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Nail Biting: Gross Habit or a Serious Disorder?

How worried should I be?

01.11.17
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I have a lot of bad habits. I drink a Coke almost every day, I crack my knuckles and shake my legs too much, and worst of all, I bite my fingernails.

I’ve been a nail biter since I can remember. I come from a family of nail biters. It’s a habit “passed down” from my father to my sister, my brother and I. Even some of my dad’s siblings bite their nails. At any given point during the day, I have at least one fingernail in my mouth because I have a hangnail or there’s a piece of skin around my nail that needs to be torn away and I can’t just let it sit there. Only recently have I wondered if I should be worried about this behavior.

“There are reasons to take it seriously,” says psychologist Fred Penzel, who specializes in the treatment of OCD and behaviors like trichotillomania (hair pulling) as well as nail biting. “It’s not just a simple bad habit.”

Chronic nail biting, which usually starts during childhood, is called Onychophagia. It is actually one of several body-focused repetitive behavior disorders. Others include hair pulling, chewing on the inside of the cheeks (something I also do) and skin picking — habits that are repetitive, habitual and compulsive and are common in children but more troubling in adults. (Penzel said many people have more than one of these behaviors.)

About 20 to 30 percent of the general population engages in chronic nail biting, but Penzel believes only one to two percent do it to the point where it would be considered a disorder. The difference between a self-grooming habit and a repetitive behavior that’s not so normal is when you start causing physical damage to yourself, he says.

It’s not always easy for me to stop before I get to that point. I bite until my fingernails bleed and it hurts to touch anything. When there’s no nail left to bite, I move on to the skin around the nail.

My boyfriend regularly slaps my finger out of my mouth — a reminder that this is a real thing I’m doing that others can see. And maybe it’s not normal.

The truth is, nail biting is embarrassing. My fingers look stubby, with nails so short that I can hardly open a soda can. It’s probably gross for others to see. Imagine what my coworkers must think when they walk into a meeting and see me chomping away at my finger. Do they take me less seriously? Do they wonder what the fuck I’m doing with my fingers in my mouth? Nail biting is a child’s habit, isn’t it?

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As I’ve started taking my nail biting more seriously, I’ve wondered whether it’s a symptom of an anxiety disorder. Penzel says that’s a common misconception. “Nail-biting isn’t OCD, and it isn’t an anxiety disorder,” he says. “The differences are huge. In OCD, people suffer from repetitive, intrusive, unpleasant, doubtful, negative thoughts, and they then do compulsions to relieve the anxiety that these thoughts cause. In body-focused repetitive behaviors, there is no obsessive thought involved.”

So if biting our nails isn’t something we want to do, why do we do it?

“It’s a way of regulating levels of simulation within the nervous system,” Penzel says. “People do these behaviors when they’re either overstimulated — stressed or anxious or even happily excited — and they also do them when they’re under-stimulated — when they’re sedentary or bored.”

“That’s why it’s not an anxiety problem. Because people also do it when they’re just bored.”

While a lot of people view nail biting as just an annoying habit, it may not be something you can really control without therapy. Some researchers also believe Onychophagia could be genetic. The medical community is now taking nail biting, and other body-focused repetitive behaviors, more seriously since these habits can impact people’s daily lives, Penzel says.

“You can cause a great deal of damage to yourself. I see women who are bald and have to wear wigs. I see people whose hands are chewed up and bloody and infected. In terms of skin picking, I see people whose bodies and faces are completely scarred. I saw a woman who picked a hole through one of her nostrils and needed plastic surgery to repair it.”

Nail biting in particular can cause damage to the cuticles and nails, as well as the soft tissue lining the mouth, and can lead to bacterial and viral infections, abscesses and dental problems. These are all good reasons to stop. If you’re a nail biter like me but are still not convinced that nail biting is more than a bad habit, consider that one study found a connection between nail biting (and thumb sucking) and the spread of bacteria like E-coli.

