Do those nasty skin tags around your nails ever go away? I have no clue what makes them so irresistible to pick and bite. Not in a good way, everything about those things is nasty. Apparently, vitamins can cure the pulling skin, but that seems like some hocus pocus. I might be on the cynical side, but I think we are just doomed to put up with these broken skin edges.
It’s hard to just leave them there though; those nagging tags are just begging to be ripped off. And no one believes for a second that the habit stops there – the skin gets pulled down the finger and it hurts like a bitch. Some itches and bites feel good, but these monsters peel right back to our hands leaving a wake of hellish pain for days. What makes a nasty itch, and what makes a nice itch? For example, the ankle is a goddamn satisfying place to scratch. Do it now if you don’t believe me. Good, yeah? I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone, but there is one pretentious study claiming that the ankle is the best place to scratch. The methods of this study are hilariously creepy. Reading that 18 participants were “scratched by an investigator with a cytology brush” to record “pleasurability” is enough to have me jumping out of my skin entirely.
What about nail-biting? Let’s say you are some nibbling ninja that can avoid the skin tags and get the precise length on those finger topping nails. It never stops there, though. The biting usually goes further than you intend, and arguably it takes even longer to heal up than the skin tags. Nail-biting is much like itching; you think you are in control, but it quickly gets out-of-hand (no pun intended).
So how do you know when to stop itching a spot? Just when it hurts, or is that too late? I know in general it’s wiser to have external reminders than internal reminders, i.e. a glass of water by your bedside table when you wake up rather than waiting for a thirsty feeling to keep hydrated in the morning. But this isn’t reasonable for itching. It doesn’t make sense to set some thirty-second timer to remind you to leave the thumb alone and move onto the index finger. Our minds are fallible and are somehow seduced over and over again into going too deep or scratching too long. Maybe it’s the cognitive bias of prioritising short-term pleasure over long-term pain. Perhaps it’s just learning bad habits as bratty kids.
Some people genuinely develop a problem with not knowing when to stop itching. There is this somewhat famous story of a lady who had a compulsion to scratch a particular place on her head. After a bout of shingles (the same virus as chickenpox but angrier) this lady developed OCD in the strangest sense. Even while she slept, she would find a way to scratch this specific place on her forehead until it bled… until it scabbed… until it was down to the bone… until one night, she woke up to a leak of cerebrospinal fluid.
I’m sure you feel just a little bit sorry for this lady, even though it’s a crazy story. And I’m sure you’d feel compassionate towards a friend that’s been stung by a jellyfish or something that was unbearably itchy. Surely a few itches to relieve suffering is okay, no? Even if it’s bad and just makes things worse, we acknowledge it’s going to happen. Deep down we allow a bit of this defiance out in a cheeky itch. Philosophically we could ask how one is supposed to balance hedonism in their life in regard to itching. You can’t just do the things that feel good all the time, and in this case of itches and skin niggles, it doesn’t seem right to deny oneself relief either!
It’s not just black and white, with good and bad feelings to choose between. The painful regret post-itch or post nail bite is vastly different in quality from the sweet beginnings of the first scratch. There is a biological basis too. There are different receptors for itch than normal mild pain or discomfort. An itch comes from naturally occurring histamines (like from an allergy) and is relieved by “noxious stimulus” like pain. Maybe we itch to legitimately bring about pain because unnaturally this pain will give relief to the more unsettling fear of unchecked uncontrollable itchy histamines. In reality, the discomfort will dissipate within minutes. But at the time, and after the nail or itch has been scratched raw, it certainly makes sense pain has been the goal all along!
I’m genuinely sorry to those readers that had to scratch their arms or legs or back while reading this. The body is certainly a strange place and sometimes there’s no good reason why we feel the things we do. It’s really up to you how you balance these itches in your life. If there is any advice, I can offer it is that your state of mind, histamines, and neurons will change their tune, even if the feeling at one moment feels uncontrollable and the habit across multiple moments seems out of control.