Compulsive Nail Biting: How to Treat It

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

Around 20 to 30 percent of the adult population bites their nails. The practice of nail-biting not only leaves your hands looking rough but also presents dangers to your health. 

However, for many, this behavior can become a compulsion and be challenging to stop. Are you ready to stop biting your nails? There are methods that can help. 

Keep reading to learn more about compulsive nail-biting and what you can do to stop. 

What Is Compulsive Nail Biting?

Compulsive nail biting, also known as onychophagia, is a common habit where individuals find themselves biting or chewing their nails regularly. It often goes beyond occasional nail maintenance and becomes an automatic response to stress, boredom, or anxiety.

This behavior typically begins in childhood and can persist into adulthood if left untreated. Nail biters may find it difficult to resist the urge to nibble on their nails and cuticles, even if they consciously want to stop.

Interestingly, compulsive nail biting falls under the category of body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). BFRBs also include hair pulling (trichotillomania) and skin picking.

These behaviors are often associated with feelings of tension or unease. The feelings are temporarily relieved by engaging in the repetitive action itself.

What Causes Compulsive Nail Biting?

Understanding the underlying causes of compulsive nail biting is crucial. That’s because knowing the cause can help with designing effective treatment strategies. There are several factors that can contribute to the development of this behavior. 

Anxiety or Stress

One possible cause is anxiety or stress. Nail biting can serve as a way for individuals to cope with these emotions and provide temporary relief.

Genetic Predisposition

Some studies suggest a genetic predisposition to nail biting, meaning it may run in families. Around 36.8 percent of nail biters have at least one family member that also engages in this behavior. 

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can also play a role in triggering this habit. For example, observing others engaging in nail-biting or being exposed to high-stress situations could influence someone to start biting their own nails.

Personality Traits

Certain personality traits may increase the likelihood of developing compulsive nail-biting habits. For example, people who struggle with perfectionism are more likely to engage in this behavior. That’s because people with this personality trait tend to become easily bored and frustrated. 

What Are the Dangers of Biting Your Nails?

Nail biting may seem like a harmless habit to some. However, it is important to understand the potential dangers associated with it.

Risk or Infection

One of the primary dangers of nail biting is the risk of infection. Think about all the surfaces your hands come into contact with throughout the day. For example, the following surfaces:

  • Doorknobs
  • Keyboards
  • Public transportation poles
  • Toilets
  • Countertops

When you bite your nails, you are essentially introducing all those germs directly into your mouth. This can lead to bacterial or fungal infections in both your nails and surrounding skin.

Damage to Your Teeth and Gums

In addition to infections, frequent nail biting can cause damage to your teeth and gums. The constant pressure exerted on your teeth from gnawing at hard nails can result in tooth misalignment or even fractures.

Hinder Proper Nail Growth

Another danger worth mentioning is that excessive nail biting can hinder proper nail growth. Constantly nibbling at your nails weakens them over time and makes them more prone to splitting or breaking easily.

Consider how unsightly bitten nails appear aesthetically. Bitten-down nails often look ragged and unattractive; they may give off an impression of poor personal hygiene.

How Do You Address Compulsive Nail Biting?

Addressing compulsive nail biting can be challenging, but there are strategies that can help break this habit.

You can work to overcome the compulsion by understanding the underlying causes of this behavior, such as: 

  • Anxiety or stress
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Environmental factors
  • Personality traits

Once you understand the cause, you can work to replace the behavior. 

For example, if stress or anxiety leads to nail biting, finding healthier ways to manage these emotions. For example, you could use techniques such as deep breathing exercises or engaging in a creative outlet.

In some cases, seeking professional help from a therapist is necessary. 

Habit Reversal and Stimulus Control Therapy for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors

What can a professional do to help? Habit Reversal and Stimulus Control Therapy are two common approaches used to treat body-focused repetitive behaviors such as nail biting. 

Both therapies require commitment and consistent practice in order for them to be effective. It’s important to work closely with a therapist who specializes in these techniques. They can provide guidance and support throughout the treatment process.

Habit Reversal Therapy

Habit Reversal Therapy focuses on identifying the triggers or cues that lead to nail biting and replacing the habit with more constructive behavior. This could involve using techniques like the following:

  • Keeping hands busy with fidget toys
  • Applying bitter-tasting polish to discourage biting
  • Practicing relaxation exercises to manage stress

Stimulus Control Therapy

Stimulus Control Therapy aims to modify the environment to reduce the likelihood of engaging in the behavior. This may involve removing potential triggers from your surroundings. Strategies could include keeping nails trimmed short or wearing gloves when tempted to bite.

How Do Habit Reversal Training and Stimulus Control Work Together? 

Addressing and treating compulsive nail biting requires a multi-faceted approach. This approach should combine habit reversal training and stimulus control therapy. 

Habit reversal therapy helps individuals become more aware of their nail-biting habits. It then provides them with alternative behaviors to replace them. 

Stimulus control therapy aims to modify the environment. This helps to reduce the likelihood of engaging in nail-biting behavior. 

Combining these two therapies allows for a comprehensive approach. It addresses both internal urges (habit reversal) and external influences (stimulus control). Together, they provide effective strategies for managing compulsive nail biting.

Find the Help You Need

Compulsive nail biting isn’t something you have to continue doing. There are ways to stop, and asking for help is an excellent choice.

Are you ready to stop biting your nails? Schedule an appointment and find out how we can help.

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