“What the f*ck are you doing to your eyebrows?”
I was caught red-handed by my sister with blood-drenched tweezers and tiny red marks all over my face, chest, and arms. Half of my brows and lashes were plucked away, and the tiniest of blemishes were picked to their core. My trichotillomania had gotten the best of me — and my eyebrows — yet again.
Trichotillomania is, according to Dr. Michael Nova of Pathway OME, an impulse control disorder defined by the urge to pull out your own hair. Dr. Nova notes that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka DSM-III) describes it as an impulsive behavior that resembles ”a habit, an addiction, a tic disorder or an obsessive–compulsive disorder,” and usually comes hand-in-hand with other mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, stress, or compulsive skin picking.
To deal with my anxiety, trichotillomania, and constant skin-picking, I was prescribed Xanax. It didn’t help. Instead, I would zone-out and and pluck for hours. I felt like I physically couldn’t control my urges.
After witnessing my plucking spiral, my sister gifted me a beauty starter pack: a cleanser and moisturizer to soothe my skin, and a thin Anastasia Beverly Hills eyebrow pencil to help my patchy brows until my hairs grew back into place. It turns out this new routine was just what I needed to keep my trichotillomania at bay.
While the improvement of my skin, eyebrows, and lashes were all added bonuses, it helped replace the sensory void my old, harmful habits used to fill. The feel of a foaming cleanser bubbling up on my skin; the glide of a liquid liner across my lids; the tingle of a chemical exfoliator… they all give me similar satisfaction. But instead of patchy brows and scaly skin, I have sharp arches and a smooth complexion.
According to Dr. Tara Well, professor of psychology at Barnard College in Columbia University, there is actually some science behind the soothing effects of beauty. “Applying makeup is a multi-sensory experience, involving vision as you look in the mirror, touch as you apply creams and cosmetics, and smell as you apply scented beauty products,” she says.
She also notes that simple beauty-related techniques can give a positive, confidence-boosting result: “Research shows that touching one’s skin surface can have a soothing effect, especially when done so slowly and mindfully,” she says. “Taking a bit of time to gently massage your face as you mindfully apply your make-up can be a good way to counteract any self-criticism.”
Dr. Nova also suggests that an intensive beauty routine — such as the rigorous 10-step K-beauty one — can help redirect compulsive behaviors and anxiety. “Many compulsive behavioral therapy (CBT) patients feel that after years of doing the bare minimum in order to avoid painful memories of the worst of depression or anxiety, and in order to evade temptation to fall into old repetitive behaviors, skin care can be suddenly fun and creative,” he says. “Instead of feeling that applying creams/cosmetics or cleansers was a form of punishment for having worsened any skin imperfections, CBT patients felt like they were gaining some control over the look and feel of their skin. What’s more, this is a ritual that is actually soothing and productive rather than destructive and triggered by anxiety.”
In my case, Dr. Nova is right. Slathering serums doesn’t feel like a chore to me, but as a reward after a long, mentally exhausting day. Not only does it soothe my skin, but it helps ease my mind. And while I can’t say that my beauty routine has “cured” my anxiety, it’s definitely helped. Whenever I feel the restless urge to pick at my eyelashes or bite my cuticles, I try to curb the compulsion with a few swipes of a a gooey lip gloss or by by stroking my fluffy blush brush. It may seem superficial at face value, but it’s what works for me.