remember it since I was too small, my body did and that’s why my anxiety got worse as I got older. I suppose I will never find out.

      Reading about how you dealt with your anxiety in childhood, I feel terrible for you. Perceiving and feeling things in your child’s mind is very complicated and messy. The thoughts are there but it’s hard to even begin to describe to an adult/parent about what is going on. I experienced that too when I was little. I feel like I have been messed up for my whole life because of anxiety and how I cope with it, including being now aware that on different levels my parents deal with their own anxiety in very muted and unhealthy ways, probably because neither of them grew up in a generation where mental health was an emphasised thing. As bad as it sounds, I don’t want to continue the cycle and that’s why I don’t think I will ever have children.

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      1. I agree. There was a situation when I was 7 that woke me up so to speak. I don’t remember if I mentioned I have very few memories before then. My life changing trauma happened when I was a teenager and because I grew up feeling like I was a disappointment, a bother and unlovable it may be the reason that it still effects my life. I’ve wondered on occasion how people are able to move on, and what that is like. So many of us have had similar experiences. That you are so self aware at an early age will hopefully make a big difference in years to come. For me, it was years and years before realizing my messed up life, years of developing bad habits of dealing with such. I am always hopeful when I find young people dealing with all this because of the possibilities of healing or at least managing it for better living.

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      2. That sounds incredibly painful for you to remember the traumatic event that changed you. I don’t know if I have only one event or several that I can link back to as the pivotal moment(s) that altered me forever.

        I‘m uncertain if my self awareness is enough to help heal me. I do feel I’ve made some improvements with my anxiety compared to last year but in a lot of ways I still feel pretty stunted. For some anxiety inducing situations, I try to push myself but half the time it feels like it’s too much. It is like standing in the water as the waves (aka my anxiety level) rush in at me and the longer I stand there, the bigger the wave is and the faster it comes in. In this visual, I would like to believe that the waves aren’t capable of killing me and probably the most damage it will do is probably freak me out if the waves completely soaked me. Even fully knowing that having intense anxiety won’t kill me and the uncomfortable feeling will eventually pass is not enough to help me stay in the water until after the biggest wave comes in. What happens is I’m anticipating the anxiety will get worse and reach its highest point soon but before it has a chance of happening, I flee from the water. Avoiding what I’m afraid of then gives me relief but I’ll be even more scared to go back into the water next time, if I even manage to go back in. 😢

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