Behaviors such as nail biting are often in response to stress/anxiety. It is much like bouncing your leg, twiddling your fingers, twirling your hair, etc. It’s a way to diffuse a little bit of steam if you will. Doing such behaviors can be a distraction from the distress, although not necessarily the most healthy way of coping with stress. Other similar behaviors are skin picking, rocking, thumb sucking, pulling hair etc. Such behaviors can be self reinforcing because it does in the moment reduce the distress the person is in. And humans are creatures of habit!
If you’d like to stop nail biting, here’s some ideas! It can help to set a concrete and measurable goal. Much like how a smoker sets a quit date. Or some people respond better with a more gradual approach. Regardless, even if seemingly small, progress is still progress. So you can set up a quit date if you will or even just a “I will stop biting my nails at work by [insert date here].” In therapy some people use approaches to increase their awareness of when they start doing it. Often behaviors such as nail biting and skin picking are so routine for us, we’ve already created a scar by the time we realize we’re doing it. So the first trick is to increase your self awareness. Another approach that can be added is putting forth a more adaptable replacement behavior. And finally, it can help to analyze what circumstances you find yourself doing this in. Are family dynamics especially triggering? Work issues? Delving into why certain themes have such a powerful effect on us can be very helpful down the road. Because even if we obliterate the nail biting, it’s easy for it to get replaced by something else such as skin picking, rocking, etc. unless we address the underlying cause.
Measures such as nail polish and pedicures can be a great way to promote self awareness. I have worked with patients who struggled with skin picking and diving into a healing skin regimen has not only helped their skin heal, but it created more incentive to not undo all the work they put into it. Replacement behaviors can be important. There are fidget devices, meditation, etc. But what is especially interesting is usually you can find a pattern to when you feel the urge to nail bite. There are often themes and it can be exciting to discover what your personal hot buttons are, if you will!
Keep trying! Stopping nail biting: It’s akin to any change anyone is trying to bring into their life. Whether it is to exercise more, stop drinking alcohol, make more friends, etc. Old habits die hard. The path is often a non linear one with periods of progress, some regression and some more progress. Do not be discouraged if you notice some progress loss. I like to discuss how many attempts on average it takes to successfully quit smoking. The answer is…. a lot. But the key is to keep going!