Abnormal perceptual sensitivity in body-focused repetitive behaviors

David C. Houghton, Jennifer R. Alexander, Christopher C. Bauer, Douglas W. Woods

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Objective: Several compulsive grooming habits such as hair pulling, skin picking, and nail biting are collectively known as body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). Although subclinical BFRBs are common and benign, more severe and damaging manifestations exist that are difficult to manage. Researchers have suggested that BFRBs are maintained by various cognitive, affective, and sensory contingencies. Although the involvement of cognitive and affective processes in BFRBs has been studied, there is a paucity of research on sensory processes. Methods: The current study tested whether adults with subclinical or clinical BFRBs would report abnormal patterns of sensory processing as compared to a healthy control sample. Results: Adults with clinical BFRBs (n = 26) reported increased sensory sensitivity as compared to persons with subclinical BFRBs (n = 48) and healthy individuals (n = 33). Elevations in sensation avoidance differentiated persons with clinical versus subclinical BFRBs. Sensation seeking patterns were not different between groups. Unexpectedly, BFRB severity was associated with lower registration of sensory stimuli, but this finding may be due to high psychiatric comorbidity rates in the BFRB groups. Conclusions: These findings suggest that several sensory abnormalities may underlie BFRBs. Implications for the etiology and treatment of BFRBs are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-52
Number of pages8
JournalComprehensive Psychiatry
StatePublished - Apr 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Excoriation disorder
  • Perception
  • Sensory gating
  • Somatization
  • Trichotillomania

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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