Halt that Habit: Nail Biting
Nail biting is common. It’s a ‘trivial’ habit that secretly has a big impact. I have bitten my nails for twenty years. Now I am at a point where my nails are growing again. It’s a small achievement but to me it feels dramatic. It took me a long time to get there and many failed attempts.
I’ve suffered from infections, self-consciousness, and hopelessness when I have failed to quit. Sometimes, I would bite my nails so badly they would bleed, and I would keep going, as if my life depended on it.
So, why do we bite?
It’s been estimated that roughly 30% to 40% of the population has a chronic nail-biting habit. Habitual behaviour is notoriously difficult to stop. Often, we don’t even realise we are doing. There have been times when I was driving along and found myself ten minutes later having bitten every nail without noticing.
The reason we often struggle to stop varies from person to person. It might be that we don’t really understand why it’s such a big deal to quit. Even when we know why we should stop it might be that we try and fail and so we wonder what the point of trying is.
A little dramatically, part of me felt like I was not capable of doing it. It was my crutch to calm me down. I was biting my nails when I entered a panic or became stressed in my every day. It scratched an itch. I had a false feeling of control over my body and because I was focusing on biting it was distracting me from my nervousness. Although it felt great in the moment (and even then, sometimes not), it didn’t feel good after. Calming techniques and adapting to cope with anxiety can be used to replace nail biting, scratching or hair tugging if you are struggling with stress or anxiety. It may be that you simply need to occupy your hands. Perhaps you need to fidget? Nail biting might have become the habit that keeps your hands occupied but there are healthier ways to fidget. If your condition is extreme, it is a good idea to seek medical advice from professionals as it may be more than a behaviour habit.
Whatever your reason is for biting your nails there are many good reasons to give the habit a good kicking.
What is the impact?
Your hands meet a lot of bacteria day to day which then goes straight into your mouth when you bite. Nail-biting helps harmful bacteria enter your body. Not only are you ingesting bacteria through your mouth, you’re sharing it. The bacteria in your saliva goes onto your hands and that then gets passed to anyone or anything you touch, putting others at risk. Germs love a ride and your nails are free transport.
Nail biting can lead to other health problems. It causes irritated skin, tissue damage and open wounds, even very minor ones that you might not really notice, which can then become easily infected.
You’re not only hurting your hands by biting your nails but your teeth and mouth. The flesh of your lips, gums, inner cheeks and tongue are sensitive and your nails are sharp and hard. Chronic nail biting can lead to some serious dental problems like abscesses and damaged enamel.
Finally, and as silly as this might sound, your nails are a tool. It’s much easier to take off a label, open a can, and pick up tiny objects. I can finally peel an orange without using my teeth. However you want to use your nails there is something to be said for the reasons we have them in the first place.
What can I do?
By identifying and noticing our behaviour we have greater chance of stopping. I started forcing myself to notice the habit when I was doing it and stated, “I am biting my nails”. The next step was to take my hand out of my mouth and replace the habit with something healthier. Weirdly, the thing that helped me most at work was a fidget cube. I couldn’t carry that around all day though and certainly not driving. I began doing a breathing exercise when I was at home and thought about why I wanted to quit, my goal. When I drove, I tapped my fingers in a rhythm on the wheel.
Something that helped me notice when I was biting my nails, and associating it with unpleasantness, was some foul-tasting nail treatment. You can pick this up from your local pharmacy or from amazon. I began tolerating the taste of the solution, so I cycled through a couple to keep myself from getting used to the taste. Just a warning, if you do use this, don’t eat food with your hands. Trust me.
Proper nail care and keeping them short stops you from wanting to bite them all off. If you break a nail, or chip it when its growing, resist the temptation to bite it off to correct it. Instead, use nail clippers as it stops you from repeating the actions of biting your nails and teasing your brain with the feeling.
Keeping yourself from falling off the wagon once you stop is part of the challenge. When you start seeing your nails grow it’s motivating but habits creep back. You will bite them and have moments of weakness it’s about powering through those moments. Recognise the act, stop and do something else.
Forgive yourself. It’s not all or nothing. Don’t give up. You can do it!
Kathryn is a passionate freelance writer with a keen interest in our mental health.