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If you’ve been biting your nails for as long as you can remember, you’re not alone. Nail biting is common and usually adopted during childhood or adolescence, says habit scientist Dr Gina Cleo. Reassuringly, she says there are ways you can reduce or stop nail biting altogether.
If you’re wondering how to stop chewing nails, let’s take a look at the reason behind the behaviour.
“Nail biting can be a way of coping with anxiety or stress,” Gina explains. “Some people find that it helps to relieve unpleasant feelings. Other triggers could be boredom, frustration or needing to concentrate.”
Nail biting in children has also been associated with some psychological disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), separation anxiety disorder and Tourette syndrome.
Whatever the initial reason for your nail biting (or, as it’s known in the medical world, onychophagia), over time, it usually becomes an automatic or subconscious action – meaning people often don’t even realise they are doing it, shares Gina. But if we don’t stop, biting nails can actually cause problems that go beyond appearances.
Sure, your nails and the soft skin around them might look a little tattered if you bite them occasionally. But regular nail biting can actually cause a whole host of bigger issues, including bruising of the nail bed (the part underneath containing blood vessels and nerves), nail ridges, and lifting or loss of the nail plate (what we call the nail).
“It can cause chipping and misalignment of teeth, not to mention potential fungal infections of the nail plate and surrounding skin,” shares Gina.
The skin around your nails could become painful, and you might damage the tissue that makes your nails grow, which can lead to abnormal-looking nails. You may also transfer harmful bacteria and viruses from your mouth to your fingers or vice versa.
Swallowing bitten nails can also result in stomach infections or intestinal parasitic infections, as well as jaw pain and dysfunction.
There are also potential psychological effects to consider.
“Nail biting can be an embarrassing habit, especially for adults,” Gina explains.
Do a quick search online for ‘how to stop biting nails’, and you’ll be pleased to find a lot of helpful suggestions – but nipping this problematic behaviour in the bud will take a little time, warns Gina.
“It’s important to remember that you didn’t develop your nail-biting habit overnight, and it’s not going to go away overnight either; it will take time and patience to break the habit.”
Related: The best ways to break a bad habit
Fortunately, children often grow out of the nail biting habit. For adults, there are ways to stop biting nails. Here are a few steps you can take:
The first step to stopping nail biting, says Gina, is noticing your triggers. “When do you bite your nails? What are you feeling? What time of day is it? What are you doing? Who are you with? Once you understand your triggers and what gives you the urge to bite your nails, you can start to create mindfulness around this habit and eventually prevent it from happening altogether,” she explains.
In fact, simply identifying the triggers that give you the urge to bite your nails can be enough to serve as a reminder not to do it.
Making gradual changes can often be more effective than going cold turkey, Gina suggests. “Start by choosing one finger that you won’t put in your mouth. Stick with that one finger until it becomes a habit [not to chew], and the nail begins to look healthier. Then, choose another finger and continue with this pattern until all your fingers look healthy again,” she suggests.
Simply identifying the triggers that give you the urge to bite your nails can be enough to serve as a reminder not to do it
Keeping the nails trimmed short or manicured can help reduce the temptation to bite them, while covering the hands with gloves or mittens can help prevent biting. You might have been told to apply bitter nail polishes to make the nails taste bad, but these are controversial and have mixed results.
If these suggestions aren’t working, speak with your doctor or a psychologist, offers Gina.
If your nail biting is caused by emotional upset or stress, avoiding working through those feelings may be problematic later down the line.
“Trying to soothe unpleasant emotions with nail biting is an attempt to avoid feeling those feelings,” Gina says. “It’s important to lean into uncomfortable feelings to truly address and overcome them.”
See a psychologist if you need support.
Knowing where to start when breaking a bad habit can be a little confusing, so we’ve compiled a few more tips and tricks to help you kick them to the kerb for good. Check out our article on the best ways to break a bad habit for more.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
Dr Gina Cleo is one of Australia’s leading wellbeing experts, with a PhD in habit change. She is a dietitian, but Dr Gina’s passion for wellbeing extends beyond just what we eat. She has dedicated her career to helping people understand their habits and how small, consistent steps can impact health and wellbeing. Gina has a secret love-affair with Microsoft Excel and chai lattes.