Recently I was asked about how to solve the habit of fingernail biting (aka nail chewing, etc). This is such a great topic and some people bite their fingers down to bleeding while others carry the habit for years without being able to fix it. I have managed to get rid of nail biting myself, so it is possible to stop and here is how. This post is relevant for adults with the habit and does touch on nail biting in children, but for parents of children who bite their fingernails and/or chew toenails, drop me a Disqus note and I’ll do another post because there are some specific issues that you need to be aware of with children.
Habits can be quite tricky to get rid of for a number of reasons and it is important to understand as much as possible about their origin in order to solve them. With that in mind because the post is long, I have made the headings as clear as possible so skip to the bottom for practical ideas if you need then come back and re-read if you need to have a second or third attempt.
Nail biting and nail chewing start as the physical manifestation of an emotion (usually anxiety) which due to lack of experience (natural in children) or magnitude (adults) cannot be dealt with at the time. The individual does not possess the right emotional tools and experience to know what action to take and deal with the feelings, so they physically manifest in signs of unease. Once established, nailbiting may become associated with other mental states and feelings from excitement through boredom, etc. and/or simply become habitual. Resolution is possible with focus and effort.
The origin of nailbiting and physical manifestation of emotions
I believe nail biting most commonly springs from the emotion of Anxiety. Anxiety is in the fear group of emotions.
In children, nail biting can start at a very young age and anxiety (incl fear, nervousness, etc) and over 50% of youngsters bite their nails at some point. Most if not all children will go through various behaviors which are linked to emotions and they are pretty easy to spot if you know what you are looking for. They provide excellent proof that emotions and feelings can and do manifest themselves physically in children and also in adults.
Consider the following in children:
- biting or hitting in frustration
- wringing hands in worry
- crossing arms and looking down (defending) in hurt and anger
- incapacitated (flopping) in hunger
- hair twirling in boredom or nervousness (to distract)
The child is unable to properly deal with or express their feelings or problem and so they manifest themselves in a manner so hopefully someone will notice and help. Most of these issues will resolve themselves, but occasionally they remain and sometimes they can become quite severe and even debilitating such as stutter or stammer, anti-social behaviors or withdrawal behaviors severely affecting social interaction.
About anxiety, the opposites and the antidote(s)Anxiety is grouped in the fear group of emotions. Various people have done work analyzing emotions including Robert Plutchik with his wheel of emotions. It shows a view of the range of base emotions and feelings. The feeling wheel is another good reference.Examples of emotions and possible opposites
Emotional state <–> Opposite
- Anxious <–> Content
- Overwhelmed <–> Relaxed
- Pensive <–> Calm
- Fearful <–> Angry
It is quite natural and understandable for anxiety and fear to result in physical symptoms, it is the natural bodily response in preparing to run away from something fast or fight to survive an attack. Less blood is pumped into the stomach and muscles are put on high alert ready to act.
Anxiety is known to manifest itself in several ways including:
- Stomach related – butterflies, nausea, digestive issues
- Muscle related – twitching, lip biting, finger nail biting, fiddling and fidgeting,
- Heart related – heart palpitations, high blood pressure
- Other fight/flight related – sweating, dilated pupils
All this is very draining so it is no wonder that Anxiety has such a wide range of relatively common symptoms including tiredness, headache and fatigue. Extreme cases include panic attack.
Action is the antidote to fear
Action is the antidote to fear because through experience (either good or bad) provided you don’t give up, you build competence which eventually builds confidence which reduces fear.
The state of calmly confident and aware is the best state in which to address this habit. One of the things to aim fore is to spend as much time as you can in the state of feeling calmly confident, grounded and in control.
Migration and Transformation of Habits
Once a habit is established, it can change in several ways
- the habit can become associated with new feelings/states which will increase how often the habit occurs and how obvious it is to other people (eg anxiety plus boredom, etc)
- the habit can morph into or be replaced by a new habit (eg nail biting into smoking)
- the habit itself can become more extreme (eg incapacitating)
It is quite possible for nail biting to become associated with other mental states beyond the fear group. Think of nervous excitement or anticipation but also boredom and other states. Again, this can occur with most bad habits, which is why it can make it tricky to track down the root emotions or situation that caused the habit in the first place.
Habits can also be suppressed only to re-emerge in other forms. For example, nail biting might be suppressed only to be replaced by cuticle biting, thumb sucking, biting on the lips or other bad habits. For this reason, it is important to ensure the root of the issue is addressed before removing the habit side to stop nail biting. Because it is relatively easy to replace one bad habit with another less bad habit, professionals and marketers unfortunately recommend replacing a bad habit with a less bad habit or transforming one habit into another without first checking if the root cause has been addressed. Others do not even realize this is what often occurs when you use products like all these nail biting products on Amazon which are useless if the root issues causing anxiety or other associated emotions are not addressed.
The negative affects of nail biting
Nail biting is quite common and while there are concerns about not ingesting germs through nail biting, there are also concerns that children particularly are no longer exposed to enough dirt and germs in their normal play to build a strong immune system. I go along the line that nail biting is a bad habit thought unlikely to be a major concern from a health point of view in either adults or children. There is a social stigma associated with nail biting, so obvious nail biting could potentially impact career advancement under certain circumstances (eg when the decision between two good candidates is close).
