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.

Recent Posts

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking, also known as catastrophizing, is a distorted thinking style in which an individual tends to automatically imagine the worst possible outcomes of a situation or event or assumes situations to be much worse than they actually are. Although...

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of psychotherapy that falls under the broader category of cognitive-behavioral therapies. ACT was developed by Steven C. Hayes in the late 1980s and has gained popularity as an effective approach for helping...

Scrupulosity OCD: An overview of symptoms and treatment

Scrupulosity OCD refers to a specific subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) where individuals experience persistent and intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that revolve around religious, moral or ethical concerns. People with this type of OCD often...

Postpartum OCD: Symptoms and Treatment

Postpartum OCD, also known as postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder or PPOCD, is a subtype of postpartum depression that affects some 3% to 5% of new mothers, and can be triggered by a sudden fluctuation of hormones, typically within the first few weeks to months...

Fear of Flying

The fear of flying, known as aviophobia or aerophobia, is a common anxiety disorder that affects many people worldwide. This fear can vary in severity, ranging from mild discomfort and anxiety to a debilitating phobia that prevents individuals from traveling by air...

How to Put Binge Eating Disorder to BED

Impulse control disorders are characterized by difficulty in resisting the temptation to engage in behaviors that are harmful to oneself or others. Binge eating behaviors can be a manifestation of such disorders. Binge eating disorder (BED) is a recognized psychiatric...

What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

For some people, anxiety crops up in response to a specific situation, like meeting a deadline or navigating a hectic roadway. This is not necessarily a cause of concern as it does not result in interference with everyday functioning or a significant decrease in one's...

Emetophobia: A Specific Phobia Based Around Vomit

Emetophobia, the fear of vomiting, is a specific phobia affecting an estimated 3.1% to 8.8% of the population, according to the National Institutes of Health. This specific phobia can have a profound impact on an individual's life. It can lead to constant anxiety and...

How Cognitive Therapy Can Help You Manage Trichotillomania

When we talk about identifying anxiety and the need for treatment, we tend to focus on symptoms of generalized anxiety. These can include things like irritability, nervousness, difficulty breathing, and more. What if your anxiety is masked by one persistent behavior?...

Can’t make up your mind? You may have Decidophobia.

It is common for people to feel anxiety around making certain decisions, especially if these are high stakes decisions or they have made poor decisions in the past. In fact, a certain amount of anxiety around decision-making is healthy and can save us from acting on...

Are You Ready To Transform Your Life?

Schedule a free 15-minute consultation