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Nail Biting – Habit or Mental?

Is nail-biting a mental disorder of just a bad habit?

I’m a nail-biter and have been all my life. Actually, I call myself a ‘nail nibbler’ because I have never bitten my nails back to the quick. However bad we bite our nails we certainly don’t like being labeled with a mental issue.

Nail-biting is called onychophagia. Some scientists believe it is a learned habit as opposed to an emotional condition. Others believe it is a result of dysfunction in psychological development, while others delve into hyperactive behaviour, social and conduct behaviour. Commonly thought of as a stress-related or nervous habit, nail-biting differs in each person. Some people just pick their nails and cuticles. Supposedly it is common in children and young adults, but I’ve been nibbling for over 60 years.

I certainly take umbrage at being labelled OCD or experts telling me I have a mental disorder. For sure, there will be some people who bite their nails so severely that they might fall into these categories, but it is unfair to judge all nail biters with a label.

The prevailing thought though lies in ‘pathological grooming’. As well as nail-biting, these behaviours can include hair pulling and skin picking. Experts think the behaviours go haywire by triggers such as stress, making the behaviour excessive.

With regards to OCD, the compulsion is totally unwanted and driven by unreasonable thoughts and fear. These obsessions lead to repetitiveness. And extreme types of nail biters may fall into this category. But with pathological groomers, the person enjoys the feeling, and it feels good.

Some Remedies I’ve Tried

  1. When I am on a nibbling rampage, I have tried sitting on my hands. But as soon as I withdraw my hands from under my bum, I continue the same habit. I physically don’t want to put my fingers in my mouth and my brain is telling me “Stop. Don’t do it”. It resembles a compulsion that once started you can’t let go of until completed.
  2. When I was a child, my mum used to repeatedly tell me “Get your hands out of your mouth”.
  3. I wore gloves for a month, only taking them off when necessary. Great!!! I had nails. However, it was a temporary fix and the first time I had nothing to occupy my hands, in my mouth they went.
  4. I tried hypnosis once, but I couldn’t be hypnotised.
  5. Stop n Grow (and other similar products) is the most foul-tasting substance that I painted on my nails. It worked. But the nasty chemicals didn’t stop at my nails. They were absorbed right through my body and came out on my skin in other places. So, I ditched that very quickly. There are over-the-counter medications available from the chemist. I have never tried any of those after my experience.
  6. Meditation was another trial that had no success.
  7. Short false nails lasted on my real nails for about a week before I was biting at them in a similar fashion and ended up pulling them all off.
  8. If I was currently knitting a garment that was just plain stitches, I would take my knitting to the movies, because I didn’t need to see it to be able to knit. I would take my knitting to a party and sit in the corner talking to friends and knitting.

I can’t relate nail-biting to being hungry or thirsty. I can’t relate it to stress as I am retired now with no issues. I can’t relate to anxiety or emotional situations. It has no relationship to being lonely. That’s not to say that other people are affected by these triggers. They say nail-biting relieves stress or anxiety, yet my nail-biting is when I am sitting still. On an airplane. Reading. A passenger in a car. Movie theatre. Socialising.

When I am typing or knitting or gardening or shopping or doing something – anything – I don’t bite my nails. It happens when I relax. I may even have been busy all week and actually have small nails after 7 days. I’m very proud of them when I do and tidy them up with a file. Then I have a quiet moment and start chewing. And I don’t stop at one nail. I chew every single one of them off. In my head, I view my teeth as the nail file and start biting to smooth out the nail – and I just keep going with another jagged end. Germ presence never enters my head.

Embarrassment does though, especially when socialising. I have developed a tendency to keep my fingers curled into my palms, so other people can’t see the ends of my fingers. And I tuck my thumb under the first finger. My nails do look unattractive and given this current 21stC trend of judging a book by its cover so to speak, I imagine people will be judgemental. I think biting my nails is a sign of weakness because I haven’t the willpower to just stop.

Yet I do have willpower, as a couple of years back as I was eating too many biscuits. I elected to eat no biscuits and did that for a whole year, before reverting to a biscuit or two with my morning coffee.

After 60 years I’ve learned to accept nail nibbling as part of my body make-up. It isn’t distressing. It isn’t severe. Therefore, I don’t consider it a mental disorder. My mindless nibbling occurs the most when I am reading and yet reading is the hobby I most cherish. I am a bookworm. Kindle was released in 2007 and I now have over 1000 read books on my Kindle. I curl up in bed, read and nibble. It’s just what I do. And when you get to my age – we can do whatever we want to do – can’t we?

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