Nail biting. It’s something many of us (this reporter included) are guilty of. Given it’s not a particularly “enjoyable” habit -- unless chewing on your own keratin really floats your boat -- it’s a surprisingly difficult one to kick.
So why do we bite our nails and how do we stop?
According to Dr Richard O’Kearney, nail biting is a way to distract ourselves from bad thoughts or feelings.
“The function it has -- probably across all people who do it -- is originally to manage negative feelings,” O’Kearney told The Huffington Post Australia. “It is generally benign and learnt as a habit, and may function to manage distress. For some people it becomes more severe and chronic, and for those people, there could be other things contributing.
“The mechanism is psychological -- a learnt behaviour in managing negative affect.”
Other possible factors could include a person experiencing a different perception on the sensations -- as in, it could feel good -- or a failure to learn other ways to keep your nails short (seriously though, just buy some clippers).
Though the repercussions are mostly cosmetic, if it becomes a serious issue -- whereby the person is seriously damaging their nails and fingers, or if it is associated with other impulse control behaviours such as skin picking or hair pulling -- it could be a sign the person is suffering from high levels of anxiety. It is encouraged in these scenarios for that person to consult a health professional.
However, for the general Joe who carries on with the habit without serious side effects, there a couple of ways in which you can try to quit.
First and foremost, talk to a nail technician. Jeanette Thomas-Gunaratne, CEO of the Jeanette Thomas Training Academy said she has seen all sorts of nail biters walk through her doors, normally to seek her advice after other conventional methods failed to work (here's looking at you, bad-tasting nail polish. Committed nail biters will just nibble you off.)
"When I do have a nail biter come in I suggest -- particularly if they are really bad and have really short nails -- is to get an overlay of acrylic, because usually it covers their nails and prevents them from biting their own nails," Thomas-Gunaratne told HuffPost Australia. "Then, because they are looking pretty and growing longer and generally feeling different, they realise what they’re doing.
"I'd say it works 99 percent of the time."
Once that person's nails have had the time to grow out a little, Thomas-Gunaratne suggests switching to a soak off gel such as Shellac.
"Or if they have a little bit of nail to play with at the beginning, skip the acrylic and go straight to the soak off."
But won't these techniques damage the nail? Apparently not (and, let's be real, no more damage than what you're already doing).
"With acrylic, you just need to go to an experienced nail technician who won’t over-file the nails and use a good quality product," Thomas-Gunaratne said. "It should do little to no damage."
"It's the same with soak-off -- if done correctly no, there won't be any damage."
For guys and girls not so keen to go get a manicure, other deterrents can be used. For instance, if you bite a particular nail more often than the others, put a Band Aid on it.
After all, as O’Kearney points out, there tends to be a low level of self-awareness about the behaviour, and a simple reminder that you're doing it (such as a Band Aid) could be enough to deter you.
Or -- give yourself another form of distraction, such as a spinner ring. That way, you still have an outlet for your nervous energy, but you aren't mangling your hands in the process.
Of course, if your nail biting is anxiety-related, you'll need to treat the anxiety for the urge to completely go away, but following one or a few of these steps could help you keep your hands out of your mouth in the meantime.