Is Picking At Your Scabs Considered Self-Harm?

Hi Heather,

I’m 12-years-old, and my counselor told me that I have anxiety. I don’t know if this is related, but my parents are emotionally abusive. I don’t ever cut myself with a razor or anything. But I will scratch and peel at scabs until they bleed, and when they heal I do it again. I have no idea why, but it feels great to me. I get angry at myself because then my skin looks terrible. I want to wear pretty clothes, but I can only wear long sleeves because I hate how my skin looks. Is picking at scabs considered self-harm? I would love it if I had someone to listen and help me out.

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I know this stuff can be very hard to talk about, and I’m glad you reached out. When most people think of self-harm, they think of someone cutting themselves with a razor blade or knife. Because this is the most “popular” perception of self-harm and the way it is most often depicted in TV shows, movies, and books, real-life people often assume that as long as they aren’t cutting themselves, they aren’t participating in self-harm behavior. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Dr. Sherry Ross from the site HelloFlo (a monthly period care package you need to check out) weighs in on the subject, saying, “I appreciate your openness to ask this very important question. Self-harm or self-injury is an intentional act of causing damage to your own body. Cutting, burning and even picking scabs until they bleed is a form of self-harm.” Essentially, self-harm does not have just one definition (i.e. cutting yourself). The definition of self-harm is anything you’re doing to intentionally harm yourself. So the answer to your questions is that, yes, if you are picking scabs to cause yourself physical pain, then that is considered self-harm.

Dr. Ross says, “Girls are more prone to self-harm than boys. Some girls turn to this behavior in order to express and cope with problems instead of finding a healthy way to deal with conflict. Repeatedly picking scabs may be your way to experience an emotional release from the pain sensation of picking the skin. I am glad to hear you don’t cut your skin, but repeatedly picking scabs causes similar long term physical and mental scarring.

At this point, the biggest issue with the scab picking isn’t that it can scar your body for a very long time – it’s what it’s doing to you emotionally. Dr. Ross says, “The most important thing for you to do is to understand the inner conflicts you are experiencing that lead to this unhealthy and troublesome behavior. It sounds like your parents emotional abuse is at the root of your problems.” While Dr. Ross and myself don’t know you personally, from your question, it sounds like you’re taking your fear and anxiety and unhappiness out on yourself by picking the scabs. This behavior is very unhealthy, and you need to do something to change it.

I totally get that you need someone to talk to, but unfortunately, we can’t be of the best service to you. Dr Ross says, “I would suggest you see a health care provider or a psychologist who can help you understand the layers of complexity that create this behavior.” I wholeheartedly agree. Open up to the counselor who told you you have anxiety. Find a different counselor or psychologist if you’re not comfortable with that one. And if you feel you have no one to turn to, tell your favorite teacher at school. It’s so important for you to take control of this behavior and stop picking at your scabs. It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

You can also call some hotlines. For self-harm, you can call 1-800-DON’T-CUT, 1-800-273-TALK, or 1-800-334-HELP. For help with anxiety or depression, call 1-800-826-3632. Good luck.

What’s on your mind? Heather can help! Send her your question at You can also reach our buddies at HelloFlo with questions about your body or health. Just ask Dr. Flo at HelloFlo!


Five Misconceptions You May Have About Self-Harm

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  • freesoul

    I’m so sorry to hear about your struggles with this, but you are not alone! I have dealt with this for a long time, with long periods of non-picking, and periods of picking as well. I notice that stress and anxiety contribute to the behavior, and I also have picked after a stressful situation is over- almost like decompressing after a hard day. I am almost finished with my masters in Clinical Psychology, which makes me even more shameful of this behavior- I am going to be a psychologist one day, but yet I engage in behavior like this?! The emotional abuse may cause anxiety, but it is likely that you may be picking as way to abuse yourself also, or “punish” yourself. My mother was very hard on me, and I think that they may have contributed to my perfectionism. When I get down on myself, I am more likely to pick. Shame is a trigger for an array of harmful behaviors, and the shame from a “picking session” can trigger more picking!
    I don’t have an answer, as I still have periods of picking behavior, this latest one probably due to stress. It is possible to not do it, this I know because I have went through years of non-picking periods. I can relate to the shame- OMG sometimes I have thought that if I saw someone looking like I do on the street, I would assume that they were a meth addict.
    Some personal tips: Avoid looking at the scabs or the pick marks until they heal- assessing them while healing will trigger picking! If you struggle with your face, putting a towel over the bathroom mirror to deter “examining” helps. When the marks are not crusted anymore, use a self-tanner to disguise them, or a lotion with a shimmer/ light -reflecting pigments. Dress cute, do your hair cute and eat healthy, to feel good about yourself- this deters me from picking.