“Stop touching your eyes” is a phrase I couldn’t escape growing up. Whether I was driving in the car, sitting in class, or playing with my friends, somehow my hands always found my eyes. When I was younger, my parents were petrified that my germ-filled playground hands would eventually lead to an eye infection, but the real result was different. I ended up with no eyelashes—just raw, red eyelids. I tried to play off the missing eyelashes by telling people “my dog ate them” or “they fell out,” but nobody was buying those excuses. I couldn’t even admit to myself that I had this problem because I was so embarrassed. I felt like a “freak” because I didn’t know anyone else who pulled out their eyelashes.
After I realized this issue wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to seek treatment and go to therapy. My psychologist told me I was engaging in a body-focused repetitive behavior known as trichotillomania. According to the Mayo Clinic, trichotillomania is a mental health condition that compels people to pull out their hair even when they try to stop. In my case, it was pulling out eyelashes. It was with the help of my therapist that I was able to develop a list of coping strategies to help deal with the urges. These strategies ultimately changed my life. While my road to recovery hasn’t been easy, I have gone through trial and error with different coping strategies—even more so during the pandemic—and have landed on seven that I find to be most effective.
It’s important to note that while these tips have worked for me, everyone is different. If you also have trichotillomania or another body-focused repetitive disorder, I hope this list of seven strategies that I’ve found helpful on my trichotillomania journey that hopefully can propel you on your road to recovery.
1. I use a fidget toy.
You might remember fidget spinners as being especially popular in the mainstream a few years back, but they definitely still remain in arm’s reach from me at all times. Fidget toys such as spinners and cubes are an effective way to keep my hands busy when I feel a strong urge to pull.
“In my clinical experience, cues or urges (prior to hair pulling) are most intense during periods of stress or anxiety,” board-certified psychiatrist, Kristin Gill, M.D., a full-time clinical faculty member at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. “Conversely, urges can also be quite strong during periods of boredom,” she explains.
Not only is it physically impossible to pull when I’m holding something, but the fidget toy serves as a distraction during the most intense period of the urge. I find pushing buttons to be both helpful and fun, so I have a fidget cube with a whole bunch of different switches and snaps to satisfy the need to put pressure on something that is not my eyelashes.
2. I put Band-Aids on my fingertips.
Band-Aids aren’t just for paper cuts or blisters—they’re also powerful tools for me when it comes to coping with my BFRB. When pulling out eyelashes, normally I use my fingertips to get a firm grip on the tip of the hair follicle. The beauty of Band-Aids is that they make it a lot more difficult to get the grasp needed to pull out the hair.
“If you know you physically cannot pull out the hair during times of heightened stress, this might instead motivate you to use healthier coping mechanisms such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation,” says Dr. Gill.
This trick is a bit more difficult to use right now as frequent hand-washing and hand-sanitizing are so important. I’d suggest using this strategy on the days where you are stuck at home on Zoom meetings all day or don’t plan on leaving the house so you don’t have to constantly change the Band-Aids as often.
You might feel like your hands look a little strange with Band-Aids wrapped around your fingertips, but I’ve found them to be comfortable. They’re even available in a wide variety of designs so you can switch up the look, if that makes you feel better. If it works, it works.
3. I go to a different room.
In my experience, I tend to pull in the same room at the same time. This isn’t uncommon—people with BFRBs tend to have triggers that compel them to engage in those behaviors, SELF previously reported. This includes setting-related triggers like being in the same place at the same time. In order to determine what patterns your trichotillomania follows, Dr. Gill suggests keeping a log.
“Keeping a body-focused repetitive behavior log is crucial for assessing patterns, urges, and any strategies tried to better manage the urge,” she says. Dr. Gill explains that, for each instance of hair-pulling, she’ll have her clients with trichotillomania record the time, location, what they were doing when they got the urge to pull their hair, the intensity of the urge to pull, if/how they tried to manage the urge, and more.
