How To Quit Biting Your Nails, Straight From Our Psychologist

Habitual nail-biters will argue that nibbling on your nails is a harmless quirk. However, frequent nail-biting can tell you a great deal about your health and may even shed light on your emotional or mental well-being. For instance, during an exclusive chat with Gliz, health psychologist Dr. Sula Windgassen, who shares educational mind-body therapy tips on Instagram, explained that, in most cases, there's an underlying reason behind the act of nail-biting (or onychophagia as habitual acts related to the body are medically called).

According to Dr. Windgassen, who's also a CBT and EMDR therapist, nail-biting is a repetitive and automatic response to stress or anxiety. "When our autonomic nervous system is activated by the fight or flight response, we have lots of automatic reflexes to alleviate stress. Nail-biting can be one of them," Dr. Windgassen told Gliz. Following this logic, biting your nails in response to emotional distress is a self-soothing behavior, especially if you developed your chronic nail-biting tendency at some point during childhood.

"It can also be a perfectionistic tendency," she added. "Where nails are rigid or out of shape, nail-biting may be designed to smooth the surface out." If you resonate with this, rest assured that Dr. Windgassen has a solution to help you curb your nail-biting habit for good. 

Tips for putting an end to nail-biting

As with most habits, developing a sense of self-awareness is crucial. "As nail-biting can be so automatic, doing something that brings awareness to when you are doing it so that you can interrupt it each time before you begin [will] help to disrupt old habitual neural networks that keep the [behavior] in place," psychologist Dr. Sula Windgassen exclusively told Gliz.

Dr. Windgassen also shared several tips to help you end your nail-biting habit, some of which are easier to implement than one might think. For instance, it can be as easy as using a bitter-tasting nail polish to discourage you from biting your nails. This makes it much more difficult to carry through with your habit, and it also acts as a deterrent from an aesthetic perspective because you risk ruining your manicure, Dr. Windgassen explained. Moreover, "having something to substitute the urge is going to be important," Dr. Windgassen told Gliz. In this case, Dr. Windgassen advises you to consider using a stress ball, chewing gum, or simply getting up and moving around to dispel the urge.

When to seek help

Although nail-biting isn't always a cause for concern — notably in situations where an individual only occasionally bites their nails to remove hangnails or uneven tips — if nail-biting happens "in the context of generally feeling stressed and anxious, it will be important to address the wider context," Dr. Sula Windgassen exclusively told Gliz. In other words, while nail-biting is more of a "low-stakes habit" in Dr. Windgassen's words, it can become a self-harming pattern if the underlying issue remains unaddressed. For example, it requires more immediate attention when an individual begins chewing on the nail beds and surrounding skin, as this can lead to painful sores, bleeding, and pain.

Therefore, if you bite your nails out of a compulsive need or "part of a larger pattern of [body-focused repetitive behaviors], it may be important to seek professional help from a psychologist or psychotherapist with expertise in this area," Dr. Windgassen recommended to Gliz. A mental health expert will help you uncover the root issue and provide support as you learn to quell your anxiety or frustration through healthier means. Then, when the dust has settled, you can get a gel manicure to help grow out your nails in style.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.