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What Nail Biting Means and How to Stop It, According to a Psychologist

"Nail biting could be a sign of deep-seated emotional issues."
What Nail Biting Means and How to Stop It, According to a Psychologist
IMAGE kiwigray.com
"Nail biting could be a sign of deep-seated emotional issues."

We often encounter people who have a habit of biting their nails. Some do it when they’re nervous, for others, it's one of their mannerisms. But whatever the reason may be, the visible damage it brings to your fingernails is undeniable. So how can we stop this habit? We sit down with Beth Morales, a licensed clinical psychologist and life coach, to talk about the psychology behind nail biting and how to prevent this habit. Below, she answers the frequesntly asked questions about nail biting.

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Can you tell us what the act of nail biting is about?

“Nail biting is a body focused repetitive behavior that involves an uncontrolled urge, impulse, or compulsion to frequently bite nails or fingertips. This results to damaged skin, bleeding around the nails and fingertips, and extremely short or uneven nails.”

What are the common reasons why people bite their nails?

“There is no single reason, but usually, nail biters are experiencing generalized anxiety, stress, boredom, self-doubts, or an unconscious urge to harm self. Nail biting provides a temporary relief and escape. It helps a person cope with difficult emotions.”

Is it possible that it’s related to a mental disorder, or is it just a bad habit?

“It is more than just a bad habit. In my practice as a clinical psychologist, I have seen clients who are suffering from anxiety or panic disorder [that] resort to nail biting. So the impulse or compulsion to [bite nails] seems automatic for the individual concerned, even if sometimes, the person does not want to engage in it.”

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Is there a specific demographic that is more prone to this habit?

“It may be experienced by people of all ages. With children, it is usually seen in early childhood, ages three to four years or six to eight years old. For adult nail biters, they usually start during adolescent stage. In my practice, I have observed that nail biters have a tendency to be perfectionistic. Deep inside, they may have a lot of self-doubts and feelings of insecurity. To compensate for these, they are driven to perfection. Hence, if they experience failure or were unable to attain their goal or meet others’ expectations, they become easily frustrated or stressed out. So nail biting becomes a relief for them.”

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What are the possible consequences if people continue to bite their nails?

“Physically, it can damage their cuticles and fingers, or they can be infected or scarred as bacteria may be transferred from mouth to fingers, and vice versa. As a result, they become very embarrassed and self-conscious. Psychologically, because they are embarrassed about how their fingers and nails look, it reinforces their low self-esteem or self-doubts, making them more anxious and apprehensive, which reinforces their nail biting. It becomes a vicious cycle.”

What are effective ways to stop this habit?

“If we are referring to an effective and long term solution, being mindful and aware of the situations and number of times you [bite your nails are] important. Also, enjoining the support and assistance of a family member in monitoring and controlling this urge, especially with younger kids, is helpful. Nail biting could also be a symptom of deep-seated emotional issues that an individual may be struggling with.

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"I had a teenager client who was a nail biter, so we explored why she does it. She said it’s an automatic reflex whenever she is anxious, lonely, or bored. In the course of her therapy, she realized she never really felt loved, valued, or affirmed by her parents, especially her mother. This affected her sense of security and even her body image. I encouraged the client to acknowledge and accept her feelings and emotions and befriend them, so in the end, she does not become overwhelmed by these. As we worked through her issues, her nail biting decreased.

"Understanding the possible triggers of nail biting may help address this problem. So if boredom is a trigger, then it’s better if the individual takes note of every time she feels bored. Then, she can engage in productive or creative activities that will require the use of both hands. It can be arts and crafts, playing a musical instrument, cooking, or baking, to address the boredom.”

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For more information, you may visit Coach Beth’s website or contact her via mobile at +63 (917) 625 1458.

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