Since logging my experiences with trichotillomania has helped me realize I usually pull when I’m alone in my bedroom, I now make an effort to go into a different room. Also, I’ve found it helps to be around people because there is more pressure to not pull, especially in front of those who don’t know about trichotillomania.
Of course, being around people has been a bit harder due to social distancing guidelines related to the pandemic. However, you don’t have to be in close proximity to be around people. If you feel the urge to pull, FaceTime one of your friends or family members who can keep you accountable even though you might be physically alone.
4. I put petroleum jelly on my fingers.
This tip can be a little trichy (see what I did there?) since it prevents me from doing my work efficiently. As you can imagine, trying to type with petroleum jelly on your fingers is not a pleasant experience. However, if you feel that the urge to engage in a BFRB is severe enough that you need to stop your work and take care of your mental health, using petroleum jelly is definitely worth a try.
Similar to Band-Aids, petroleum jelly makes it increasingly difficult for me to get a grip on the hair. In my case, I can’t even touch my eyelashes without my fingers slipping away, making it a very effective strategy. Also similar to the Band-Aid strategy, this does require re-applying petroleum jelly to your fingers multiple times a day after washing your hands or using hand sanitizer, which isn’t as difficult as getting the Band-Aids to fit perfectly around your fingertips every time.
“In my experience in treating patients, this is a great tactic specifically for clients who pull out eyelashes and eyebrows,” says Dr. Gill. “I have found that the most hygienic way to apply petroleum jelly to the eyelashes and eyebrows is to use disposable eyelash wands (which are inexpensive and widely available)—but no double-dipping! This avoids transferring germs from your hands and even your eyes to and from the petroleum jelly container.”
5. I sit on my hands.
Unfortunately, there are going to be those times when you don’t have access to Band-Aids, petroleum jelly, or your favorite fidget toy, and you have to work with what you have: your hands. This is particularly the strategy I use when I’m stuck on the train or at the dinner table with my family. This is probably the most difficult strategy to use because there are no external forces there to help you. Just remember when you take your hands out from under your legs that you wash them because the last thing you want is to potentially touch your face with dirty hands.
6. I remind myself of my “why.”
When it comes to trying to achieve any goal in life, it’s helpful to know why you want to accomplish it. Personally, I wanted to recover from trichotillomania and learn healthy coping mechanisms because I love makeup and wanted to wear mascara again. Developing a “why” can be hard when the urge is so strong and recovery doesn’t seem possible. However, start small. Why are you reading this article? You’re likely looking for different coping mechanisms to help with BFRBs because you want to help yourself. That can be your why. Everyone’s “why” will be different, but try to make sure it comes from a place of self-love rather than pressure from society. If you’re not sure how to tell the difference, the next tip might be particularly helpful.
7. I sought therapy.
“Several studies have shown that individuals with trichotillomania rarely seek help from a mental health provider,” says Dr. Gill. “Many individuals do not seek treatment due to feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt, worries about how medical professionals will react to these behaviors and lack of knowledge that hair pulling is a recognized medical condition. Unfortunately trichotillomania frequently goes undiagnosed or is misdiagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder.”
While seeking help might sound scary, talking to a therapist or a trained medical professional is the best thing you can do for yourself. I owe most of my success to the help and support of my therapist not only for helping me to recognize my behavior, but also providing me with helpful information about trichotillomania and how to cope in a healthy way. If you can’t see a professional right away, I’ve found support groups to be particularly helpful, especially on Facebook and Instagram. Talking with other individuals who can relate to what you’re going through can provide a sense of comfort and community when the condition can make you feel isolated.
As someone who’s been there, trichotillomania and other BFRBs are nothing to be ashamed of, and you’re not alone. Try not to get discouraged if these strategies don’t work for you because there are tons out there to try. You can find information and resources for trichotillomania, and other body-focused repetitive behaviors, as well as referrals to therapists, lists of support groups, and hair and skin-care services, at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.