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Woman biting her nails Photo: Ken Kaminesky/Getty Images

Why Is It So Hard to Stop Biting Your Nails?

After a lifetime of nail biting, I asked a doctor to fill me in on what’s really going on.

I was about 7 years old when I got my first nail polish. Instead of the typical bright, sparkly varnish à la Claire’s that most kids sported, I picked mine up from the pharmacy after a doctor’s visit — a medicinal brown glass bottle of prescription polish deliberately composed of foul-tasting chemicals meant to deter nail biting. It was bitter enough to make me crinkle my nose, but not so much so that I wouldn’t continue to chew my nails to the quick. Even my doctor couldn’t get me to stop.

I didn’t realize just how much importance I now place on having good nails, and the impact it has on my self-esteem and mental health, until I caught myself scheduling social obligations and budgeting for the month around my manicures. If my nails are not done — and sometimes even when they are — I will bite, pick, file, and pull at them until my fingers are raw and bleeding.

My boyfriend recognizes this habit sometimes before I’m physically aware of it myself, grabbing my hand to calm me down and keep me from picking. The problem is, even if I’m not in a particularly stressful situation, I can bite without realizing it — and once I start, I can’t stop until they’re all the same length, round and smooth with no jagged edges. Today when I paint my nails, depending on the season, I prefer a classic nude or dark gray polish to the pungent one of my childhood.

Still, not long ago, I was at an industry event for work filled with powerful, glamorous women. During polite small talk over drinks, I complimented a colleague’s nail color — a nice pastel for spring. This set off a chain reaction of women splaying their fingers toward the rest of the group as we all examined each other’s manicure choices. Embarrassed, I clutched my wine with both hands, hiding the evidence of my stressful workday on my nails (or lack thereof).

So why is it so hard to stop biting your nails? Researchers insist that onychophagia, the medical name for nail biting, is a very prevalent problem wrongfully camouflaged as a bad habit.

Dr. Kieron O’Connor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, told me that onychophagia is not an anxiety disorder. Instead, it’s one of many body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRB) that include nail biting, hair pulling, and skin picking. O’Connor also told me that while nail biting is more common in stressful situations, there’s not much evidence that people who do it are more neurotic in general.

They do, however, often have traits in common.

“Ironically, nail biters may be more perfectionist and more prone to be dissatisfied with themselves and their performance,” O’Connor said. “This may trigger biting.”

According to a paper O’Connor wrote, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2015, certain situations at high risk of onset of BRFBs involve activities and contexts in which the person feels judged, constrained, frustrated, or dissatisfied. I can catch myself picking at my nails while deep in thought, sitting idly at work, or waiting 20 minutes for the F train — more often than not, it’s all three instances in the same day. BRFBs serve as an emotional regulation to release tension, helping a person cope with difficult emotions. Some of O’Connor’s research shows that people with habit disorders may have problems regulating emotions. At least during these quieter moments, I don’t disagree.

Thinking back, I’ve always been a nail biter — before that, I sucked my thumb into early elementary school, probably later than most kids. O’Connor said thumb sucking and nail biting can both “reduce tension and increase feelings of comfort,” but as of now, there is no direct link between thumb sucking in babies and nail biting later in life. That said, nail biting is “clearly linked to grooming behavior,” which most of us pick up when we’re young, during early childhood.

If grooming behavior is learned, that’s not to say that everyone’s personal beauty standards are shared. My mother is someone who, at 64, wears minimal makeup and has never gotten her hair colored or her nails done — I’ve never seen her wear nail polish. I was taught a manicure was a luxury we couldn’t afford. But although I didn’t necessarily grow up influenced by someone who subscribed to materialistic beauty standards, the importance of clean, healthy hair, skin, and nails was never lost on me.

I wanted to know if there was a genetic factor at play, making lovely, unbitten nails harder to attain for anxiety-ridden people like myself. According to O’Connor, there doesn’t appear to be a specific gene for nail biting or hair pulling, otherwise known as trichotillomania. It’s difficult to trace a specific behavior like nail biting to one gene rather than looking at the genetic causes of a more general tendency, like anxiety. The closest thing there is to a nail-biting gene, he said, is a “candidate gene” doctors think may code for Tourette syndrome and other impulse disorders.

There comes a time in most people’s lives when a distinction has to be made between a benign habit and a self-destructive behavior. For some, this might include excess alcohol, nicotine, or sex — for me, it’s much more PG. Anyone who bites their nails compulsively can tell you (myself included) that there can be real damage to the cuticles and the nails and skin from biting. Dr. O’Connor said the same is true of all habit disorders, including nail biting and hair pulling.

O’Connor also told me that since BFRBs are similar to tics and develop along the same age trajectory, individuals who will develop onychophagia as adults typically start showing signs in adolescence. He said it’s rare that it would develop later in life, but that it could get worse depending on life events and trauma. In my case, it’s always been there, but only recently have I consciously noticed it again, willing myself to stop. My fingers, and my wallet, have had enough.

When it comes to quitting, it’s not as easy as slapping on a patch — onychophagia isn’t a conscious decision. In my currently stressed-out state, the prescription polish wouldn’t be enough to quell the urge to pick. In fact, I’m not sure anything short of year-round gloves would really help me fully quit.

From what O’Connor told me, today’s most effective treatments are behavioral. One technique, called habit reversal, involves practicing an action or movement antagonist to the act of biting (i.e., keeping the hands otherwise occupied). From now on, I’ll try to rewire my brain and tell my hands to do something constructive during stressful or unsatisfying moments. Maybe I’ll pick up a pen and draw my idea of perfect hands, fresh manicure and all.

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