Why You Should Stop Biting Your Nails And How

We’ve all been warned in childhood against the bad habit of biting nails. However, when it becomes into a repetitive behaviour even in adulthood?due to stress, anxiety and boredom?it’s hard to give up. Here are some easy ways to stop biting your nails and protect your fingers, oral hygiene and gut health as well.

By Debashruti Banerjee
01 Sep 2021

Did you know that nail-biting is seen as a legitimate behavioural compulsion, also known as onychophagia? This habit is most common in children, but can affect many adults as well.
“If a long-term problem, onychophagia can be considered as a pathological oral habit which is characterised by chronic, seemingly uncontrollable nail-biting,” says psychologist Dr. Shreya Chakravarty of Apollo Health City, Hyderabad. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classified it as “body-focused repetitive behavior disorder,” which falls under “Other Specified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.” It’s a kind of compulsive behaviour related to obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder, a body focused repetitive behaviour (BFRB).


As children, we do not put much thought into thumb-sucking or nail-biting, and many of us grow out of it. In fact, a study by the journal Pediatrics tested 1000 children (aged 5 to 11) and concluded that nail-biting may help us build natural immunity against common allergies by habituating us with microbes, as opposed to a completely germ-free environment. This “hygiene hypothesis”, however, works only in moderation, and it is important to note that the negative impact of nail-biting weighs heavier.


Though some of us may naturally stop biting our nails as we grow older, it can take an addictive form for others, resulting in injuries or infections in their fingers, misaligned teeth, stomach problems and even lack of confidence. We have compiled some of the most popular and effective ways to combat this habit and find other ways to cope with underlying issues like stress or anxiety that cause nail-biting in the first place.


Why do you bite your nails?

1. Stress: A 2016 study in the University of Tasmania revealed that “psychological imbalances, such as stress, anxiety and nervousness, were perceived as the principal cause of nail-biting, followed by nutritional deficiency”. People with repetitive behaviour tend to use these tics or urges to cope with difficult situations or emotions.

2. Anxiety: Another leading cause behind onychophagia is anxiety, both in adults and children. Social anxiety, separation anxiety, low self-esteem?they all fall under why someone might turn to nail-biting for comfort. A 2017 study for the Sage Journals concluded that “48.2% of adolescents in the 11- to 17-years-old age group had a habit of nail-biting”. Anxiety, depression, negative self-image, somatisation (physical expression of stress) and hostility were much higher in those who bite their nails than in those who did not.

3. Boredom: A study of 40 undergraduate students, as published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, found that “nail biting in young adults occurs as a result of boredom or working on difficult problems, which may reflect a particular emotional state. It occurs least often when people are engaged in social interaction or when they are reprimanded for the behavior”.

4. Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD): Dr. Chakravarty is of the opinion that nail biting might have “underlying psychological problems like tic disorder, anxiety or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)”. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has considered nail biting as a legitimate symptom of OCD or other compulsive psychiatric disorders, though not in all cases.


What does biting your nails do to your body?
1. Infections: Continuous biting, pulling and irritating the nails and skin of your fingers can not only cause minor injuries but can also carry microbial and viral infections like paronychia. Years of damaging the cuticle and nail bed may also affect normal nail growth and shape of the finger. The Indian Journal of Dental Research warns that diseases like paronychia and onychomycosis as well as other germs and bacteria stuck under the fingernails can travel from the hands to the mouth and cause stomach problems?one of them, according to a 2015 paper in the journal Contemporary Clinical Dentistry is called Enterobacteriaceae, a gut bacteria similar to Salmonella and E. Coli.

2. Dental damage: The effect of nail biting on your teeth, jaw and oral hygiene is crucial. The Indian Journal of Dental Research says that it can cause crowding and rotations of incisors as well as gingivitis (inflammation of the gums). Nail biting is also associated with bruxism or teeth-grinding, according to the book Cawson’s essentials of oral pathology and oral medicine. Teeth grinding can further lead to cheek biting, jaw pain, headaches and sensitivity.

3. Self-consciousness: Persistent onychophagia can bring with itself guilt, shame and stigma. The affected might have low self-esteem and even avoid shaking hands with others. The Indian Journal of Dental Research says that this is why education, emotional support and encouragement is indispensable to build a nail-biter’s self-confidence and guarantee more effective progress.



How can you stop biting your nails?

1. Keeping nails manicured: A good way to avoid constant nibbling on uneven nails is to keep them well-trimmed and/or manicured at all times, says Dr. Chakravarty. A well-groomed nail is not only neat and clean, but aesthetically pleasing as well. You can even wear gloves, tapes, stickers to discourage yourself from biting your nails.

2. Keeping yourself busy: An effective way to counter the urges to bite your nails would be to find more constructive activities to focus on. You can invest in stress balls, fidget toys, chewing gum or learn a musical instrument. The Indian Journal of Dental Research suggests outdoor play as an outlet for negative energy and also a way to engage your mind, hands and emotions at the same time.

3. Identifying triggers: Ahmad Ghanizadeh, in his 2011 paper for the Iranian Journal of Medical Sciences, notes that “comorbidities of psychiatric disorders and other stereotypic behaviors in clinical samples of children with nail biting is more than 80%, and more than half of the parents suffer from psychiatric disorders mainly depression.” He infers that treatment of onychophagia must begin with identifying the causes and locating the triggers. With early intervention, proper awareness and motivation, this problem becomes easier to deal with.

4. Habit reversal training: Dr. Chakravarty also encourages cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and habit reversal training (HRT) for more severe cases that need professional help. These are psycho-social behavioural treatment techniques that help the patient eliminate the stimuli that trigger their negative habits and eliminate them.


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