If you're a nail biter (or hair twirler or finger tapper), there's a good chance your habit started during childhood. About half of all adolescents bite their nails, but more than three-fourths of those will give up the habit by age 35 [source: CRS Pediatric Advisor]. Nervous habits like these are unconscious behaviors that we repeat out of anxiety, stress or boredom. Nail biters have what doctors call onychophagia.
One problem with nail biting is that it's considered socially unacceptable; ragged, bitten nails aren't attractive, and neither is the act of biting your nails. Some people bite their nails so badly that their fingers bleed, or the nails are so stunted that there is almost no nail left. But it's not just about having pretty hands -- in addition to having a negative impact on your appearance, nail biting can also affect your health.
When you bite your nails, you transfer bacteria back and forth between your mouth and fingers (which isn't where you want germs!). If you bite your hangnails, infections can grow under the nail bed. Even worse, you can permanently damage your nails, your gums and your teeth.
So if you're reading this article and looking at your ragged nails, wondering how to stop nibbling them, let's head on over to the next page.
Wear Fake Nails
If you're a nail-biter and you're having trouble kicking the habit, you might try to fake it for a while. That is, consider the fabulousness of fake nail products such as acrylics, wraps, gels and press-on nails [source: Nails Guide]. And don't worry about the stigma associated with these faux fingertips – you don't need a beehive hairdo and job at the DMV to sport a great set of fake nails. These days, an awesome set of falsies is as kitschy-cool as gold jewelry and a Members Only jacket.
Fake nails not only look great, they also do a great job of preventing you from nibbling away at your nails. And they're safe for your real nails, assuming you have them done in a professional salon with a good reputation. These establishments are more likely to adhere to the safety and hygiene standards that prevent the rare but possible infection that fake nails can cause [source: Mayo Clinic].
If fake nails aren't for you – or if they aren't enough to keep you from munching on your manicure – try wearing bandages on your nails or gloves on your hands. These remedies can be a bit awkward, but they're extremely effective.
Fortunately, there are many other ways of protecting your paws. One of the best is to distract yourself with another habit or task that will keep you occupied during urges to bite.
Adopt a New Habit
As any cigarette smoker knows, habits can be very hard to break. Nail biting is no exception. And while we don't advocate substituting nail nibbling for something as dangerous as smoking, there are several less lethal habits that can help a biter reign in the habit. Some examples of distractions that can be very powerful deterrents to biting include humming, finger tapping, gum chewing, or candy eating.
The downside of adopting a new habit to kick an old one is that, even if it works (and it may not), you might find yourself stuck with another equally troublesome tendency. This usually isn't a problem for the singing set, but it can be disastrous for candy eaters. Nail biters have enough to worry about without the added stress of rotting teeth and weight gain.
If you can't find a suitable distraction or habit to help you stop biting your nails, you might try addressing the problem therapeutically. This can be tricky since nail biting is not generally considered a specific disorder and most remedies are of the do-it-yourself variety. Still, there are other options for the would-be quitter, including online support groups. You could also find a "quit buddy" to help you on your journey to a bite-free existence.
The Buddy System
If you're like a lot of people, achieving any goal is infinitely easier when you do it with a friend. Many nail biters seek the support of others who are also trying to give up the habit. The simple fact of having another person with whom to share goals and be accountable may allow you to succeed in your efforts to quit biting. Quitting with a friend or a group of people with the same affliction also allows you to share tips and strategies for quitting. After all, something that works for one person may work just as well for another.
Another good reason to seek out a buddy or support group for nail biters is that there are likely to be similarities in the underlying causes of biting. In other words, people with the same unwanted habits may share similar psychological histories or profiles. This "meeting of the minds" can shed light on the root causes of nail biting. Some examples of Web-based support groups are DailyStrength and MDJunction.
There is no one-size-fits-all remedy with nail biting; group strategies and buddy systems are definitely not the right approach for those who tend to be more private or guarded about their feelings. For some people, therapy is most effective when it's a one-on-one approach, such as relaxation or stress-relief techniques.
