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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #24

Nail biting—as well as its close cousins hair pulling, skin picking, knuckle cracking, lip chewing, cheek biting, and other body-focused repetitive habits—usually happens without a conscious decision; instead, we discover ourselves with the aftermath—nubby nails, a lip callus, or an accumulation of inadvertently pulled-out hair.

See also: How to Make or Break a Habit.

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Body-focused habits can begin at any age, but they usually begin in childhood and peak in the pre-teen years—around ages 11 to 13.  But whether you’re young or young at heart, if your nervous habits are bothering you, check out these 10 tips to stop body-focused behaviors like going dental on your digits.

Thanks to listener Sylvie Daley of Marshfield, Vermont for asking how to stop nail-biting, which inspired this week’s topic.

Tip #1: Don’t worry—it’s not an indication of some deep, dark, unresolved issue.  Instead, there’s evidence that hair pulling, nail biting, and other body-focused behaviors have a neurological origin and are genetically based.  Hair pulling, for instance, seems to run in families.  It even goes beyond our species; animals like monkeys, cats, dogs, and mice sometimes overgroom.  

And despite popular belief, “nervous habits” may be a misnomer.  It’s questionable if the habits are even related to anxiety.  Indeed, a 2013 study found that anxiety disorders, including OCD, were more common in non-nail biters than in nail biters. Regardless of the origins, some mindful attention and compassionate practice can help stop your habit.

Tip #2: Habit change starts with noticing the habit.  Habits are automatic.  We don’t think about them.  For example, you probably automatically cough into your arm (at least I hope you do) or cover your mouth when you yawn.  If you wanted to change one of these  automatic habits, your first step would simply be to start noticing them.  Same goes for nail biting, hair pulling, etc.  How to do this?  Listen on…

Tip #3:  Change your mindset from “I will stop now,“ to “I will start practicing now.”  If, each time you catch yourself with your thumbnail between your incisors, you berate yourself with “There I go again,” or “I’m so stupid,” you’ll feel frustrated and probably give up.  But, if you acknowledge that you’re changing a habit—something really hard to do—you’ll breathe a little easier.    

Frame it as practice.  For instance, tell yourself you must catch yourself 100 times before your habit starts to change.  That way, each time you find yourself with a strand of hair in hand, rather than chastising yourself, you’ll simply say, "OK, that was number 41—one closer to my goal of catching myself 100 times."  Counting up those catches will feel like honing a mindful skill rather than tallying your failures.

Tip #4: Be particularly aware of sedentary, unfocused times.  Watching TV, lying in bed, sitting in class, waiting at a stoplight, zoning out for a few moments at your desk at work: these are perilous times for your pinkies.   Likewise for high-danger moods like boredom or anxiety.  Work on noticing your personal danger times.

Tip #5: Involve a compassionate spotter.   If you live with someone, you may wish to enlist him or her as an extra layer of observation.  But they don’t need to nag or chastise.  A neutral reminder of “nails, sweetie” or “hair pulling, honey” is sufficient.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.