Better Me

Is Nail Biting Dangerous?

Last week was pretty stressful, and I was determined not to compensate with extra caffeine or calories. No triple-shot espresso, or at least not many. No cheese fries on the way home, or at least not many. I could counter the stress with something healthy, right? Maybe more exercise, or yoga, or something like that.

Instead, I started biting my nails.

That gave me something else to worry about.

Was I becoming obsessive-compulsive?

Not necessarily, says Carol Matthews, MD. This University of California San Francisco psychiatrist, who specializes in behaviors like nail biting and hair tugging, observes that those "stem from normal grooming -- the kind of thing that most animals do."

In a National Public Radio feature, Matthews explained that taking a normal behavior and carrying it to extremes might look like obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is triggered by fear and doesn't trigger any rewarding sensation except the possibility of having avoided disaster by checking the lock ten times.

However, people do what's labeled pathological grooming because, says Matthews, "it feels good. It's kind of a funny sense of reward, but it's a reward."

I'll admit there was something satisfying about chewing on my right index fingernail. What if, even when not feeling stressed, I kept on doing it?

Could nail biting be an addiction?

Maybe, says Mark Griffiths, PhD, of Nottingham Trent University. His BBC news report notes that "For any behaviour to be defined as addictive, there have to be specific consequences such as it becoming the most important activity in the person's life or being the way they improve their mood."

Addicts don't necessarily stop once their mood is improved, though. Griffith says, "They may also begin to need to do more and more of the activity over time to feel the effects, and experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms if they can't."

That sounds serious.

As Fred Penzel, PhD, told the American Association of Marriage & Family Therapists about people suffering from body-focused repetitive disorders, "It is important for sufferers to find help when it becomes evident that the behavior is out of control and is starting to limit their lives or affect the sufferer's relationships."

I felt relieved. My nail-biting wasn't out of control, and it wasn't affecting my life or relationships. Yet for some people, it can.

How can nail biters get help?

"We try to identify all the triggers and control them in various ways — either by blocking them or by finding substitutes," Penzel says.

One popular way of blocking the nail-biting instinct is by applying a bad-tasting clear polish. The American Academy of Dermatology explains it simply in a how-to for children trying to overcome the habit, recommending they ask parents for a product that "won't hurt you, but as soon as you start to bite, you'll get that awful taste, which will remind you to stop."

Finding distractions for the fingers or mouth can work, too. Those might include:

  • Playing with a phone or puzzle
  • Twisting a ring or rubber band
  • Wearing gloves
  • Munching carrots or celery
  • Chewing gum

It also helps to notice when the nail-biting behavior occurs. An article at the National Institute of Health on management of nail biting (NB) notes that, "The recording of NB frequency, videotaping of NB behavior and describing its frequencies increase awareness."

Once someone is aware of what prompts them to bite their nails -- triggers identified in a University of Quebec at Montreal study as "impatience, boredom, frustration, and dissatisfaction" -- it's easier to come up with methods for coping before the behavior arises.

Like cheese fries.

If you have further questions, talk with your primary care physician or a behavioral specialist. 

Behavioral Health