For some reason and for some people, nail biting is soothing in the face of stress or worry. If this sounds familiar to you, it may help to use relaxation or stress reduction techniques to overcome the urge to bite. These therapies can be very effective at reducing stress and anxiety, which is probably at the root of the biting problem.
Relaxation may also come through the creation of a soothing environment, such as drinking herbal tea and using lotions that have soothing scents. According to Tanya Clausen, clinical social worker in Washington, D.C, certain breathing techniques, such as deep breathing or quick breathing may reduce the stress or anxiety that may cause you to want to make a meal of your manicure.
Nail biting may also be accompanied by other body-oriented obsessions such as hair twirling or skin picking [source: WebMD]. All of these can have a negative effect on your appearance, which is often the main reason people want to stop the behavior. With that in mind, consider that one of the most effective methods of breaking the nail biting habit is simply being able to envision victory over the problem.
Personal appearance is very important in human society, and most of us try hard to look our best. This can be difficult when you're constantly chewing on your fingertips. Nail biting also leaves our nails and cuticles looking quite shabby, which is why a lot of nail biters tend to keep their hands folded, tucked away in pockets or otherwise hidden from view.
If you have anxiety about the appearance of your nibbled nails, you may find that using positive visual imagery can be a powerful motivator. This is a strategy in which you post pictures of healthy-looking hands strategically around your environment as incentive to achieve your goal of not biting.
Visualizing success doesn't always involve photographs. You could also try to visualize yourself overcoming the urge to bite. The idea is that by conjuring up the image of success, your brain will "know" what it's like to break the habit. According to Clausen, this is a form of exposure therapy. "The idea is that you desensitize your brain to the urge to bite by creating a controlled environment, thereby boosting your ability to overcome it as it's experienced in real life," she explains.
Visualizing success with nail biting can be a powerful deterrent and go a long way toward helping you quit. It may be even more helpful to post pictures of your own hands fresh from a salon manicure. Nothing says "success" better than an image of your own dazzling digits. Never underestimate the power of good grooming, as we'll see on the next page.
Keep Your Nails Groomed
For some nail biters, it's about obsessively "fixing" problems with their nails. One solution is to keep your nails groomed. Manicure kits usually contain tools such as nail clippers, a file, small scissors and a cuticle pusher or orange stick. If you keep a kit with you, or even just carry a file, you can take care of broken nails or hangnails without biting them off.
Try giving yourself a manicure once a week. Start by clipping your nails if necessary, and then smooth the edges with the file working in one direction. Soak your nails for a few minutes in a bowl of warm water with olive oil or lotion added, and then gently push the cuticles back with a pusher or stick wrapped in cotton. Dry your hands and finish by rubbing on more lotion or a cuticle cream. You can use a buffer to make your nails shine.
If you can afford to get a professional manicure at least a few times a month (and they're for both men and women), spending the money may function as a deterrent. Polishing your nails with colored or clear polish can also help because you won't want to ruin your work. And don't just stop at polish – these days there is a dazzling array of nail décor to choose from, including, jewels, patterns, and textures.
If you've tried the manicure and it's not working, don't worry. There's another deterrent that involves doing something to your nails up next.
Apply a Deterrent
If you visit the nail care aisle in the drugstore, you might have seen creams, oils or nail polishes specifically designed to stop nail biting. Since nail biting is an unconscious habit, the reasoning goes, you'll be startled into awareness when you taste the nasty solution on your fingers and stop what you're doing. Many of these products are also marketed to stop thumb sucking (yet another nervous habit, but one that rarely lasts into adulthood).
Ingredients for these products are typically hot, such as cayenne pepper extract, or bitter, such as denatonium saccharide. The latter is a nontoxic chemical compound often added to toxic products such as antifreeze to discourage children and animals from drinking it. Some people also try home deterrent solutions such as straight black pepper or bitters (an alcoholic beverage). However, these are more easily washed off, while commercial products are designed to last longer.
