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Anxiety and Compulsive Nail Biting

Anxiety can cause many different tics and habits. One of the most common is nail biting. Biting your nails is a strange way to react to anxiety and stress, but it is perhaps one of the most common ways that both children and adults seem to act when they feel tension.

In this article, we'll explore why nail biting occurs and what can be done about it.

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Your Anxiety and Nail Biting

Presumably your goal is to stop nail biting, and that starts by awareness. Figure out when you're biting your nails, including the scenarios (are you alone or with others? Are you sitting/standing?), what happened before and afterward, what your thoughts are at the time, etc. Also, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn how to control the anxiety that creates nail biting.

What is Nail Biting?

Nail biting is when you are constantly placing your nails near your mouth and using your teeth to peel or bite off the top later. Some people don't even realize they're biting their nails at all until it's pointed out to them, indicating that it almost never happens consciously.

It's a habit, and it's something that can have long term repercussions like infection risk and poor nail health, but because it doesn't always have these problems, not everyone seeks treatment. Some people unintentionally start to depend on nail biting as the only way to keep their nails short. For some reason, people tend to bite all nails a uniform length.

Some people bite around their cuticles and their skin as well, and that can also create a greater problem with skin health. The entire condition is known as onychophagia.

Note: Not everyone bites their nails. Some people pick their nails instead. The same principles apply.

Why Do People Bite Their Nails?

It's not entirely clear why nail biting occurs. It's considered an impulse control problem as well as a habit. Some people believe that most likely nail biting is instinctual, left over from our time as primates, and that when we're stressed these instincts come out against our will.

Biting your nails is just one of many habits that the body seems to do when it's stressed. Some people pick at skin. Others pull out hair (this is known as trichotillomania). In the end, it simply may not be clear why this happens, but most likely it provides some stimulating for the nervous system.

How to Control Nail Biting From Anxiety

Unfortunately, nail biting is as much a habit as it is a response to anxiety. So there are two parts to stopping it. The first part is breaking the habit. The second part is making sure you control your anxiety. If you control your anxiety alone, you may still have the habit, and if you don't control your anxiety even breaking the habit may still be enough.

We'll start with tips to stop nail biting. Consider the following:

  • Placing Something on Your Hands/Fingers Remember that most nail biting is unconscious, so chances are you're not even aware that you're doing it. You want to prevent yourself from being able to bite your nails when you're not aware. So placing something over your fingers so that nail biting is impossible can reduce the instances of you biting. Ideally, something that goes barely over your fingers (like a BandAid) is best, because in a way, you want your body to want to bite your nails only to be blocked. That way you "wake up" to your habit when it occurs and stop.
  • Replacement Habit You can also try replacing the habit with something more productive. For example. Sometimes your hands simply need something to fidget with. If you look around, you can find fidgeting tools like spinner rings and try to train yourself to use them instead, since they cause no damage and are harmless. It can be very difficult to stop any urge to pick or play with something, but you can at least train yourself out of biting your nails.
  • Tell People to Point it Out Remember, one of the ways to treat nail biting is to make the unconscious conscious, so that you aren't simply biting it when you can't pay attention. If you have people in your life that are around you often, tell them to point it out to you whenever it looks like you're biting your nails. This reminder can make you more mindful of it so that you can't stop it before it even starts.
  • Set Reminders Technology isn't exactly the best thing for your anxiety, but that doesn't mean that it can't be used to your advantage. If you found that you bite your nails at specific times of day or specific places, you can set up alarms that go off that remind you not to bite. If you're in the middle of biting you'll realize it and find some way to move your hands away.
  • Keep Your Hands or Mouth Busy Psychologists also advise that you essentially make it not possible to bite your nails because your hands and mouth are too busy. Earlier we mentioned to pay attention to where you are and what you're doing when you bite your nails. That's because if you find you bite them when alone on the couch, try to spend more time with friends and walk around rather than sit on the couch. When you're stressed and alone, do puzzles so your hands are busy. Chew gum. Stay active so that you don't even have a free moment to bite.

These aren't anxiety reduction techniques. They're simply ways to stop the biting habit, which is an important part of stopping biting altogether.

Yet you'll still need to cure your anxiety if you want to stop nail biting forever.

Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to find out more about what your symptoms say about your anxiety and how you can try to stop them.

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Tanaka, Orlando Motohiro, et al. Nailbiting, or onychophagia: a special habit. American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics 134.2 (2008): 305-308.

Pacan, Przemyslaw, et al. Onychophagia as a spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Acta dermato-venereologica 89.3 (2009): 278-280.

Sachan, A., and T. P. Chaturvedi. Onychophagia (Nail biting), anxiety, and malocclusion. Indian Journal of Dental Research 23.5 (2012): 680.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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