Someone posted a video of my high school reunion on Facebook, and what stood out was that I was gnawing my nails during the entire clip. I'd done that whenever I was nervous, anxious, concentrating, or bored ever since I was a kid. Aside from being completely gross and the most efficient way to transport germs directly into your mouth, nail biting can trash your nail beds and make you more vulnerable to infection.
“The nails and cuticles bridge together to act as barriers, protecting the body underneath from the outside world,” says dermatologist Dr Rachel Nazarian. “Saliva, which is a digestive enzyme and is meant to break down food, dissolves nails and the cuticle skin, making them weak and brittle. With a suboptimal barrier, fungus, yeast, and bacteria can invade through the area around the nails and cause infections.” A majority who come see her to have their warts treated are nail biters and cuticle pickers, she says, because warts may invade the skin more easily when it’s traumatised.
I threw a bunch of different quitting methods at the problem years ago (some are below) and was able stop. Believe me, if I can, you can too! While the latest DSM-5, the manual doctors use to diagnose you, categorises onychophagia (a.k.a., chewing your nails) as an unspecified form of obsessive compulsive disorder, Dr Nazarian doesn’t think that’s super helpful. “I’ve found that thinking of nail biting as a deep-rooted part of your personality makes it more challenging to fix. Consider it a bad habit, and like any habit, it takes time to break and requires commitment to overcome,” she says. "Don't expect to break it overnight."
Below, nine expert-backed tips that will help you keep your hands out of your mouth:
“You’ll want to protect them because you’ve spent money on them,” says Dr Nazarian. That was true for me. Plus it’ll look pretty, and you’ll buy yourself a gorgeous ring to wear on your beautiful fingers and be even more motivated to stick to your resolution.
Keep nails short.
“This makes it more challenging to find something to bite on,” she says.
Carry and apply hand cream frequently.
With smooth hands, there are fewer dry bits to pick or chew on, says Dr Nazarian. Plus creams tend to taste icky. “It works as a wake-up call for people who are subconsciously biting,” she says.
Try a nasty-tasting nail treatment designed to help you quit.
These taste bitter, so you’ll not want to nibble. I also found that the stuff makes finger food taste horrible, so it further motivated me to quit. (I like to eat.)
Do something else with your hands.
If it’s anxious energy that gets you biting or picking, redirect it, she says. Examples: Holding or twirling a pen, tapping a pencil, or using a fidget spinner.
Breathe and come back to the present moment.
This one was key for me: Usually when I’d bite, it was because I was lost in thought, so being mindful of what I was doing allowed me to choose not to do it. Then I’d realise I was nervous or whatever, and could deal with what was making me feel that way.
ID your triggers.
Even now, my fingers find their way into my mouth when I’m writing, and I pick my cuticles on my way to meet up with unpleasant people. Knowing that helps me do something else, like stick my hand in my pocket. “The more often you think about it, and remain cognisant of the behaviour, the better the chances of breaking the habit,” says Dr Nazarian.
This was an emergency move for me: If I couldn’t stop torturing a certain nail, I’d put a bandage on it. When I’d taste the rubber, I’d snap out of my trance (this also works if you bite your nail too low and don’t want to make it worse). You can also wearing gloves or put tape on your nails.
Start with not biting one finger, adding more and more until you incorporate all your fingers.
A couple of these ideas or all of them at once could do the job for you, but the best thing about stopping nail biting? If you backslide and chomp them all off before dinner with your mother-in-law, you can always start fresh - they will grow back.