My Skin is Crawling — And It’s Getting Worse

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Reader’s Question

I have really been experiencing a very bothersome feeling within the past week to two weeks. Before I explain the problem, I will let you know that I am a 22-year-old female in good health. I exercise regularly, and eat healthy. I am not on any prescribed medications; and I do not do drugs, and only drink on occasion (about once every two weeks).

Okay, well, ever since I can remember, I have always been bothered by a “skin-crawling” feeling that I tend to get whenever I see something that looks gross to me. I think that’s pretty normal though. However, lately, it’s been getting worse. It seems like I can find a way to make something “gross” out of almost everything I see on a daily basis; and since I have no control over what comes onto the TV screen or what I see in my daily life, I am faced with this consistent “creepy-crawly,” skin-crawling sensation. It’s like a combination of the feeling that one gets when they see something gross, and the feeling that people get when they get a cold chill. I get goosebumps, and have the constant sensation. It is not a good feeling! I try to force myself not to think of these things, but it only makes me think of them more. I would like to get back to the point where, even if I do see something that looks gross, I can just say, “Eww, that’s gross,” and move on with my life, like any other normal human being. I feel like this sensation is affecting my ability to function, and I don’t know what to do about it! I’m not sure if this would be considered as some type of phobia, anxiety or what it could possibly be!

Sometimes, warm baths or even wrapping up in a blanket can temporarily cure the sensation; but then, if I begin to think about something, or even think about the sensation itself, I get it all over again. I have looked all over the web for what could possibly be causing this, and how to get rid of it, and I can find nothing remotely similar to the condition that I am dealing with.

Have you ever even heard of this before, and do you know anything…anything… that I can do to get rid of this feeling??

I would appreciate ANY advice that you can offer! Thank you!

Psychologist’s Reply

We all have built-in physical/chemical reactions to some experiences — sight of blood, thinking about needles, gross stuff, etc. Many of these reactions are based on our experiences and some reactions seem unrealistic. I have dissected human brains, but have difficulty taking a fish off a hook for example…gives me “the creeps” for some reason.

Exposure to specific situations produces anxiety, and people differ in their anxiety symptoms. Some folks get upset stomach, headaches, skin-crawling, heart pounding, etc. You seem to have the skin symptoms. As anxiety increases, your specific anxiety symptom increases — your skin sensations become more severe, people with the stomach symptoms may vomit, etc.

In your current situation, you are caught in an anxiety loop. Your skin-crawling sensations have been severe enough at some point in the past to now scare you. That creates an “emotional memory” of your reaction. As you describe, from that point every exposure to something gross not only makes your skin-crawl as usual, but now produces a panic-like reaction that is almost disabling. The more you try note to think about it, the worse it becomes. As you become more anxious, the brain releases norepinephrine and from that point, you’re near a panic attack.

Recommendations:

  1. Read my article on Emotional Memory. It provides some practical ways to block emotional memories from being intrusive in our daily life.
  2. Develop a ritual or funny rehearsed reaction to use when confronted with something gross. A poem about gross things for example will block norepinephrine release if repeated in the presence of something gross.
  3. Make sure you’re not taking any herbal remedies as some of those increase skin sensations.
  4. Research anxiety-reduction procedures for emergencies such as those used with panic attacks.
  5. Evaluate your current level of stress. A recent and sudden increase in these episodes may suggest that your personal stress has increased over the past several weeks. Keep in mind that skin-crawling/goosebumps is a normal anxiety reaction. If it’s happening more often, then your stress level is likely high.
  6. If the problem becomes too intrusive, consult a psychiatrist. You may benefit from anxiety treatment before this becomes a larger problem.

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