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?
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.