The bad habit of biting your nails is much more common than you might think.
Some studies have found that about 1/4 of children regularly bite their nails ( Ghanizadeh & Shekoohi 2011 ), others say it can peak at almost 45% in adolescence ( Peterson et al., 1994 ).Most surprisingly, the prevalence among adults can be so high, with some estimates reaching 50% ( Hansen et al., 1990 ). It is very common to be frightened by these numbers, as it seems that biting nails is a habit that people hide well from others.
Here is a guide on how to stop nail biting in 8 steps , based on available psychological research:
- It sounds obvious, but you have to want it
It may seem redundant to say, but the change has to be really desired. And for such simple behavior, biting your nails is surprisingly difficult to stop, perhaps in part because it doesn’t seem like a big problem. This is especially a problem if you are trying to change someone else’s behavior .
One method to increase motivation is to think carefully about the positive aspects of changing the habit, for example, having beautiful nails and a sense of accomplishment.
Also, make sure the negative aspects of nail biting are as dramatic as possible in your mind. If you tend to think it’s not a big deal, then you’re unlikely to make the change.
- Do not delete
It doesn’t matter if you or your child are trying to change nail biting behavior , suppression doesn’t work. Punishing children for this “bad habit” is a bad move. They will know that it is a way to attract attention and they will use it.
The same is true when you change your own habit. Trying to tell your unconscious to stop doing something is like trying to tell a child. He reacts childishly, doing the complete opposite. Here is the technical explanation for why thought suppression is counter-productive.
- Substitute bad habit for good (or at least neutral)
One of the keys to changing habits is the development of a new, good (or at least neutral) response that can compete with the old, bad habit. The best types are those that are incompatible with your old habit.
So, to bite your nails, you can try:
- bubble gum,
- put your hands in your pockets,
- rotate your thumbs,
- playing with a ball or rubber band,
- shaking hands together,
- eat a carrot
- Use visual reminders
If you keep your nails cut short, then there is less temptation to bite them. Some people recommend having a manicure, because the money spent, along with how much better your nails look, will prevent you from biting them.
You can also paint your nails a bright color as a reminder, although most men seem to find this tricky alternative to apply.
Another method is to wear something around your wrist, such as a bracelet or rubber band, to remind you of your goal. Remember that habits live in the unconscious so that you bite your nails automatically. Visual clues are a way to remind you of the change you want to make.
- Observe the situations
Habits are strongly linked to situations.
Unfortunately, habits can be difficult to detect because they are carried out unconsciously. However, you may notice certain times during the day when the habit occurs, such as when watching TV.
An interesting idea to notice when you are biting your nails is to ask those around you to tell you when you are practicing your bad habit.
Painting your nails with nail polish or another product with a bad taste can help get you off autopilot and alert you to situations where the habit is performed. But it probably won’t work on its own. Some people even say that they start to like, or at least tolerate, the taste. This may be a new problem.
- Observe associated thoughts and feelings
Like situations, our thoughts and feelings can drive our behavior. If you can identify the types of things you are thinking or feeling when you are biting your nails , then this can help. Some people like to use mindfulness as a way to increase self-awareness.
When you notice the thoughts coming (for example, anxiety) you can prepare your alternative answer (for example, take a rubber band in your pocket).
- Repeat the competitive response
His new substitution habit will build with repetition, but first he will have to compete with his old habit. Try to avoid getting carried away by the slips when they are about to happen. It is a gradual process.
- Keep up the good work
Maintaining the new answer can be difficult. One method to make your progress more evident to yourself is to take pictures of your nails on your cell phone every day ( Craig, 2010 ). When you see how far you’ve gone (or how little progress has been made), it should help you to go on and on without biting your nails .
Remember that old habits don’t die; they are in the unconscious waiting to be reactivated. Remember that much of the battle with bad habits is about self-awareness.
What about the deeper psychological issues?
People often ask if biting their nails is a symptom of a deeper problem. Perhaps, if the deeper problem is resolved, is it possible to stop biting your nails automatically ?
Opinions are divided on whether this is true. Counterintuitively, there is no strong evidence that nail biting is related to anxiety. Worse still, it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to probe the unconscious to find the reasons for our behavior.
Most, however, agree that whatever the cause, the learned habit needs to be changed. Then start following these steps in the guide on how to stop biting your nails and see how they work. If it is not working, try to make small adjustments, such as using a different substitution habit, and then try another move.