Some nail biters have successfully kicked the habit this way, while others get used to the taste or are too disgusted by it to keep it on their nails. Some people try other deterrents such as wearing a bracelet as a reminder not to bite them. Dentists can also fit you for a mouth guard if your nail biting is seriously damaging your teeth.
Putting something on your nails might still not be enough to make you stop biting, so perhaps a distraction is in order. Learn about that next.
Once you become aware of your nail biting habit, you could try directing that energy into a different action. For some people, that means keeping their hands busy so they don't have a chance to unconsciously put them up to their mouths. A stress ball -- basically a little rubber ball that you can squeeze in the palm of your hand -- might help. Whenever you find yourself starting to nibble a nail, take out the stress ball instead. It's not quite the same, but if you stick with it, the urge to bite your nails instead may disappear. You could also get some Silly Putty and knead it with your hands.
If you'd rather do something more productive with your hands, consider taking up a hobby that involves constant handwork like drawing, painting, sewing, knitting or crocheting. When you get really comfortable with one of the latter two, you can do them while watching TV, waiting in line or riding on a bus -- all times when you may be spacing out and unconsciously start nail biting.
Rather than looking to your hands, it might be time to think about what's going on in your head when you bite your nails. Let's find out why the reasons behind nail biting are even more important than the actual act.
Find Out Why You Bite
At first, you might think that there really isn't a "why" when it comes to nail biting. You just started doing it one day and kept on doing it until it became a habit. That might be true for some nail biters. However, for many of them, there are very specific reasons for it, such as boredom, stress, fear or anxiety.
Maybe the first time you bit your nails was also the first day of school or the first time you attended a sleepover at a friend's house. Biting your nails was something physical that you could do to relieve the stress, fear and worry that you were probably feeling.
If you can figure out the motivation for biting your nails, then you can find a more constructive way to deal with your feelings. Consider keeping a sort of nail biting journal. You don't even have to write much; just answer a few questions when you find yourself starting to bite. Where are you? What are you doing? How do you feel, both physically and mentally? If you keep up this journal, you'll be able to look back and see a pattern.
Now that you see why you're biting, find ways to deal with it. You won't always be able to remove the source of stress, so find something else to do. If you feel bored at work, go for a quick walk or get a drink of water. If flying makes you anxious, make sure you have lots of reading material and a laptop so you can watch movies (or go online). Talking to somebody about your feelings can also help.
Maybe you've tried all of the suggestions we've given so far and nothing has worked. Next up, it might be time to seek professional help.
If your nail biting is extreme -- meaning that you regularly bleed, have lost nails or have permanent damage due to your habit -- then it may be time to seek help. Onychophagia is actually part of a group of behaviors that fall under the diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). If you suspect that you may have OCD, consult a psychiatrist. He may suggest medication, therapy or a combination of both. Medications that may be prescribed include drugs that you've probably heard about, such as Paxil, Zoloft or Celexa.
Even if you don't have a diagnosis of OCD, you can still try behavioral treatments to curb your nail biting. This may includecognitive behavioral therapy, where you explore feelings and behaviors and seek new ways of behaving in order to change a particular feeling or unwanted habit. You might also try meditation, yoga, or exercise as a distraction from the urge to bite. And remember that what works for one person may not for the next, so be sure to try multiple strategies – or a combination of strategies – to help you kick the biting habit.
Finally, some nail biters have found relief through hypnosis. Typically, you'll be taught the patient cues so your subconscious mind can make your conscious mind aware of the habit. You'll also learn how to eliminate the compulsion to bite and how to relax more in general.
If you try one or more of these tips, you may look down one day to realize that you no longer have to be ashamed of your nails. For more on beauty and hygiene, check out the links on the next page.
Today it's second nature to paint your fingernails and toenails. But it's been a long road to here. HowStuffWorks breaks down the colorful history.
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