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Dermatillomania or why I can’t stop biting my fingers

How do I stimulate myself?

Have you got an annoying habit? I’m guessing the answer is yes. You might bite your nails, have a twitch, flick your hair, tap your feet or talk when you eat. Most people have some form of repetitive motion they do. It might be for comfort or to alleviate anxiety. If you do anything like that, then congratulations, you’ve stimmed! Welcome to the club.

Stimming is short for ‘self-stimulating behaviour’ and refers to any action you might do provide physical or emotional input to yourself. People do it to distress and relax.

The good news is that the vast majority of stimming activity you do is socially acceptable and perfectly harmless. Sure it can be annoying, but it’s not going to cause relationship breakdowns or lose of employment.

Stimming is often strongly associated with autistic people, both children and adults.  It provides comfort by working the senses and is done in response to emotions such as boredom, stress, anxiety, fear and even excitement. There are scores of different ways to stim. Some people need to smell something, some need to taste something, whilst some, like me, need to touch something. Plus of course there are other senses available!

Because of autistic people’s neurodiversity, these emotions are often exacerbated and more intense than ‘normal people’ experience. You’ve probably got the physical and cognitive abilities to keep your stimming under control, but that’s often not the case for autistic people.

opened left palm

In a lot of cases, autistic people stim to a level that isn’t under control or deemed acceptable. Rocking constantly back and forth, head banging, pacing etc, are all stims that can cause issues in public, but it’s something that’s necessary for a lot of people.

I’ve been stimming for over 30 years but only recently realised it! Whilst my stimming doesn’t quite fall into the ‘completely unacceptable’ category, it does cause a few issues….mainly to myself! You see I suffer from dermatillomania.  I better explain…

I bite my nails. That’s not uncommon. I also bite the skin around my fingers aka dermatillomania. Less common but not that unusual. Where I differ from ‘normal people’ is the severity and regularity with which I do it.  Barely an hour goes by that does not involve me picking at the skin below or above my nails, or on the tips of my fingers. My fingers are, for want of a better phrase, an absolute fucking mess. I often draw blood – which can be a bit embarrassing if it’s in public, and worst of all it seriously hurts when I manage to pick off a particularly large piece.  All of which makes me sound a bit Lecteresque, but I’m happy to report that I have no culinary penchant for human flesh.

Throughout life, parents, friends, girlfriends have regularly, and quite rightly, told me to stop. Both for my own benefit and because it annoys them. But now, I’m seeing that I’ve been doing it because I need to stimulate myself (stop laughing, you’re not a teenager! Unless you are a teenager…in which case laugh away) and that need is too great to control.


So should I carry on picking my fingers?

On the one hand (and that’s as good a joke as you’ll get on this blog!), it makes sense to carry on as it helps my anxiety. It’s annoying but it’s not social unacceptable.

BUT, I am open to finding a less annoying ‘stim’ to satisfying my need for stimulation. I find that if plasticine or putty is nearby, then I roll it around in my hand and squeeze it for long periods, so maybe a stress ball or similar would satisfy my need.

There are companies dedicated to supplying ‘stimming toys’ such as chewable jewellery, scented toys and the aforementioned stress balls. All designed to satisfy the need to engage the senses.  Disappointingly, none of them are called ‘Stimming World’, so if there are any stim toy inventors out there looking for an hilarious pun name, I’m happy for you to use in exchange for a small fee.

Signs of adult autism

I’ve spent plenty of time looking at the various options, and come to the conclusion that whilst my habit is occasionally annoying and occasionally antisocial, I’ve been doing it for 30 years and it’s not caused any major issues.  Plus, now I’ve ‘come out’, I hope people will understand why I do it and not think negatively. It’s just another autistic trait I display.

Author: Simon Day

I'm a content writer and blogger covering Worcestershire and beyond. Check out my work at

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