Nail & Skin Disorders

Why Nail Biters Bite

An estimated one in every four people bite their nails.  While most often dismissed as a bad habit, the reasons for nail nibbling could run deeper than sheer routine. Understanding the reasons why your clients bite can be beneficial to all nail techs in helping clients break their nasty habit.

As nail techs, we all know we shouldn’t bite our nails, right? And we impart this upon all of our clients too, right? Then why do so many people till do it? The bad news is that nobody knows exactly why people bite their nails. The most popular reason given is stress relief. Just as some people scratch their heads, chew on their hair, or crack their knuckles when they are anxious, others bite their nails. While little research has actually been done on the subject, theories range from classifying it as a simple bad habit, to an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even a form of self-inflicted injury.

Nail biting is a common habit that is quite difficult to break. It has been estimated that one in every four people bite their nails. Not only does nail biting ruin the look of the nails, it is also a good way to transfer infectious organisms from the fingers to the mouth and vice versa. Nail biting can also damage the skin surrounding the fingers, allowing infections to enter and spread.

Is It Just a Simple Bad Habit?

A habit is defined as “a strong behavior pattern that is repeated over and over again,” says Tim Wysocki, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. “A person displaying the behavior usually lacks an awareness of the habit.”

Experts admit that they’re not always sure what causes a habit to form, but that it is a learned behavior that usually provides a positive outcome. Habits may develop as entertainment for a bored child or, more commonly, as a coping mechanism to soothe an anxious one.

The next time you see a client biting, try to help her recall if she has recently had a stressful experience. This client may be trying to relieve her tension just as another person might by having a cocktail or working out at the gym.

Most habits are harmless and require no professional intervention. But if a habit affects a client’s physical or social functioning, or persists even after they have tried habit-breaking techniques, the behavior may have a more serious emotional or physical cause. IN these situations, your client should consult a mental health professional.

Jan Wills, a clinical social worker in Chicago, says “Nail biting, or onychophagy, is one of the most common habit disturbances among children and is no longer classified as a ‘special symptom reaction.’ Once seen as an indicator of extreme stress, this behavior has become a more normally accepted habit. Nail biting rarely occurs before four years of age. Then, around six years of age, there is a marked increase in the number of child nail biters, and the figure remains constant until puberty. The habit can evolve to biting the toenails and picking at the nails with the fingers. It’s interesting to note that boy nail biters seem to outnumber girls as the children get older.”

While the habit is typically outgrown with age, it has been linked to anxiety or boredom with older children and adults.

Nail biting is the most common of the so-called “nervous habits” that start in childhood, which also include thumb sucking, nose picking, hair twisting or tugging, and tooth grinding. Nail biting is most common in high-strung and spirited children, tends to run in families, and is the most likely of the nervous habits to continue into adulthood.

“It is estimated that one-third of all children between the age of 7 and 10 bite their nails,” says Robert Steele, a pediatrician at St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield, Mo. “Boys lead the pack of nail biters after the age of 10.” Statistics also show that one-half of adolescents bite their nails at some point and between one-quarter and one-third of college students say they still bite their nails.

Some researchers believe there’s a genetic component involved, while others claim the habits are learned. Nail biting and hair pulling may trigger calming sensors in the nervous system, says Barbara Hanft, and occupational therapist based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in working with children. Such activities may look painful to an outsider, but children can feel a sense of relief in response to internal nervous-system turmoil.

Or Is It Something More?

Nail biting falls into the category of obsessive-compulsive behaviors, according to Lorrane D.D’Asta, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Hinsdale, Ill. This doesn’t mean that everyone who bites his or her nails has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It only means that they are prone to engage in certain of these behaviors when under stress. So nail biters probably also have other small routines that comfort them. They might always put their keys in the same place on the counter (so they can find them without being anxious) and would be quite upset if you moved them. They might have a very specific order for given tasks and become very anxious if that is changed. In other words, there are likely little pockets of rigidity of routine which soothe them in their daily lives.

Nail biting is usually thought to be a “primitive” mechanism – stemming from early childhood (e.g., Freud’s “oral period” of infancy). In fact most nail biters will admit to this being a lifelong compulsion.

“Like other compulsive behaviors, the point of doing it (biting) is to diminish anxiety from either an internal or an external source,” says D’Asta. What makes this a compulsive behavior is that the individual is driven to perform the behavior (or ritual) even if her rational, thinking mind tells her that it’s silly or useless. In fact, most nail biters are not pleased with the effects of biting – they don’t like how it looks or feels on their fingers, nails, or cuticles. “Sadly, this recognition of dissatisfaction can be another source of anxiety, which starts the cycle all over again,” adds D’Asta.

Often nail biters are perfectionists, or at least push themselves very hard. They probably have a whole set of “worrying” habits. They might focus in on a nail because it feels funny or has a small piece of skin hanging. The biting can then take on a life of its own beyond the “repair.”

Some medical professionals even suggest that nail biting falls into the category of an addiction, and that treatments for nail biting be approached in the same manner as other addictions – alcohol, cigarettes, food, shopping, gambling, etc. – with emphasis on making sure that a new “bad” addiction does not replace the old one.

“Nail biters can – though this is not usually the case – use biting as a self-destructive mechanism,” says D’Asta. Tracy Alderman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in San Diego, Calif., agrees, adding: “Self-inflicted violence (SIV) is best described as the intentional harm of one’s own body without conscious suicidal intent.’ Excessive nail biting falls into the category of self-inflicted violence, according to Alderman. Most types of SIV are much more severe and can involve cutting of one’s own flesh (usually the arms, hands, or legs), burning one’s self, interfering with the healing of wounds, pulling out one’s own hair, hitting or bruising one’s self, and intentionally breaking one’s own bones. “The explanations for why people intentionally injure themselves are numerous and diverse. However, most of these explanations indicate that SIV is used as a method of coping and tends to make life more tolerable, at least temporarily,” says Alderman.

Awareness Can Help Stop Biting

Biting your nails not only makes them look ugly, but exposes you to skin infections as well. So how do you stop this manic nail-gnawing habit? Since the psychological reasons for nail biting are so varied, so then are the psychological methods of dealing with the problem. Understanding some of these methods will help us as nail technicians when dealing with our clients who bite their nails.

Behavioral techniques for stopping nail biting are primarily interference techniques: doing something else with your hands (i.e., buffing your nails, worry stones, knitting, pressing your fingers together, etc.) or something else with your mouth (i.e., gum chewing, sucking on straws, lollipops, etc.). For some nail biters (those for whom this is a mild habit) a bad-tasting get on the fingers usually works to remind them to stop biting. But for most hard-core biters, the gel doesn’t work.

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