Boredom and Frustration Trigger Skin-Picking and Other Compulsive Behaviors

May 31, 2015 Updated: June 4, 2015

Individuals who get easily bored, frustrated, or impatient are more inclined to develop skin-picking and other body-focused repetitive behaviors, say researchers at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal and the University of Montreal.

“Chronic hair-pulling, skin-picking disorder, and nail-biting and various other habits are known as body-focused repetitive behaviors. Although these behaviors can induce important distress [such as shame], they also seem to satisfy an urge and deliver some form of reward,” said principal investigator Kieron O’Connor.

Chronic hair-pulling is also known as trichotillomania. “We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform task 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.”

(Wikimedia Commons)
Nail-biting (Wikimedia Commons)

O’Connor and his colleagues came to these conclusions by working with 48 study participants, half of whom suffered these repetitive behaviors and half of whom didn’t (acting therefore as the controls.)

The participants were referred to a clinical evaluator for a telephone screening interview and completed questionnaires at home. The questionnaires included a scale that evaluates emotions, including boredom, anger, guilt, irritability, and anxiety.

The participants were then individually exposed to four experimental situations at the research center, each one designed to provoke a different feeling: stress, relaxation, frustration, and boredom. The first two involved the screening of videos (a plane crash and the waves on a beach.)

Frustration was elicited by asking the participants to complete a task that was supposedly easy and quick (it wasn’t) and boredom was caused by leaving the participant alone in a room for six minutes.

(Katheirne Hitt/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)
Chronic hair-pulling (trichotillomania) (Katheirne Hitt/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Individuals with a history of body-focused repetitive behaviors reported a greater urge to engage in these behaviors than controls during the boredom and frustration phases of the experiment, but not in the relaxation situation.

“These results partially support our hypothesis in that participants were more likely to engage in body-focused repetitive behaviors when they felt bored, frustrated, and dissatisfied than when they felt relaxed. Moreover, they do engage in these behaviors when they are under stress. This means that condition is not simply due to ‘nervous habits,'” said Sarah Roberts, first author of the study.

“The findings suggest that individuals suffering from body-focused repetitive behaviors could benefit from treatments designed to reduce frustration and boredom and to modify perfectionist beliefs.”

From Newswise