The Pandemic Made Me Realize How Much I Pick My Skin

Here's how I'm managing it.

woman touching face

Stocksy

The day before our county closed down, I’d been in the emergency room, worried I’d contracted COVID-19. My husband and I had just returned from Venice, one of the hotspots for the virus in Europe, and we were concerned about my symptoms. Turns out, I had strep throat, but until the tests came back, I’d been sequestered in a small suite, with the doctors and nurses wrapped up in safety gear to protect themselves.

That was March 12. On March 13, all hell broke loose.

I won’t pretend to have it as bad as other people. My job meant I could work from home, and many of my immediate family had the same comforts. On the first "official" work from home day, I skipped the makeup and slicked my trademark cherry-colored balm on my lips, ready to conquer the day. 

Two weeks into quarantine and my husband I developed a ritual: Each weekday morning, we made breakfast then worked at our makeshift desks. The office space is in front of a bay window—one we hadn’t bothered to put curtains on because we barely used it. In this new life, however, neighbors waved as they walked their dogs, the mail carrier gave us a thumbs-up as he dropped off our packages at the door. It was like being an exhibit in some futurist zoo.

In months leading up to the lockdown, we’d been to Lithuania, Latvia, the Netherlands, France, and Italy. Being at home in our wooliest socks brought a slower and quieter pace to our lives.

Now’s probably the perfect time to mention that I don’t do quiet time very well. I prefer background noise and a sliver of undetectable chatter during the day. Too much stillness sets off my anxiety in a way that’s hard to define other than to say that it brings on a sense of "anything can happen next." While some people welcome that feeling, the control freak part of my personality operates best when I can safely guess what will happen next.

Too much stillness sets off my anxiety in a way that’s hard to define.

My Skin Picking Intensified

What happened next for me was that I began to pick my skin more. I didn’t notice it at first—one rarely does—until I caught my neighbor taking a peek inside our house as she walked her dog on the sidewalk. As I froze, I became aware of everything I had been doing up until that moment, deer-in-headlights style.

My index finger tracing the corner of my mouth. My comfort zone. After the first stay-at-home orders were issued, I ran my finger along my cheek and jawline whenever my mind began to wander—especially as I scrolled through social media, where friends and acquaintances either struggling in lockdown or living their lives as if the world had changed in an instant. Each day I’d sit at my desk, sometimes for 13-hours straight, unable to do anything except stare at the screen and run my fingernails along my face.

Day by day, my skin became worse. I stopped turning on my camera in Zoom meetings. My doctor prescribed an antiseptic cream to offset my picking. But that only kept my hot spots from getting infected, it didn’t stop me from touching my face.

Each day I’d sit at my desk, sometimes for 13-hours straight, unable to do anything except stare at the screen and run my fingernails along my face. 

How I'm Managing My Skin Picking

I tried to understand my anxiety and channel that nervous energy into something positive. "Self-care" something the pros had been prescribing since the beginning of the pandemic, but I didn’t know where to start.

"Make sure you have some healthy way to take care of yourself," says therapist Janice Presser, PhD. Recognizing obsessive behavior, especially during the pandemic is crucial. "And, above all, be open about your own frustrations with the COVID situation and how much harder it is to control your own behaviors (like wanting to scream at the news…)"

I tried. I really tried. Once, I attempted to wear makeup to prevent my picking, but it only made my hands messy from the setting powder and tinted moisturizers. By the end of the day, a thin brown film covered on the right half of my keyboard from where my makeup had transferred.  (I tend to pick my skin with my right hand). 

I had no idea how bad it was—until one day, on my way to scout for toilet paper (remember those days?), I stole a glimpse at my reflection on my car door as I fastened my face mask. The blotchiness and ruddiness had been awful before, but never this bad. I ran the back of my fingers along my cheek and felt the residual bumps where I had pinched my skin. Something had to change.

I ran the back of my fingers along my cheek and felt the residual bumps where I had pinched my skin. Something had to change.

That afternoon, as I rummaged through my bathroom cabinet, putting away a fresh tube of toothpaste, I discovered a stash of skincare products. In a corner, I noticed a few barely used vials of facial oil, bought for a trip to Cuba that we’d been forced to postpone due to the pandemic. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I placed a few drops on my fingertips, then smoothed the oil on my face.

As I settled back to my desk to work, my hands wandered to my cheeks. I recoiled. The oil made it difficult for my fingers to get a grip on my flesh. And instead of wanting to wash off the oil as I had wanted to wash off the makeup, I didn't mind the slippery sensation. Turning my anxiety into my superpower has helped my skin flourish these last few months.

After trial and error, I worked out a system for my mental wellbeing and my sense of vanity. First, I changed my office. No longer on display in the front of the house, I took over an extra bedroom and made it into an office; I decorated the space with flowers and placed a Hatch sound machine meant for soothing infants in the corner to keep the quiet at bay.

Turning my anxiety into my superpower has helped my skin flourish these last few months.

I vary the assortment of oils I use, sometimes reaching for the inexpensive Burt’s Bees tube I bought at Target or choosing the Orchid Antioxidant Oil from Herbivore. On my more anxious days, I reach for my tub of Egyptian Magic, the thick, petroleum jelly-like product takes a little longer to settle into my skin and keeps my fingers away from my face longer.

I store it all in a tiny fridge that sits on my desk. The cold calms my skin while keeping the products fresh longer. To help with the worst compulsions to pick, I also keep a Gugug facial scrubber in my desk drawer and use it on the lowest setting—the vibration helps my anxiety, while the device keeps my pores from getting clogged from the products.

To keep me from getting too restless, I’m moving to a standing desk, like this one from Flexispot. During my office visits, my doctor has encouraged me to change my work position throughout the day. By doing so, she says, I can interrupt my racing mental patterns and keep my instinct to pick at bay.

The Bottom Line

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out to more people, I’m not sure what will happen next. Jordan Elizabeth Cattie, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Atlanta, Georgia, explains it's crucial for us to understand we can't always control what happens in the world, or our thoughts and feelings about what’s happening. What we can control are our behaviors. "Practice noticing that we often can't be 100% certain, or perfectly control the world around us," Cattie says.

I’m not sure of anything. I’m learning to sit with that knowledge. What I do know is that soon it will be my turn for the vaccine. Soon it will be spring. Someday this will all be behind us. Of that, I’m certain.

Related Stories