Here’s what worked for me
By Meg Watson •
When the cool girls were getting French tips in the mid-2000s, I was rocking jagged little nubs. I’ve always struggled to open a can of soft drink. I don’t think I’ve ever used nail clippers. There’s simply never been a need.
I know I’m not alone in this. International studies estimate that around 20-30 percent of people bite their nails — and it’s generally more common if you’re young. It’s a behaviour people often talk about simply “growing out of” … but I turned 30 this year and that time still hasn’t come.
So I decided to take matters into my own (chewed up) hands.
Imogen Rehm, a clinical psychologist who has done research into repetitive grooming behaviours, says that there isn’t a really robust understanding of why people bite their nails. But we do know that there are many factors that can contribute.
“There’s research that suggests it runs in families,” Dr Rehm says.
“And [nail biters] can also have a predisposition to difficulties with tolerating stress, frustration and anxiety.”
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Compulsive nail biting is categorised as an obsessive-compulsive and related disorder, alongside other behaviours like cheek chewing and hair pulling. But Dr Rehm says the fact you bite your nails doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD or any other underlying mental health condition.
For many people, biting your nails is an intentional way of “self soothing”.
“Some nail biters say that everything else they’re worried about in life falls away as they focus on the physical sensations,” says Dr Rehm. “What they’re seeing, tasting, feeling — it’s a focused experience.”
And, in other cases, people have no awareness they’re biting their nails at all. This often happens to long-term biters, Dr Rehm says, and usually in very particular situations.
You might bite your nails while watching TV alone, as a way to stimulate yourself. Or you might do it when you’re stressed at work, as a distraction.
“It’s really critical to gain an understanding of what your common situations are,” Dr Rehm says.
“If you monitor yourself for seven days or so it’ll give you clues.”
That list of common factors sets off alarm bells in my head. I grew up with my dad, who bites his nails much more than I do. I have issues with anxiety. And I usually have no idea I’m biting at all.
Within a couple of days of tracking it, my common situations are clear.
I bite while I’m working, writing to a tight deadline or ruminating over something difficult. I bite when I’m stressing, which there has been no shortage of during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown.
And I bite when I’m frustrated with the nail itself: I chew on any chip or crack or soft spot … which then creates more chips and cracks to get frustrated at.
Through those trends, my nail biting seems pretty tied to anxiety and perfectionism — which are issues I’ve previously spoken to a psychologist about, but never really thought of in this context.
Dr Rehm says that once you have an idea of when and why you’re biting your nails, you have a much greater chance of stopping it: “It’s about understanding the function of the behaviour, and then coming up with strategies that might help fulfil that function in a different way.”
“If your biting is an automatic association [with a certain activity], then you could sit on your hands or clench your fists for a minute to feel the craving subside.”
She also suggests potentially seeing a dermatologist, who can assess the health of the nails and offer further treatments or routines that may help.
Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, a Melbourne-based dermatologist who specialises in nails, says she often plays a role in “breaking the cycle” for long-term nail-biters.
“Dermatologists can treat the physical problems, so there’s less impetus to bite,” she says. Those problems might include weak nails; jagged edges; or dryness, irritation or swelling around the nail plate.
The best treatment will depend on your specific problem, but Dr Gunatheesan says it will all be geared towards giving the nail time to heal while you establish new patterns.
“Nail hardeners and nail lacquers [can be helpful],” she says. “They make it a bit harder to chomp through the nail. Even fake nails can be useful while your nail is growing out.”
She also suggests getting a nail file “to keep the edges really smooth and keep your nails short” and making sure the area around the nail is very well moisturised.
“Try carrying around cuticle oil. If you want to fiddle, maybe you could massage the cuticle instead.”
Dr Rehm says that most people need a “toolbox” of different strategies to draw on and a fair bit of trial and error.
If you’re worried about your biting, however, she says your first stop should be a GP. They can assess your specific needs and refer you to a psychologist and/or dermatologist.
Dr Gunatheesan agrees: “I find there’s a lot of shame around nail biting, but you shouldn’t be shy about it. Engage a professional.”
Over the course of about six weeks, I try a variety of strategies.
When I feel anxiety coming on through work (or any of the intense things happening in the world right now), I try to take a deep breath. I stand up and do a stretch. Sometimes I even manage to do a quick meditation or go for a walk.
My instinct is to barrel my way through stressful situations and I think the nail-biting gives my body something to do with all the nervous energy that creates.
More often than not, I’m able to stop the biting by actively doing something else with my body instead.
I also put a few things in place to address my issues with the nails themselves. I keep a nail file at my desk so I can file chips and cracks away rather than bite at them. I also start using a hardening solution, so the nail doesn’t feel as soft and pliable when I start fidgeting.
The strategies aren’t foolproof. Over the six weeks, I have had small waves of success and failure. I’ve spent a lifetime developing this habit, so it’ll take more than six weeks to break — but the overall trend is looking good
Patience is key,” Dr Gunatheesan says. “If you’ve really chomped it down all the way, nails will take a good two to three months to grow out.”
So, for now, I’m taking this as a win.
“It’s not a problem of lacking willpower or motivation,” Dr Rehm says, reassuringly. “There are many, many other factors that come into play [with nail biting].
“If it was easy to combat then people wouldn’t do it.”
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