Why We Bite Our Nails – and Tips to Help You End the Habit

by | Updated: September 19th, 2021 | Read time: 3 minutes

We’ve probably all bitten or chewed our nails at some point in our lives, especially as children. Likely, we’ve not given it much thought – especially if it’s an occasional habit.

However, according to the DSM-5, nail-biting (or onychophagia, as it’s clinically known) is considered a Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRB) that falls under a type of obsessive-compulsiveness (other related behaviors include lip biting or cheek chewing).

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Why do people bite their nails?

While the causes aren’t fully understood, there are a few theories as to why we bite our nails.

One theory is that there may be a genetic link to onychophagia as some people are more predisposed to developing BFRBs. Others believe nail-biting is the result of underlying emotional or psychological issues, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). And some people think nail-biting is merely a bad habit they’ve not been able to kick.

Whatever the cause, nail-biting seems to offer a temporary emotional/physical release from a wide variety of tensions, including:

  • Nervousness, anxiety or stress
  • Frustration, impatience or boredom
  • Concentration, hunger or loneliness

Why is biting your nails bad?

Though relieving those daily tensions is a healthy practice, nail-biting is not the best method to do so. Biting nails can be damaging, not only to the look and health of our nails and cuticles but to our overall health, as well.

Nail-biting can cause:

  • Unhealthy or strange-looking nails
  • Fungal infections (of the nail plate, nail bed and the surrounding skin)
  • Illness from the passing of bacteria/viruses from your fingers to your mouth
  • Increased risk of stomach/intestinal infections from swallowing nail pieces
  • Dental harm such as chipped or misaligned teeth
  • Jaw pain and misalignment

How to stop biting your nails

Don’t fret

First things first, don’t worry. Changing a habit takes effort, and you need all the help you can get – including from yourself! So, in your effort to stop biting your nails, don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up some days.

Keep them trimmed and neat

Set aside time, once per week, to trim, clip and clean up your nails and cuticles, which may help lessen the urge to bite off any hangnails. Consider booking regular manicures so you can have the added incentive of cost – and beauty! – to stave off nail chewing.

Paint with bitter polish

Adding a layer of bitter nail polish can be one extra barrier to remind you that your nails are a no-bite zone. If this isn’t incentive enough, you can also try temporarily covering your nails with bandages to physically block them from your sight.

Replace the behavior

When you feel the urge to nibble, grab a stick of chewing gum instead. Or, try squeezing a stress ball, rubbing a worry stone or distracting yourself with something else to keep your hands busy and away from your mouth. Take small, manageable steps.  You might even make a deal with yourself to stop chewing the nails of one hand (or specific fingers), then work toward stopping with the other.

Consider asking for help

If you’ve tried these ‘nail-biting nixers’ and you’re still unable to stop chewing, consider asking a doctor or therapist for help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) could be an option, or, there could be a medication or other option you may not have thought of that will help you kick that habit.

*Keep in mind, you should see a doctor if you are experiencing:

  • Ingrown nails
  • Infection of the nails or surrounding tissues
  • Thinning, thickening, curled or discolored nails
  • Bleeding, swelling or pain around the nails
  • Nails that have stopped growing or that have separated from the surrounding skin

Building new habits takes time – have patience with yourself

Remember – you have the power to stop biting your nails!

Though it will take time and will likely not change overnight, the important thing to remember is that you’re trying to make this positive change. And that’s the first step.

Give yourself space and time to build healthier habits so you can keep your body, mind and spirit healthy – and your nails will be a reflection of that!

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