You Are Not Alone With Your Nail Biting

Nail-biting that habit many of us are not proud of yet can’t seem to stop. We know it is not pleasant for other people to watch and may abruptly stop when we notice someone is. It ruins the appearance of the hands, can be painful and is probably very unhygienic. Many people try to stop but both consciously and unconsciously continue to find themselves chewing on the edges of their nails. What drives this habit? How common is it? How does one stop? Let’s explore these common thoughts and questions. 

Nail-biting often starts and is quite common in your childhood. Studies show that 60% of children and 45% of teens, bite their nails. Though these numbers decrease into adulthood for some it does not go away. Though this habit can be harmless it can snowball and turn into something you may feel you have no control over and has some rather unpleasant consequences. 

Nail-biting is also known as Onychophagia which is when nail-biting turns into an uncontrollable chronic condition characterized by destruction to one’s fingernails and surrounding tissue. Onychophagia is classified in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM- a text that is considered the authority on psychiatric diagnosis) as an “Other Specified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders along with other body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) - hair pulling, nail-biting, skin picking. There are a number of criteria nail-biting would need to meet before being considered a disorder in need of professional treatment. Many individuals do not require professional treatment, but it could be helpful to understand more about the development of this habit and how one could learn to curb it. 

Before we can understand how to stop nail biting it may be helpful to understand why people bite their nails in the first place. What drives people to bite their nails? Scientists have identified many reasons people may bite their nails and the reason for this involve a unique combination of factors for each individual. Let’s explore some of the reasons you may be biting your nails. 

The research on nail-biting is limited but if we take a trip back in time, we will find one of the original explanations for nail-biting by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's. Sigmund Freud was one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy who would blame nail-biting on one becoming stuck in the oral stage of psychosexual development. Freudian theorists would blame one’s relationship with their mother along with issues related to excessive breastfeeding as an infant. Later researchers believed that nail-biting could be a mild form of self-harm- intentionally hurting oneself, though originally this is by cutting. They also theorized that nail-biting could be a sign of hostility towards one’s self. 

Most nail biters are not interested in hurting themselves or fond of the damage this habit can cause. In the 1990s, they developed the cluster of disorder into Body-Focused Repetitive Disorders (BFRD) to be different then self-harm. They began to see that this type of behavior was more related to obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD which is where chronic destructive nail-biting is found in the DSM. 

Although nail biting has been classified as an OCD type disorder many researchers disagree with this diagnosis also. Just because the behavior is obsessive does not mean it is also compulsive. Often compulsions are associated with extreme levels of anxiety, but nail biters often gain pleasure from biting their nails- they want to do it but they do not like the fact it damages their nails. Those with OCD are more likely to bite their nails but researchers believe Body-Focused Repetitive behaviors maybe their own distinct disorders. 

Research has shown that those who struggle with nail-biting may also struggle with other disorders making it trickier to treat them simply stopping the biting. Some studies have found common co-occurring disorders that can accompany nail-biting are Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Separation Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and Developmental Disorders. Research has also found a link between children who nail bite have parents who are struggling with a psychiatric disorder including depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. 

Although there are a lot of theories regarding why one may bite their nails few have been to hit the nail on the head. There is a limited amount of research that looks specifically at nail-biting, but they are finding those that bite their nails may be doing as a means of emotional regulation. They could bite their nails when they are too bored or when they are stressed. This is especially seen in college students and could explain why nail-biting overlaps with a number of other psychological disorders.

Nail-biting can impact your social life. As a child, it can cause tension between family members with parents experiencing shame and punishing their children for nail-biting. Often the punishment of nail-biting results in more nail-biting along with feelings of anxiety, stress, helplessness, and hopelessness, not less. It is suggested the children not be punished or shamed for nail-biting as often they stop when they reach adulthood. It has been suggested that smoking or chewing gum in adults is a substitute for nail-biting in childhood. An interesting thought to consider if you were a nail-biting as a child and now smoke or chew gum as an adult. 

 Why You Should Stop 

  • Regardless of the reasons you are biting your nails, it’s important to try to stop or limit the amount of biting due to possible negative consequences: 
  • Damage to one’s nails, tissue, and fingers. Often one’s nails will grow back odd if one continues to bite them. This can leave you with abnormal-looking nails which can further hurt one’s self-esteem and possibly cause more guilt and embarrassment. 
  • You risk damaging your teeth, chipping a tooth, and hurting your gums. Overtime biting your nails could impact your jaw. 

You could get sick from ingesting the bacteria accumulated under your fingernails that are now in your mouth. When you put your hands in your mouth throughout the day you increase your chances of getting sick. 

How to Stop 

Over the years there have been several different suggested methods that could help someone stop biting their nails

  • Bitter Nail Polish - anti-nail-biting nail polish, like Magique BiteEliminator, that tastes bitter if you try to bite your nails
  • Chewing gum - chewing gum or eating mints throughout the day keeps your mouth occupied and less available for nibbling, you may be able to prevent the automatic instinct to bite your nails
  • The rubber band approach - you wear a thick rubber band around your wrist and when you bite your nails you life up the band and snap yourself with it three times. This is a form of behavior therapy using negative reinforcement and can help break the habit.
  • Energy redirection - engaging one's fingers in some other activity such as drawing, writing, holding stress balls, or playing musical instruments. 

Mindfulness is a recent approach that could help you stop biting your nails. Mindfulness is the practice of being present without judgment. Developing more compassionate self-awareness could help one identify the triggers that lead you to want to bite your nails and then choose to do something else. Often biting one's nails could be linked to environmental stressors if you can identify the emotions, thoughts and body responses the trigger nail-biting you can consciously choose to stop your reaction and choose a different more positive behavior to replace it. To change a habit, we have to become conscious of it and mindfulness is a tool that can do just that. 

If you bite your nails, know you are not alone. Just work to be mindful of the negative impact it could be having on you and instead of judging yourself use compassion and notice the triggers that are causing you to bite your nails. Try some different approaches to help curb this habit and don't be scared to reach out for professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed with it.

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