Nail biting and picking are common habits that pretty much anyone who has them wants to stop, but it can be really challenging. Some people’s nail biting or picking stem from anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Meanwhile, others are just in the habit and don’t know how to stop.
“Any human is capable of it, and it can be a response to stress, anxiety, boredom, etc. However, some people experience intense urges to pick, pull and bite that result in compulsive, repetitive” actions explains therapist and OCD specialist Alegra Kastens. What sets these two apart are the intense urges, the difficulty stopping and the significant distress that come with it.
“For some people, it may simply be a habit or a coping mechanism for stress, boredom, or nervousness. Others may have a sensory processing disorder that leads them to seek out certain textures or sensations with their fingers or mouth,” says nail therapist that specializes in nail biting, Audra. “It’s important to understand the individual’s specific situation to find the most effective treatment approach.”
Kastens notes that people “tend to pick and pull as a self-soothing mechanism. Such body-focused repetitive behaviors are not meant to purposely inflict pain on a person.” If you have a mental health condition that’s contributing to these behaviors, you’ll likely require professional assistance from a therapist trained in treating body-focused repetitive behaviors in addition to the tips below. If you occasionally bite or pick, try these tips to see if you can kick the habit to the curb. “These tips work by addressing the underlying triggers and providing alternative activities to replace the habit. Consistency and patience are key in breaking the habit of nail biting and picking,” says Audra.
First, identify the trigger
There may be no trigger, but Audra suggests monitoring whether stress, anxiety, boredom, nervousness or something else triggers your nail biting or picking, if anything at all. “Once the trigger is identified, finding an alternative activity to replace nail biting or picking can be helpful,” which brings us to our next tip.
Habit Reversal Training
“Habit Reversal Training (HRT) is a frontline treatment for body-focused repetitive behaviors and involves the use of competing responses and habit blockers. Competing responses are behaviors that you can perform that are incompatible with picking, pulling, biting, etc.,” says Kastens. These responses generally involve doing something with your hands like “knitting, playing with silly putty, doing a puzzle, etc. Fidget toys (spinner rings, fidget cubes, pop balls, etc.) tend to be helpful in situations in which we need to actively pay attention and cannot focus on knitting or doing a puzzle.” Audra recommends chewing gum, playing with a stress ball or doing DIY projects.
Habit blockers are especially great for those that aren’t always aware of their picking or biting but rather jump into them habitually. They can also help a person tolerate the urge to pick or pull without being able to give into it,” says Kastens. “So often people with dermatillomania and trichotillomania believe that the urge will never pass if they don’t give into it, which is not the case.”
Get gel or acrylic manicures
Audra recommends getting regular manicures and keeping nails trimmed and filed to reduce the urge to bite or pick edges. More specifically, Kastes suggest acrylic nails, which are harder to pick through.
Do skin care around the nails
Nails and cuticles will be more challenging to tear up when they’re moisturized and healthy. Audra recommends doing a small skin-care routine with cuticle oil a few times a day.
Apply anti-biting nail polish
This is a common recommendation, but if you’re a hardcore biter, it won’t always be enough to stop you. Audra suggests applying bitter-tasting nail polish to deter you from biting your nails.
Have support and accountability
Seeking support from friends and family can provide motivation and accountability to help kick the habit, says Audra. When a friend tells you to stop biting, sometimes you take it more seriously than the voice in your head.
Seek an in-salon treatment
There are nail artists that specialize in working with people who bite or pick their nails. If you connect with someone like this, Audra says they can offer professional treatment for nail biting in the salon.