How to stop biting your nails – For Adults curing their own nail biting
This process assumes that you are interested and willing to do what it takes to stop chewing your nails. Alternative approaches include working through this list with a friend or an understanding health professional. You may need to repeat steps, but the most important is getting them done in a way that you know feel right to you.
Step 1 (Est time 5 mins) – Acknowledge the current situation
First, start by acknowledging where you are today. Be open and realistic with yourself and about the time it will take to break the nail biting habit. Most habits can be formed or broken in around 10 weeks, but shorter times are quite possible.
Complete and say the following sentences out loud to yourself. They will help you state the facts around the current situation, past memories and severity of the problem.
- I currently do get anxious/nervous about … [list whatever comes to mind]
- I acknowledge these feelings and can deal with them without nail biting
- I feel my nail biting is a mild/severe [whichever applicable] problem
- Biting my nails does not help me feel less anxious [replace with other emotion if appropriate]
- I have been biting my nails for … years/months
- My earliest memory of feeling anxious/nervous is …
- It may take approximately 10 weeks to break this habit and stop biting my nails.
- I am happy to let go of my nail biting habit.
Step 2 – Seek to understand and develop an interest in your emotional/mental state when you are biting your nails
Take note of what you are thinking when you bite your nails. If necessary, write it down for a couple of days so you can start to see the patterns.
Say the following out loud to yourself:
- I am interested to know what I am thinking when I bite my nails
- I want to know what I am thinking when I bite my nails
- I will notice when I am biting my nails
- I will remember how I am feeling when I bite my nails
You may need to repeat this step for a few days, but continue with the other steps for now.
Step 3 – Establish a reason for change
It is now important to understand why you want to change. There are many reasons to either form or break habits, and you will need to find your own reasons. Reviewing the following may help
Why change now?
- your nail biting started as a child and you are now mature enough to deal with your life
- you have worked through your issues either with help or alone to the point where they are not relevant in your life anymore.
- you have advanced in age so much that you recently realized that you simply don’t have time or energy for emotional issues so have let them go, but are still carrying some bad habits like nail biting.
Step 4 – Address issues and build up your coping skills
From the first exercises, you may have identified some issues that you have not yet dealt with. If this is the case, then you will need to deal with this (or these) before you can successfully beat your nail biting habit without it transforming into some other nervous/anxious habit. Some people will have this, so if I get some requests through Disqus, I’ll expand on this area around the points of
- Never give up
- Know if someone else can, so can you
- Know that if no one else has you still can
- Letting go of doubts fears and phobias is both liberating and mind expanding
- Seek advice
- Listen to experts
- Check that your chosen experts are diagnosing inside their demonstrated area of expertese
- Remember that you choose who you consider an expert
Step 5 – Commit to achieving a result
Make a symbol of commitment to your chosen path of action. Commit to yourself that you can and will beat your fingernail chewing habit. Consider:
- Write the deadline on your diary
- Tell someone (or everyone) that you have decided to stop nail biting from now.
- Commit financially (buy some nail scissors)
- Plan a reward for each finger that grows beyond 1 mm
Step 6 – Make it easy for yourself – Create a morning routine
Say the following to yourself each morning and evening and feel grateful as you say it. Smile in the knowledge that you are making progress.
- I am getting rid of my nail biting habit little by little each day.
- My nails are in a good state as they are right now.
Step 7 – Put yourself into calmly confident and aware
At regular times through the day and each time you catch yourself going to bite your nails stop for a moment and focus on the present as follows:
10 second version
- Listen for a far away sound and focus on it for a moment
- Look up and look at something you have not noticed before and focus on it drawing your mind
- Think of what you are going to achieve in the next 30 minutes
- Continue what you are doing (without biting your nails)
Mix it up
There are other things you can do to place yourself in the present, but you must be aware that if you do the same thing each time then you might create a habit. This is how stutter/stammer can become chronic. Nevertheless, these can be useful exercises provided you know to mix them up as an adult – do not suggest these things to a child without a full understanding.
- Take a deep breath
- Roll your shoulders
- Check your nails and repeat the morning exercise or similar (My nails are fine, I’m glad to not bite them anymore)
- Ground yourself – place your feet evenly on the ground and feel how solid and stable it is
- Reinforce confidence – tell yourself that you are capable of doing what you need to do next. If not, then go and get some help knowing that is the right action.
Stick with the above for 10 weeks and you should have got over your nail biting. If you find yourself going back over the first 6 months, acknowledge the feelings and reconfirm your commitment through the exercises.
Q: So what do I do if that does not work?
A: Never give up
I solved my nail biting through the above, but more severe nervous issues that are lingering may need to be dealt with and will need additional work (really completing step 4). Let me know and I’ll provide additional ideas in this area. As a hint for the impatient (those who want to solve it today after biting your nails for most of your life) I used Tapping to get rid of one issue which I could not get rid of any other way. A good osteopath is also invaluable and will be able to release tensions which will definitely help with your resilience. There are also other things that you can do depending on exactly what the blocker is for example immediate positive or negative feedback to your body if you are close and have the issues around the root cause of your nail biting resolved, but just can’t resolve the habit side.
Remember get rid of nail biting – you can do it.