I, for one, have tried quitting many times. One time I quit for nearly a year! That required almost daily application of nail polish, frequent trimming with nail clippers and lots of gum. Eventually, I fell off the bandwagon and starting biting my nails even with polish on. Ultimately, I don’t feel like I’m living with a serious, life-altering disorder. It’s an inconvenient impulse and something I don’t like doing.

But I know I need to do something to curb it. I want to get back into the habit of painting my nails, even if I have to do it every day, and being more conscious of whether I have specific triggers that lead to nail biting. Because it’s gross, and also it’s way too annoying to always have to ask someone else to open your can of soda for you.

Illustrations by Emily Zirimis.

  • I’ve never read an article that I’ve identified with as much as this one. Nail biting was and still continues to be a habit I struggle with. It got so bad that as a kid, I bit the entire nail off. I’ve been told my hands look like they got attacked by pirahnas.

    I’ve almost stopped the obsessive nail biting but substituted it with picking at the sides of my thumbs. And yes, I do it when I’m anxious, nervous or bored – doesn’t really matter. The only way to avoid doing both habits is super regular manicures. I find if I go every week, I avoid messing with them. It’s a SERIOUS struggle though. Nice to know that I’m not the only one that has been in a nail biting shame spiral.

  • Jessica

    I needed to read this.

    I was doing quite well until Trump was elected and now i have nothing. I have even moved on to biting and picking the skin around the nail when i have completely run out of nail to bite and pick. My cuticles are definitely suffering and i’m getting more hangnails than ever. I thought it had to be something more than anxiety (hell, i’m always anxious!) and after reading this i now realise it is a form of self punishment in a way.

    Anyway. The only way i have successfully been able to stop biting my nails is to get acrylics. Sigh. But sitting for an hour every 2 weeks feels like a waste of my life. What to do what to do!

    • Dawn

      Same. Acrylics helped me grow out my nails for the first time ever. Gels didn’t exist then. I may have to try them as I find I lapse in times of stress but if I catch on early enough I can stop.

  • Coco

    Thank you sooo much for this. As a 32 year old woman, I am constantly bothered with myself that I cannot stop picking/biting my nails/cuticles. I am embarrassed, but that is not enough to stop me. My husband tries to help me by letting me know I am doing it, but that does not help either. I always thought it was an anxious habit, (as I suffer from severe anxiety), it’s interesting to read that since I also do it when I am bored, it is not necessarily triggered by anxiety.
    I agree with the other comment, that the only thing that stopped me was having acrylics, but I hate what it does to my natural nails.
    Happy to read that others have the same problem, but what I want to know is what is going to really help ???

  • Cinamaron

    I have an anxiety disorder and have had the worst problems with nail biting / picking at skin. The nail biting I managed to curb with the nail painting tactic (but still do it occasionally, usually when I’m trying not to pick at something) and getting super into skincare helped me stop picking my face but I still do it to my arms and back. It makes me feel gross and I hate it but it’s so hard to not do it! Some days it won’t be a problem and some days I’ll do it a lot. It’s not to the degree that it’s caused any problems/damage but it’s still not fun.

  • Christine

    I am a nail picker as well (occasionally biter but more of a picker). For me it is a habit that can be made worse with anxiety but ultimate stems from not having something to occupy hands. A few years ago I looked at the problem objectively after realizing it was sort of compulsive disorder. I learned I tended to mostly pick at my nails while reading, watching tv or movies, sitting in long car rides, business meetings where I was just sitting there, anything where my hands didn’t have a direct purpose.

    I decided to try looking into fidget toys and getting gel manicures (harder to pick away than normal manicures). It didn’t completely fix the problem. I still pick at my pinky nails (I call them my sacrificial nails) and on rare occasion the others but for the most part my nails are no where near what they used to look like and most people don’t look at your pinky nails anyways. lol

    The fidget toy that worked the best was this one https://www.amazon.com/The-Sensory-University-ULTIMATE-FIDGET/dp/B0019648V6
    I bought several of them and kept one in my purse, one on my nightstand, one at my work desk, one at my home desk, one in my car.

