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Nail Biting … Self Mutilation or Stress-Relieving Habit?

I bet you’ve never heard of chronic onychophagia, even though you may have indulged in it yourself. The name you do know for this common stress-relieving habit is nail biting. More than half of all toddlers, a third of young children, over 40% of adolescents, and 19-29% of young adults do it. By the time you’re an older adult, that number has gone down to 5%. It’s also more common, for some reason, in intellectuals.

Why are so many kids and teens busily chomping away at their fingernails when they are nervous, stressed, or bored? Well, they’re always at hand, so to speak. From the moment of our birth, we’re geared to put things in our mouth; it gives us a feeling of satisfaction, of being nurtured. If food isn’t available, then our own hands and nails become a substitute. Boys are more likely than girls to continue nail biting into their teens and beyond, especially since they are less likely to be concerned about manicures and nail polish.
Nail biting, if it’s severe enough to cause bleeding or painful finger traumas, can be described as an act of self-mutilation and may require outside help. But most of the time, it’s a basically harmless habit, although it can transfer germs buried under the surface of the nail into the mouth. Many nail biters get frustrated by the habit or ashamed of themselves for not stopping. If you want to stop, first try these two simple remedies:

  1. Buy a lot of cheap nail files and put them around wherever you work or play. Since people rarely bite or pick at nails that have smooth edges, grab a handy file and sand down any rough spots right away.
  2. Get the awful tasting nail polish available at most drugstores. The stuff leaves a horrible taste in your mouth whenever you bite a nail.

If your nail biting is related to anxiety, the best way to stop the habit is by learning some stress relief or relaxation techniques. For example, instead of chomping on a nail, occupy your hands in another way: do some yoga poses, play a musical instrument, take up knitting. You can also learn to release anxiety through meditation, visualization, or breathing techniques. There are some very good relaxation tapes available as well.

Deborah King