Powerful strategies to kick this deep-seated habit at any age.
Growing up, you may have been instructed to stand up straight, mind your manners, and behave yourself. Along the same lines, you may also have been told to stop biting our nails—though why it was frowned, or why you started doing it in the first place, probably wasn’t clear. And without the right helpful tips and tools, nothing makes changing or breaking a habit harder than being told it’s not allowed. Being told to stop biting your nails and actually knowing how to stop biting your nails are two very different things.
Regardless of age, nail biting can be a hard—but not impossible—habit to break. For the best strategies and hints out there, we asked two behavioral experts to explain why we bite our nails and what it takes to stop—here’s where to start.
Why Do You Bite Your Nails?
In order to figure out how to stop biting your nails, it’s important to understand why you started in the first place. According to Hong Yin, MD, a clinical psychiatrist and the owner of New Frontiers Psychiatry in Milwaukee, behaviors like nail biting are often a response to stress and/or anxiety. “It’s much like bouncing your leg, twiddling your fingers, or twirling your hair,” she explains. “It's a way to [let off] a little bit of steam, if you will.”
While repetitive physical actions like these—as well as skin picking, rocking, thumb sucking, and pulling out hair—can be a distraction from stress or distress, Dr. Yin says that they’re not the healthiest or most effective ways of coping with it. “Such behaviors can be self-reinforcing, because in the moment, [they do] reduce the distress the person is in, and humans are creatures of habit,” she explains.
Similarly, nail biting is often a compulsive habit—something people do in order to lower the deep tension building up in their bodies, explains Christine Gibson, MD, a board-certified family physician and psychotherapist specializing in trauma and stress at the University of Calgary in Canada. “We tend to hold a lot of our stress in our nervous system, at a subconscious level,” she explains.
Nail biting generally isn’t something people consciously think about: They just find that it happens, Dr. Gibson notes. But once the habit starts, it’s hard to stop. “The body needs ways to release stored tension,” she explains, “so when it finds one, it may be hard to redirect until a more effective one is discovered.”
How to Stop Biting your Nails
Decided to make a conscious effort to stop biting your nails? It may not seem like it, but that’s a big deal! Know, too, that you’re not alone: Many people have struggled with nail biting and other similar habits, and understand that breaking this habit is no easy thing. Another thing: There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for breaking the habit, so it may take some trial-and-error before finding a strategy that works for you.
It's usually a process—not something that happens overnight. “If someone decides to stop any habit at all, they need to create the circumstances most likely to lead to success,” says Dr. Gibson. Here’s how to get started, make progress, and ultimately stop biting those nails, according to the experts.
Be kind to yourself.
Go in with the understanding that nail biting isn’t a character flaw or a sign that you’ve done something wrong. “Be self-compassionate in the struggle,” Dr. Gibson says. “Our body creates these adaptive habits for a reason.” Also remember that this is likely a habit you’ve developed and reinforced for years—if it’s been an automatic behavior for a long time, it will naturally take a while to undo, too. Patience is key.
For example, instead of negative self-talk that focuses on the problem—"Why do I do this?" or "What's wrong with me?—try focusing on why biting your nails might be your system’s way of coping with something else, Dr. Gibson says.Approach the habit with some curiosity and compassion: What is it about nail biting that's meant to help you? How is it protective, even if it’s not really needed anymore? “If we think of such behaviors as helpful, we don't feel so much shame about them—which tends to make the whole thing worse,” she explains.
Increase your awareness of it.
Because nail biting is something people typically do without realizing it, Dr. Yin recommends paying closer attention to the habit. “Often, behaviors such as nail biting and skin picking are so routine for us, that we've already created a scar by the time we realize we're doing it,” she explains. “So the first trick is to increase your self-awareness.” Making (non-judgmental) notes of when it’s happening is a huge initial step in the process.
Identify your triggers.
In order to come up with your quitting game plan, you first need to know when, where, and under what circumstances you’re most likely to bite your nails. “Are family dynamics or work issues especially triggering?” Dr. Yin questions. “Delving into why certain themes have such a powerful effect on us can be very helpful, because even if we stop biting our nails, it's easy for us to replace [the habit] with something else, like skin picking or rocking, unless we address the underlying cause.” Along with the triggering events and experiences, Dr. Gibson suggests taking note of the times of day and locations you’re most likely to bite your nails so you can adjust your routine as necessary.
Set goals for yourself.
Many people are more successful when they’re working toward a specific goal. If this would be helpful for you, Dr. Yin says it’s important to make your goal both concrete and measurable.
“Some people respond better with a more gradual approach,” she explains. “Regardless, even if seemingly small, progress is still progress.” For example, you can give yourself a deadline for quitting in general, or set smaller goals along the way—like selecting a date to quit biting your nails at work, then another date to stop doing it in the car, then, eventually, at home.
Give yourself an incentive or deterrent.
In addition to your original motivations to stop biting your nails, Dr. Yin recommends giving yourself another motivating reason to follow through. “I’ve worked with patients who’ve struggled with skin picking,” she says. “Diving into a healing skin regimen has not only helped their skin heal, but it created more incentive not to undo all the work they put into [breaking their habit].”
Along the same lines, getting a manicure can create a similar incentive for people who are trying to stop biting their nails, Dr. Yin explains. Dr. Gibson agrees, adding that other aversive deterrents, like wearing bad-tasting nail polish, or even wearing gloves could help. “In my clinical experience, these need to be used along with an adequate substitute behavior—or you don't address the root cause,” she notes.
Find a better replacement behavior.
People who bite their nails do so as a response to something, and, as Dr. Gibson points out, that trigger won’t miraculously disappear the instant they decide to stop. “In my work in addiction medicine, I always tell patients that the substance is a solution when you haven't got a better one,” Dr. Gibson explains. “So, in this case, too, you need a better solution.”
For example, when hands are the focus—as they are with nail biting—the idea is to replace that habit with one that’s more productive, or at least less problematic, like wearing a fidget ring, or squeezing a stress ball.
When nail biting is someone’s way of responding to stress or anxiety, Dr. Gibson recommends trying one of the self-soothing techniques she uses with her patients, and describes in her book, The Modern Trauma Toolkit:
'Havening' Techniques: Gentle brushing across the palms, shoulders, and face while using guided imagery. “This is proven to create calm delta and theta waves in the brain, enhancing the relaxation response,” she notes.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping: Self-acupressure done by tapping pressure points in the face and body, using a defined sequence to lower emotional intensity. Because most of the sequence can be done with hands, the behavior can substitute for nail biting. “I describe this as taking a volume dial to one's distress,” Dr. Gibson explains.
Other Physical Forms of Relief: This can include movement—like running, dancing, sports, or martial arts—and creative expression. “I especially recommend singing or humming, as it also vibrates the pleura surrounding the lungs and our vagus nerve,” she says.
Build a community of support.
Trying to break a habit like nail biting can be a lonely endeavor, so Dr. Gibson suggests letting those around you—like family members, friends, and coworkers—know that you’re trying to quit. “Keep it light-hearted,” she adds. “After all, you don't want to be stressed out about stopping a stress response!”
Keep trying—even if you hit a plateau.
According to Dr. Yin, this applies to making any kind of major lifestyle change. “Old habits die hard,” she says. “The path is often a nonlinear one, with periods of progress, some regression, and some more progress. Don’t be discouraged if you notice that you’ve lost some of the progress you’ve made. The key is to keep going.”
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