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Nail Biting: When Quitting Tactics Don't Work

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If you just can’t seem to quit biting your nails, you’re in good company. According to an oft-quoted 1995 study of nail biting by Terry M. McClanahan called “Operant Learning Principles Applied to Nail Biting,” 28 to 33% of young children have the habit. The incidence of nail biting peaks in adolescence at about 44%, diminishing to 19 to 29% in young adulthood.

About 5% of older adults engage in nail biting, also called onychophagia, including well-known celebrities like Phil Collins, Lisa Marie Presley and Bruce Springsteen. Onychophagia can be triggered by stress, lack of attention, boredom, psychological trauma or even a mental disorder.

Because nail biting is a nervous habit that most often serves to relieve tension, it’s not surprising that superficial remedies alone don’t always help people stop biting nails and cuticles. If you’ve tried manicures and bitter nail polish to no avail, you may need to take a look at how you deal with stress in your life and take a more strategic approach.

First, confront the problem head on. Realize that nail biting is a way of dealing with stress and train yourself to be aware of situations that cause you to tear up your nails. Are there other ways you could handle anxiety? Should you build more exercise into your daily routine? Would it help to seek counseling? What about introducing yourself to yoga or another calming activity?

To support yourself in facing the habit squarely, commit to a long-term quitting process. Nail biting is one of the more difficult behaviors to change and it’s bound to take time. Consider taking a picture of your nails before you start and studying it objectively. Write down your goals; it’s amazing what extra resolve you can feel from seeing your desires in print. Determine ahead of time that you won’t beat yourself up if you backslide. It’s a rare individual who is absolutely and utterly successful with a “cold turkey” approach to any bad habit.

Think about what kind of strategy might work well for you as an individual. Maybe you’d like to set aside one nail to “spare” at first, or maybe one hand.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.