I have been biting my nails ever since I could remember, and I can only assume it’s a reflex thing when you see someone doing it and subconsciously do it as well. For me, that person was one of my best friends in first grade, Zizo. Growing up, my whole family would swat my hand from my mouth whenever it came close, but that only wanted me to do it more. More than 15 years later, they still do the same. They never tire of telling me how disgusting it is, how bad I look doing it and “I can’t believe you’re still doing this, you’re a grown woman now!” – and apparently, I don’t tire of doing it.
“The keyboard you’re using right now and your phone alone is full of microbes worse than those you can find in the bathroom, and they all end up in your mouth,” my grandmother just told me after tsk tsk tsk-ing me as my finger subconsciously made its way near my mouth, as I sit writing this article.
The thing is, in my attempts to quit over the years, some successful and more not, I’ve noticed a pattern. And that is the one thing everyone who’s written on this tells you to do to be able to eventually quit: observe your own behavior and know what triggers you.
Have You Ever Come Across These Two Words?
Onychophagia, the term used for nail biting, is a body-focused repetitive behavior/disorder, also considered to be an uncontrollable pathological oral habit that is destructive to fingernails and the surrounding tissue.
Dermatophagia is the compulsion disorder of gnawing or biting one’s own skin, usually referring to that around the fingernails.
And the reason why both of these, along with the plucking of your hair or eyebrows, or picking at your skin, are considered body-focused repetitive behaviors is that when necessary, professional treatment is needed for both the physical and psychological factors involved.
Why Do We Do Bite Our Nails Impulsively?
According to Fred Penzel, a psychologist dealing with body-focused disorders, “Everybody picks and bites to a degree. When it gets to the point that people are doing damage to themselves, that’s when we treat it as something other than an everyday behavior.”
Undercutting this idea of purposeful self-harm, however, is the fact that most nail biters aren’t particularly fond of the damage this habit causes, and for many, it’s the main reason they want to quit. But at the same time, a lot others mentioned they felt satisfied when they bit or picked at their fingernails. To some, it’s a conscious action and to others, it’s not.
“Often if I go too far, I get a bloody finger and my nails hurt. But the act itself of biting a nail or cuticle actually feels rewarding,” The Verge’s Associate Editor Alessandra Potenza writes. “The theory that nail biting is somewhat connected to pleasure is suggested by some animal studies, Foose [associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF School of Medicine and fellow nail biter] says. In these studies, when rats were given chemicals that decrease the perception of pain, called endorphins, they groomed less. If those pain-killing endorphins were blocked by drugs, the animals groomed more. This behavior seems to suggest that grooming is pleasurable. So when we bite our nails — a form of grooming — we might get a kick out of it.”
Some are addicted to staying in control and grooming themselves a certain way, some find themselves doing it when stressed or thinking about something or bored, even. Like nicotine, the idea is that nail biting can have a biphasic effect: it can stimulate under certain conditions and relax in others.
It’s agreed upon that it could be a sign of emotional or mental stress, usually showing up in people who are nervous, anxious or feeling down; watching a suspenseful movie, working on a piece or concentrating on something.
And for those of us who do it because of the perfection aspect of it, let me tell you: with more than seventeen years of experience under my sleeve – or literally, out of my sleeve – you never perfectly get it; there’s always more to be ‘fixed’. People with higher than average rates of mood and anxiety disorders usually fall into the body-focused repetitive disorder bracket and are usually perfectionists. It might be that ripping off that cuticle or trimming that nail provides a sense of satisfaction to the biter, and then this quest for this feeling eventually gets out of control; “just this part, just give me a second,” I’d respond to those telling me to quit it.
While that is true for some and untrue for others, Onychophagia can also be associated with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Separation Anxiety, among many other mental health issues or episodes in one’s life.
I, for one, found that I never bite my nails when I’m traveling. But the second I come back home, or remove my nailpolish, or break a nail, I’m back to square one. It’s like nothing happened. But I learned; time and time again, to know how to control the urge. Read on.
Why Is It Unhealthy?
My grandma knows best.
Germs, dirt, and yuck gather under your fingernails like they gather anywhere cozy in your body – between your toes or in your in-grown belly button or underneath your toenails. But even though you can wash your hands as many times as you want, they’re still exposed most of the time and you are constantly using your hands and your fingers. You’re carrying things, you’re typing on keyboards and touching stair handrails, you’re opening doors and touching things other people touch too without noticing. And then you’re putting all that in your mouth. By ingesting all those germs, you’re causing yourself gastrointestinal problems like nausea, constipation and diarrhea.
It’s not only about ingesting the germs, but they can affect your oral hygiene as well. Regularly biting your nails can cause your teeth to shift out of place or even break, that’s one. But the germs could also potentially infect and cause irritation to your gums, or linger in your mouth and cause what sophisticates call bad breath: halitosis. And that actually makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Not to mention that it also negatively impacts the jaw.
Other than the fact that you end up with either battered torn skin around your fingernails, making it look bad and feel bad, it can make your nails grow in weird. For example, when I give them a break every once in a while, I’ve noticed that my actual fingernails and the skin underneath have formed different shapes depending on which I abuse with my mouth most. And they look different if you take a close look at them. It just makes you think what will happen in another ten years…
If you constantly bite your nails and the skin around it, chances are you’re biting off a bit more than you intend, and when a piece of torn skin at the root of the nail appears, that’s a hang-nail. And with the open sore in contact with the mouth, also home to a lot of bacteria, an infection is bound to happen; warts and herpes can also be transmitted from your mouth to your fingers and vice versa.
How Do You Stop Biting Your Nails?
After a stressful period, I treat myself to a manicure. Spending the time and money to get my nails professionally trimmed, shaped and painted makes me want to keep them that way. And apparently, according to experts, people respond better to rewards than punishments, and that’s why aversion therapy isn’t too popular in methods of behavioral psychology used to break a habit like this one. And so focusing on the rewarding yourself is always the better thing to do – as opposed to punishing yourself to quit.
Know your triggers. Notice how you feel or what you’re doing when you bite your nails. That way, by knowing what turns the nail-biting switch on, you’ll be able to start working on ways to cope. For example, if being frustrated is a trigger for you, try to alter the circumstances to avoid your hands coming in contact with your mouth – by keeping either of them, or both, busy. And if the trigger is looking down at your fingernail and it’s chipped in a way making you want to fix it, like it is with me, then carry a small nail file to be able to neatly control the situation.
Moisturizing helps! Lotion and creams are the secret to having soft hands, healing the torn skin around your nails and stopping you from putting your soft, nice-smelling fingers in your mouth. Your moisturized hand also tastes terrible, take my word on it.
Regardless of the particular technique you use, keep in mind that breaking an addiction might and usually doesn’t come all at once. So if you break down halfway, remember that it’s just a minor setback. But you have to keep going; consistency is key. Abstaining for longer and longer chunks of time will help you see improvements short-term and will eventually help you break the habit – until nail biting no longer has the same hold on your mind.