Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
An old friend from our college days would sit in the school library doing homework or studying while biting down on his nails. This was accompanied by his digging into the edges of the nails with his other hand an attempt to pull off the loosened cuticles. If anyone reminded him that he was chewing his nails, he would pause for awhile and then, quite without intention, resume the process. The whole drama was remarkable to me because I had no such wish or impulse to do the same.
Did you ever bite your nails? If the answer is yes you are not alone. Studies show that 60% of children and 45 percent of teens, bite their nails. After age 18 the percentages of people who bite their nails dwindle. However, there are some cases of this continuing during adulthood. So, why does nail biting occur at all?
Nail biting is part of what is referred to as pathological grooming. This is a group of behaviors that include hair pulling, known as trichotillomania, and skin picking, known as dermatillomania. To begin with, these behaviors may be triggered by situations that provoke lots of stress and anxiety. As with my old friend, homework and studying are certainly stressful for most. Exams, term papers and quizzes provoke lots of worry and anxiety. Nail biting becomes a way to relieve stress. Soon, it turns into a habit. Contrary to what some may believe, it is not a habit that disturbs the nail biter. Quite to the contrary, it feels good, which is part of the reason why it’s hard to stop.
Some mental health professionals have suggested that nail biting may be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) because the individual is aware of what they are doing but cannot stop. However, thought aware of the problem, many nail biters have no wish to stop.
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While stress may be one reason why people bite, there is no solid research into this behavior and therefore, no identified reasons why it happens. There is no clear evidence that nail biting is harmful either mentally or physically. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to stop. For example, fingers and hands can look unattractive as a result of damage finger nails that look shredded and torn. Also, putting hands to the mouth is unsanitary and increases the risk of introducing viruses into the system. That is one way germs, such as the flu, are spread from one person to the next.
There are a variety of strategies that people can use to stop this habit. One is to wear a bracelet that jingles. Jingling helps the individual realize they are biting and, therefore, stop. Meditation, yoga and other deep relaxation techniques, relieve stress and tension so that the need to bite is reduced. Another technique is to keep the hands busy by hold a pen, knitting or any other behavior that competes with nail biting. In other words, it’s impossible to bite if the hands are doing other things. Some people have suggested keeping nails short and getting a manicure as a way of preventing one from putting hand to mouth. Being aware of good hygiene as a way to prevent colds and flu might also help. Finally, using post-its helps remind one to not bite.
If this becomes a problem that interferes with social and work functioning it could be a symptom of a deeper problem that calls for psychotherapy. While nail biting is considered harmless for most people there are cases where this is not true. If you are uncertain about your nail biting behavior, a consultation with mental health practitioner is a good idea.
Do you have children who bite or do you continue to do so? Tell us about it. You comments are always welcome.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD
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