How To Stop Biting Nails

You could also paint your nails a bright color as a reminder, although most men seem to find this look difficult to pull off—I can’t imagine why.

How to Stop Biting Your Nails

Up to 50 percent of adults habitually bite their nails. How can it be changed?

The bad habit of nail-biting is much more common than you might think.

Some studies have found that about one-quarter of children bite their nails habitually (Ghanizadeh & Shekoohi, 2011); others say it may peak at almost 45 percent in adolescence (Peterson et al., 1994).

More surprisingly, the prevalence amongst adults may be just as high, with some estimates at 50 percent (Hansen et al., 1990). I had no idea it was potentially that high—I guess it’s a habit that people hide well from others.

Nail-biting is certainly something that has emerged as a hot topic as I’ve been speaking to people about my new book. As I don’t specifically cover it there, although the general techniques I describe are applicable, here’s my eight-step guide based on the psychological research available:

1. It seems obvious, but you’ve got to want it.

It might seem redundant to say, but any change has to be desired, really desired. And for such a simple behavior, nail-biting is surprisingly hard to quit, perhaps partly because it doesn’t feel like that big a deal, and our hands are always with us. This is especially a problem if you are trying to change someone else’s behavior.

One method for boosting motivation is to think carefully about the positive aspects of changing the habit: for example, attractive-looking nails and a sense of accomplishment.

Also, make the negative aspects of nail-biting as dramatic as possible in your mind. If you tend to think it’s no big deal, then you’re unlikely to make the change.

In addition, you can try mental contrasting, which has been backed by psychological research.

2. Do not suppress.

It doesn’t matter if it’s you or your child that you’re trying to change, suppression does not work. Punishing a child for this “bad habit” is a bad move. They will know it’s a way to attract attention, and they will use it.

The same is true when changing your own habit. Trying to tell your unconscious to stop doing something is like trying to tell a child. It reacts childishly by doing the complete opposite. Here’s the technical explanation for why thought suppression is counterproductive.

3. Instead, replace bad with good (or at least neutral).

One of the keys to habit change is developing a new, good (or at least neutral) response that can compete with the old, bad habit. The best types are ones that are incompatible with your old habit.

So, for nail-biting, you could try:

  • Chewing gum
  • Putting your hands in your pockets
  • Twiddling your thumbs
  • Playing with a ball or an elastic band
  • Clasping your hands together
  • Eating a carrot
  • Clipping or filing your nails instead

4. Use visual reminders.

If you keep your nails clipped short, then there is less temptation to bite them. Some people recommend having a manicure, because the money spent, along with how much better your nails look, will deter you from biting them.

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You could also paint your nails a bright color as a reminder, although most men seem to find this look difficult to pull off—I can’t imagine why.

Another method is to wear something around your wrist, like a bracelet or elastic band, to remind you of your goal. Remember that habits live in the unconscious, so you bite your nails automatically. Visual cues are a way of reminding you of the change you want to make.

Research has even shown that a wristband that is difficult to remove can be helpful (Koritzy & Yechiam, 2011).

5. Notice the situations when you bite your nails.

Habits are heavily bound up with situations.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to spot habits, because they are performed unconsciously. However, you may spot particular times during the day when the habit occurs, like while watching TV.

If you can bear it, enlist those around you to help point out when you are performing your bad habit.

Painting your fingernails with a nasty tasting fluid can help pull you out of autopilot and alert you to situations in which the habit is performed. But it probably won’t work on its own. Some people even say they get to like, or at least tolerate, the taste!

6. Notice any associated thoughts or feelings.

Just like situations, our thoughts and feelings cue up our behavior. If you can spot the types of things you are thinking about or feeling when you bite your nails, then this can help. Some people like to use mindfulness as a way of increasing self-awareness.

When you notice the thoughts coming (for example, anxiety), you can prepare your alternative response (for example, getting the worry beads out of your pocket).

7. Repeat the competing response.

Your new replacement habit will build with repetition, but at first, it will have to compete with your old habit. Try to avoid beating yourself up for slipups, as they are bound to happen. It’s a gradual process. (See “The Surprising Motivational Power of Self-Compassion.”)

8. Keep up the good work.

Keeping the new response going can be hard. One method to make your progress more obvious to yourself is to take pictures of your nails on your phone every few days (Craig, 2010). When you see how far you’ve come (or, alternately, how little progress has been achieved), this should help push you on.

Remember that old habits do not die; they lie in the unconscious, waiting to be reactivated. Go easy on yourself if you slip up, but remember that a lot of the battle with bad habits is about self-awareness.

What about the deeper psychological issues?

People often wonder if nail-biting is a symptom of a deeper problem. Perhaps if that deeper problem were fixed, the nail-biting would go away on its own?

Opinion is divided on whether this is true. Counterintuitively, there is no strong evidence that nail-biting is related to anxiety. Worse, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to probe the unconscious for the reasons for our behaviors (yes, that’s why they call it the unconscious!). (Also see: the hidden workings of the mind.)

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Most, though, agree that whatever the cause, the learned habit needs to be targeted. So start with these approaches, and see how it goes. If it’s not working, try making small tweaks, like using a different replacement habit, and then have another go.

How to stop biting your nails

Nail biting typically begins in childhood and can continue through adulthood, and the side effects can be more than cosmetic. Repeated nail biting can make the skin around your nails feel sore, and it can damage the tissue that makes nails grow, resulting in abnormal-looking nails. To help you stop biting your nails, dermatologists recommend following these tips.

Nail biting typically begins in childhood and can continue through adulthood, and the side effects can be more than cosmetic. Repeated nail biting can make the skin around your nails feel sore, and it can damage the tissue that makes nails grow, resulting in abnormal-looking nails. Chronic nail biting can also leave you vulnerable to infection as you pass harmful bacteria and viruses from your mouth to your fingers and from your nails to your face and mouth.

To help you stop biting your nails, dermatologists recommend the following tips:

  1. Keep your nails trimmed short. Having less nail provides less to bite and is less tempting.
  2. Apply bitter-tasting nail polish to your nails. Available over-the-counter, this safe, but awful-tasting formula discourages many people from biting their nails.
  3. Get regular manicures. Spending money to keep your nails looking attractive may make you less likely to bite them. Alternatively, you can also cover your nails with tape or stickers or wear gloves to prevent biting.
  4. Replace the nail-biting habit with a good habit. When you feel like biting your nails, try playing with a stress ball or silly putty instead. This will help keep your hands busy and away from your mouth.
  5. Identify your triggers. These could be physical triggers, such as the presence of hangnails, or other triggers, such as boredom, stress, or anxiety. By figuring out what causes you to bite your nails, you can figure out how to avoid these situations and develop a plan to stop. Just knowing when you’re inclined to bite may help solve the problem.
  6. Try to gradually stop biting your nails. Some doctors recommend taking a gradual approach to break the habit. Try to stop biting one set of nails, such as your thumb nails, first. When that’s successful, eliminate your pinky nails, pointer nails, or even an entire hand. The goal is to get to the point where you no longer bite any of your nails.

For some people, nail biting may be a sign of a more serious psychological or emotional problem. If you’ve repeatedly tried to quit and the problem persists, consult a doctor. If you bite your nails and develop a skin or nail infection, consult a board-certified dermatologist.

Related AAD resources

  • Tips for healthy nails
  • Manicure and pedicure safety
  • Gel manicures
  • How to trim your nails
  • Nail changes a dermatologist should examine
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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population []; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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