Nail biting: Everything you need to know to stop doing it.

 

Nail biting habit or onychophagia is one of the most common nervous problems. Do you want to stop biting your nails forever? In this article, we reveal the strategies that will help you get rid of this annoying habit once and for all. If you are a mother or father, it will guide you to help your children leave this habit and save you many unnecessary efforts. How to stop biting nails?

Nail Biting

Nail Biting

How many times have you tried to stop biting your nails?

You probably have tried everything and even your relatives, close ones and friends have suffered with us.

It often becomes such an automated and unconscious habit that we only realize when we have mutilated our finger and it hurts. We are ashamed of our hands and try to hide them whenever we can. We have had infected fingers or fingers with the bruises. Our teeth might even be crooked due to our efforts in twisting them to nail bite. If you feel identified with these anecdotes, do not hesitate to continue reading.

If you feel identified with these anecdotes, do not hesitate to continue reading.

What is its cause? Why do we bite our nails?

Usually, stress is the main cause for this nervous habit, beginning during childhood. It is a way to manage anxiety either from our own initiative or through imitation of an adult.

It is important to remember that anxiety and stress are not negative in themselves. They prepare us for action and mobilize our resources to deal with day-to-day situations. However, if the anxiety is excessive or continues in time it can have more serious consequences, both psychological and physiological. Once the habit is established, nail biting can happen when we are anxious or stressed, but there may also be no apparent cause. It may happen when we have our hands free because we have simply developed it as a habit. 

Nail Biting-What can I do to stop it? Tips

1. Control stress and anxiety to stop nail biting

The first thing to do is attack the main cause: stress and anxiety. It will always depend on what is causing this stress. If it is something that overwhelms us and we can’t manage it for ourselves, the best we can do is go to the psychologist’s office, who can do a personalized and complete approach.

For minor stress issues, we can learn relaxing techniques such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, music, etc.

2. Make the habit conscious

In most cases, the act of bringing your fingers to your mouth is unconscious, we do it without realizing it. In order to treat the habit, it is essential to pay attention in order to bring it back to our consciousness and avoid impulsive behaviors. Psychologists use self-reports and timetables where the patients have to point out the times that we perform a certain behavior and in what situation. This is a timetable that shows time, day and activity as well as how many times and how long you have bitten your nails. We can add a column that indicates our anxiety level.

This strategy is also useful to know in which situations we are more likely to bite our nails and to be more attentive and avoid it. It also helps us to see our progress, since it is ideal to keep the self-report until the undesirable behavior ceases altogether.

Another tool that can be very useful is to describe when we turn to nail biting. For example: “I’m working on my computer and I put my chin on my hand. The nails approach my mouth and I begin to nibble them”. Another example: “I start rubbing the side of my finger with another, I find an irregularity on my nail and rub it more. I bring my hand to my mouth and try to match the edge of the nail”. This helps make more conscious the behaviors that come before biting our nails. This will help us to realize when our hands are close to our face, to stop and move them away. 

Lately there have been advertising products that promise to help us stop nail biting. They are nail polishes with an unpleasant bitter taste that supposedly will make the habit disappear easily. The fact is that these types of methods have not shown long term effectiveness for these nervous habits. It might work to make the habit more conscious, but this will work only for a while since we will get used to the flavors.

3. Behavior inconsistent with the nail biting habit

Once we know the situations we are most likely to bite our nails, we have to find a behavior that we can do easily and substitute for nail biting. For example, the easiest thing would be to tighten our fist or any object that we have in our hand, for 5 or 10 seconds, enough so that the nail biting impulse disappears. But we could also put on gloves, hide our hand under our thigh if we are sitting down, etc.

4. Stimulus Control

Often, what leads us to nail biting (even in people who do not have this habit) is an irregular nail or a lifted cuticle. Therefore it is very important that we carry with us at all times a file and/or nail clippers. Thus, when we detect some irregularity we can eliminate it, avoiding nail biting.

It is also helpful to take some time, a night preferably, to examine your nails and keep them without irregularities. This will prevent further temptations to nail bite or to bring your fingers in your mouth. It is also important to keep them hydrated and apply transparent hardening nail polish so that they gain strength and it will be more difficult to bite.

Nail Biting

Nail Biting

5. Reinforcements

We can involve people around us as assets to help us stop. They don’t have to only punish us when we do it but instead, reinforce or congratulate us when we have not engaged in nail biting. We also have to congratulate ourselves.

We can carry a photo diary, in which we take pictures regularly to see our progress and keep us motivated. It is important that we know that it is very likely that there will be relapses, as in all psychological problems. After a while without biting our nails, we are likely to return. However, that does not mean we have failed. Relapses are very common, as we are going to go through more delicate and more vulnerable moments. Try to live these relapses as learning opportunities for next time. In addition, you will have all these tools, which will help you to start the process again, and it will never be like starting from scratch. It will become easier for you to stop biting your nails until the habit disappears.

This article is originally written in Spanish by Andrea García Cerdán.

Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.