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How to Stop Biting Your Nails (and Other Nervous Habits)

Hair pulling, skin picking, and knuckle cracking are just a few examples of pesky habits many of us just can't resist.  Here are 10 tips to stop the snap, crackle, and pop of your body-focused nervous habits.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
June 20, 2014
Episode #024

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Tip #6: Catch yourself searching.  Sometimes body-focused habits get triggered by a sensation or another stimulus—you may, without thinking, run your hand through your hair, looking for one that’s different, or you may unconsciously run your fingertips over your nails, feeling for unevenness.  If searching is part of your process, aim to notice when the searching begins and redirect your actions from there.

Tip #7: You don’t have to scratch that itch.  You may get the urge to bite, pick, or pull, but knowing you don’t have to do it can be freeing.  Rather than thinking “I have to pull out this hair” you can put some distance between you and the urge by saying  “I’m having the urge to pull out this hair,” or “I’m having a thought that I should pick at this imperfection in my skin.”  Just because a thought occurs to you, doesn’t mean you have to listen to it.

Tip #8: When you catch yourself, have an alternative action ready.  This is the big one.  Once you’ve figured out your high-likelihood times, places, or moods, keep an alternative diversion handy.  This is what psychologists call a competing behavior.  You can keep a small, smooth stone on your desk to handle during those idle times, carry an emery board and file your nails instead of biting them, keep a stress ball in your car for those stoplights, or, like an acquaintance of mine did, start wearing lots of cool silver rings to fiddle with instead of picking her skin while in class. 

Tip #9: Substitute a less costly body behavior.  Behavior exists because it’s reinforced—people get something out of it.  Many folks get some variant of pleasure—satisfaction, relief, accomplishment, or release—with the sensation of crunching a fingernail, pulling out an eyelash, picking at a skin imperfection, or cracking a knuckle. 

So experiment with substituting a similarly satisfying body sensation that doesn’t cost so much—gently comb your scalp with a wide-toothed comb when you get the urge to search and pull your hair, chew gum or fiddle with a toothpick or flosser instead of biting your nails, or make fists and do a full-body stretch instead of picking to get that sense of physical release and relief.

Tip #10: If it gets in the way of life, you’re not alone.  Something I talk about a lot on the Savvy Psychologist podcast is that most behaviors exist on a spectrum; body-focused habits are no exception.  Everyone bites, pulls, or picks occasionally.  But hair pulling, when it takes up a lot of time and causes noticeable, embarrassing hair loss, has a name: it’s called trichotillomania and affects 2-4% of people.  Skin picking that takes a lot of time and causes injury is called excoriation disorder and affects 5% of people—a full 1 in 20. 

Bottom line: You’re not alone.

The good news is there are some great resources out there.  For trichotillomania, an excellent, insightful book is Help for Hair Pullers by Dr. Nancy Keuthen, one of the world's experts on the topic.   In addition, two scientifically-based online treatment sites are stoppulling.com and stoppicking.com.  They aren’t free, but the cost is way less than seeing an in-person therapist.  And an information-packed, supportive website for adults and kids alike is trich.org.

To sum up, start trying to catch yourself, figure out your high hazard times, substitute a competing behavior, and get help if it’s getting in the way of your life.   And if all else fails for nail biting, wait a few decades, and then. . . just take out your dentures.

References

Feusner, J.D., Hembacher, E., Phillips, K.A. (2009).  The mouse who couldn’t stop washing: Pathologic grooming in animals and humans.  CNS Spectrums, 14, 503-513.

Pacan, P., Grzesiak, M. Reich, A., Kantorska-Janiec, M., Szepietowski, J. (2013).  Onychophagia and Onychotillomania: Prevalence, Clinical Picture and Comorbidities.  Acta Dermato-Venereologica, 94, 67-71.

Novak CE, Keuthen NJ, Stewart SE, Pauls DL. (2009).   A twin concordance study of trichotillomania. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B 150B:944–949.

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues. 

Nail biting and hair pulling images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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