Kick your nail-biting habit to the curb using these tips.

Claire Harmeyer
Updated Aug 20, 2020 @ 11:28 am
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We casually use the phrase to describe intense movies or close sports games, exclaiming, "That was a real nail-biter!" However, nail-biting is a problematic practice that many people struggle with daily. The "horrid habit" (as Annie from The Parent Trap would call it) is often adopted during stressful situations, but once you start biting your nails it can become second nature, regardless of the circumstances. But don't worry, HelloGiggles talked to experts to learn how to identify the root of your nail-biting habit so you can kick it to the curb for good.

What causes you to bite your nails?

For some people, biting their nails feels so natural that it's hard to pinpoint when and why the habit began. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, nail-biting typically stems from two things: anxiety or boredom. "Biting down nails can feel like a relief or a signal of accomplishment," Dr. Klapow explains. "It allows a person to discharge excess or nervous energy in a socially appropriate manner."

Dr. Carla Manly compares adults nail-biting to babies mindlessly sucking their thumbs or fists. "Given that our fingers are easily accessible, they can become a go-to means for stress reduction," Dr. Manly explains. "Biting one’s nails can provide an instant sense of comfort and relief when stress or anxiety set in."

Although stress is the most common trigger for nail-biting, Dr. Manly says that some people bite their nails when they feel tired, hungry, or insecure. "Once the habit becomes hardwired, nail-biting can become an unconscious, comfort-driven habit—even during low-stress times."

How to stop biting nails:

There are lots of quick fixes for biting nails: trimming nails down to nubs, chewing gum, squeezing a stress ball, or applying bitter-tasting polishes to your fingertips, to name a few. But the root of the problem—AKA what causes you to bite your nails in the first place—will remain if you don't address it head-on.

1. Identify the trigger.

Dr. Klapow explains how to break any habit in a two-step process. First, ask yourself what the root of the problem is. Next, decide what can be done to physically stop the behavior. "Boredom and specific stressors like being late, taking tests, or certain social situations are all potential triggers," Dr. Klapow says. "An individual who bites their nails has to be aware and very conscious of those settings that are likely to prompt nail-biting. Then, they need to have a response prevention plan."

2. Find a positive replacement behavior.

Once you've identified your nail-biting triggers, Dr. Manly suggests choosing a "replacement behavior" to take the place of chewing on your nails. This can be anything from eating or meditating to finding another object to touch. "If you tend to bite your nails when you're hungry, have plenty of carrot sticks, raw celery, or mints on hand," she says. If you bite your nails when you're stressed, she recommends having a beaded necklace or another physical object you can touch with your fingers to release pent-up energy. When consistently opted for, these methods will become positive substitutes for nail-biting when you're triggered.

3. Practice breathing.

If you can feel yourself becoming anxious, Dr. Manly recommends that you focus on your breathing to stop the anxiety in its tracks—and potentially prevent you from biting your nails. She recommends learning a breathing pattern so that's what your mind focuses on instead. "The more you become mindful of your stressed or anxious states—and consciously use breathing to reduce your stress and anxiety, the less you’ll be inclined to bite your nails," Dr. Manly says.

4. Paint your nails.

Aside from learning to manage your triggers in healthy ways, one of the best ways to physically prevent yourself from biting your nails is by painting them—if you have invested time, effort, and money into making your look nice, you'll be less likely to bite them. Who would want to ruin a perfectly good manicure? If aesthetic concerns don't do the trick, you can try a bitter-flavored nail polish that will taste terrible to try and kick the habit.

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Credit: ORLY

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5. Consider if there's a bigger problem at play.

If nail-biting is a consistent habit and these tips haven't done the trick, consider if a larger issue is contributing. Nail-biting, or onychophagia, falls into the Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders category, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Other related disorders are skin-picking (excoriation) and hair-pulling (trichotillomania). Treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and certain types of medication are useful for treating these kinds of disorders. So, if you think therapy and/or medication could help you manage this issue, talk to your doctor. Although in-person therapy is ideal, Dr. Manly recommends the NOCD app, which is used to help treat OCD.