    I realize this might not work for everyone, but I suggest giving it a try if you find your habits stemming from a similar place as mine.

    • Mara

      hey! i like your approach and think some of your strategies may help me– can you explain the ring? i don’t understand how it works from the pic on amazon…?

      • Christine

        Its pretty simple but oddly hard to explain. I usually use it one handed and kind of push the center of it with my finger so the two larger rings turn parallel and then flips around on itself.

        • Mara

          hey thanks so much! just circled back to this. im def going give it a shot.

      • Christine

        I managed to find a video by one of the companies who makes them. Mine used to have the rubber bands around the middle of the rings but the bands got kind of gross over time so I cut them off.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aud6_fOIvXk

  • Thank you for this! I also have a problem- not with my nails, but as long as I can remember I pick the skin off of my thumbs. I have to carry band aids and cuticle clippers in my purse at all times as I often pick too deep where I can’t tear the skin anymore and blood starts spilling out. I don’t know how to start a pick once I start, and like you, my boyfriend is always grabbing my hand to stop me from further damage.

    I hate that I do it because my thumbs are always wrapped up in band aids but it’s so hard to stop!! And judging by the comments, this seems way more common than I thought. I’ll take comfort in that for now.

  • Laura Glendenning

    These comments are so comforting to read.i havenever seen anyones nails as gross as mine..I’d love to go for manicures to encourage me to keep them nice but i’dprobably have to wait at least a month before they were long enough to actually get manicured with. 🙁
    I too have quit a few times…once for over 6 months! My nails were beautiful. But i fell off the wagon again. I can’t sem to stop.
    Its weird because i always think people (friends or strangers) think less of me. I think less of me. But i still can’t stop…

    • Grace B

      I try painting my own nails weekly — it really helps!

  • Matt Rosenthal

    I can relate 100%. I’ve been a cuticle biter for as long as I can remember. I stop for a short time but when the least bit of stress comes along I go right back to it. There is a product I’ve found that works–it’s called Control-It! It’s a cream not a polish so I don’t feel feminine when I use it. Rubs right into my fingers and tastes terrible. When I go to bite it reminds me to stop. I’ve bought it on Amazon a few times. Works for me–I highly recommend trying it!

  • doublecurl

    I was an as-bad-as-it-gets nail biter for my entire life….until I went through an extremely traumatic breakup and realized a month later I had fingernails. They’re still going strong years later! I wouldn’t recommend the method but hey, whatever works.

  • Grace B

    For the most part, if I have nail polish on my nails, they are in pretty good shape. I can even go about 2 weeks without nail polish and not bite them, but I have been a habitual biter ALL my life. My dad bit his nails constantly too up until a few years ago. When I was in 7th grade I messed with my ring finger on my right hand so much that the nail bed got infected. Yes, that was gross. Never really thought about it as seriously as this. Nowadays I make sure to clean under my nails daily and I found it helps me take more pride in my appearance, hence the nail polish regularly.

    Remember being a flexible little kid and biting your TOENAILS? Whew.

  • Samantha Lee

    I don’t bite my nails down to the point where they’re bleeding, but I still can’t break the habit. I have a bit of OCD – which is evident in other areas of my life – but I can attest that I always bite my fingernails when I’m bored. Always always always when I’m sitting in traffic in Los Angeles.
    http://www.wonderlandsam.com

  • rockthetropics

    Longtime compulsive nail-biter here, too. Until a couple of years ago, I’d tried everything — painting my nails with polish, painting my nails with bitter and foul-tasting concoctions, squeezing squishy stress toys — to no avail. And then, out of sheer desperation, I resorted to press-on nails. And (freakin’ miracle!) it worked. I bought packs upon packs of KISS short-length French manicure falsies (tacky but resilient) and the little green bottle of KISS extra-strength nail glue (because the glue that comes with the nail packs is laughably ineffective), reapplied about once a week or as individual falsies broke off, and in two or three months I had actual nails.

