As a kid, I picked at my scabs. Any cut or scrape I got took forever to heal, because I was always scratching and picking at the scabs. It’s always been an unconscious reflex, I’ve never really aware I’m doing it until I’ve got bloody finger nails and brown blood stains around the wound. This sounds horrifically emo, but it was how I dealt with anxiety. Same goes for bruises, I could never stop touching and pressing on them. The few times I’ve had stitches were dicey, I couldn’t stop poking and prodding bandages.
I’m not going to be dramatic and say it’s because I like pain. In fact, it has little to do with the pain of these acts, its about the relief I find afterwards. I’d pick at a scab and cover it with a fresh bandage, the wounds always warm with irritation that fades comfortably into a healing stiffness. Poking bruises and the instant relief of covering it gently with hands feels soothing. It’s kind of like pain is the payment for relief.
I’ve tried a lot of healthy replacements to these behaviors. Fidget cubes are my best friends, as well as play dough to squeeze, yarn to knit, and nail polish to pick. However, while these tools gave me a replacement for my nervous energy, they did not bring me the same physical relief.
I have long hair. I’ve been growing it out from a pixie cut I got three years ago, and thanks to vitamins and care, it has grown past my bust line. As soon as it was long enough, I began braiding it. Just basic braids, I haven’t mastered the French braid nor the fishtail. Sometimes it would be a simple ponytail braid, or a side braid down my right shoulder. More often than not, I’d constantly keep a tress or two from the base of my skull tightly braided.
It wasn’t for vanity I began doing this, rarely were the braid ostentatious or noticeable. The braiding had much more to do with how I was handling my stress and anxiety. At 23 I’d been in treatment for depression, PTSD, and anxiety just under a year. After experiencing a mild panic attack on a six hour plane trip home from Boston, I calmed myself by braiding my hair.
Anyone with long hair will tell you how sore the scalp gets after being pulled tight, be it in braids, ponytails, or buns. In my experience, I find the sensation of taking my hair out of tight braids incredibly soothing. I slowly unwind the twists and then massage my scalp, which always calms me down and relaxes my mind. It’s the least destructive way I can achieve a relatively calm physical state when I’m tense from anxiety. I keep my fingers busy from picking at scabs, and I have the sensation of relief from unbraiding my hair.
I don’t know anyone else who does this, or anything similar. Part of me feels like I’m insane for even admitting this out loud, but I’m hoping someone else will relate and know they aren’t alone in how they physically cope with anxiety. It’s hard, I used to scratch myself until I made new wounds to scab over and pick at, it was unhealthy and it concerned my family. It was something I couldn’t help doing when I was anxious, thankfully I’ve worked hard in therapy to find healthy substitutes for this behavior.
Braids are simple but beautiful. They date at least 5000 years, appearing in every culture around the world. The relief I get from massaging my scalp after braiding is far more beneficial to my wellbeing than picking at scabs. I used to be embarrassed by this behavior, but now I’m more outspoken about my mental health struggles, I’m going to proudly own my braids for what they are: symbols of an anxious human trying to cope with the world.
For more anxiety inanity, follow me on twitter @JoyPearson