    Fake nails have come a long way, btw — you can wash your hands, wash your hair, wash dishes, type, clumsily button/unbutton pants, &c with these things. That glue is no joke! Eventually the nails will start loosening, or will occasionally come off altogether (opening drawers is a little dangerous), but they’re pretty reliable.

    After my initial success, I painted my nails with strengthening polish diligently once a week or so, and managed mostly to avoid biting — although I’d still kind of put my fingers in my mouth all the time, sigh — for nearly a year until I relapsed again. Went back to my fake nails, grew out my real ones again, maintained, relapsed.

    I’m maybe on my third or fourth go-around right now. Clearly I haven’t “cured” myself completely, but I’m ok with that — I never really believed anything would rid me of the habit, even temporarily, so my temporary successes are a HUGE victory.

    Sorry this is so long, but I hope it helps some of you out there.

    • Dawn

      This is how I finally quit biting my nails. Upon graduating from uni I decided to get acrylic tips on my bloody stumps. I still lapse from time to time from stress or when winter makes my nails dry and weak. After I grew them out I made sure to gives myself manicures which helped me to keep from biting them. I rarely wear polish now but I do apply nail strengthener when I see that I’m stressed enough to bite them again. Nobody in my fam bites their nails, just me.

  • Nicole McIntyre

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3a83e183f45cc6c90a9d03d6810e54669025db39183d1075f6a4b76abbdae8e2.jpg Reformed nail biter here. It’s been almost seven years, with a few slips along the way. I’ve found that weekly manicures keep me honest, after all I’m spending a bloody fortune keeping them in tip top shape in an effort to keep my fingertips from my lips. Although in saying that I’m not above picking at my cuticles; there’s something oddly satisfying in pulling at them – you know?

    The main reason why I stopped biting was due to a wager between my husband pre-marriage. He said if I stopped biting my nails, he’d spring for a super-luxe mani, and I never really looked back.

    There have been moments that remind me what it was like being a feverish nail biter. Not caring when and where you did it (ahem, the conference room with senior management present); hearing the clicking of his teeth as he chomped at anything hanging off his nail beds. This went on for the entirety of the meeting, and it was a frequent occurrence. To top it off, he was a frequent smoker, and I highly doubt that he washed his hands. Food for thought as I put this anonymous sole on blast, but I shutter to think that used to behave this way too. I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that his image pops into my mind whenever I’m about to fall off the wagon.

    • Julissa

      YOUR NAILS ARE BEAUTIFUL. You’d never guess you were a nail biter.

      • Nicole McIntyre

        Thanks Julissa. I still have tiny scars/wrinkles just above my cuticles from pulling at bits of skin. But I’m over the moon at how far I’ve come.

  • 808kate

    I’ve been a compulsive nail biter for 15 years, since I was 13 and I watched someone give a manicure to Oprah on TV and they mentioned in passing there was dead skin around her nails and I decided I needed to bite mine off. I tried everything to stop including that gross nail polish they put on kids who suck their thumbs. Then one day this summer I read this: http://www.xojane.com/healthy/so-i-quit-biting-my-nails. So I did two things: I told myself I was NEVER BITING THEM AGAIN. It was OVER. And I would snap my wrist with my hair tie whenever I noticed my hand going toward my mouth. For some reason, of all the million things I’ve tried, this worked and I haven’t bitten my nails for 6 months for the first time since I was a kid. I think something about being like no, I am a grown ass lady and I’m done doing this forever, knocked the compulsion out of me.

  • Lauren

    Compulsive, hereditary nail biter here too. I finally stopped biting (for now) by giving myself an early new years resolution at the beginning of December. I started taking weekly progress photos of my nails, and have a shameful “before” photo that I don’t want my nails to get back to. After a month they were finally long enough for a manicure and I think Shellac is just enough of a reminder not to bite. It will probably be a never-ending journey.

    Still waiting for the lengthening of the nail beds…