Hi, my name is Meredith, and I bite my nails. It started when I was two years old and has evidently been a habit of mine ever since. Anytime I’m nervous, anxious, or even just bored, I start biting my nails without even thinking. At this point, it’s become so second-nature to me that sometimes I catch myself doing it and I can’t remember when my hand went to my mouth. I know it’s bad, and it makes my nails look horrendous, but I can’t stop. After 16 years of this, just want to know, why is nail biting so addictive?
After a quick Google search, I found an answer in an article written by fellow nail biter Amy Standen. Standen told her story of how she began biting her nails at six years old and continued the habit into her 30s. But her article took a turn when she described a visit to a psychiatrist, Dr. Carol Matthews, where she learned that in the psychology world, chronic nail biting goes beyond just being a bad habit and is actually categorized as pathological grooming. Dr. Matthews explained that normal grooming is anything that humans learned to do to take care of themselves like scratching an itch, or quickly nipping off a hangnail. For pathological groomers, though, these actions go beyond the normal amount and becomes something that we do at any time for basically any reason, which explains why sometimes I don’t even realize I’m biting my nails. It’s so engrained in my reflexes I’ll start for no reason, hence the addition of the word pathological.
In my opinion though, putting pathological in front sounds very medical, as if nail-biting were a mental condition; but for awhile people thought it was! Standen explains that nail biting and other pathological grooming behaviors, such as hair pulling and skin picking, were once cast under the same umbrella as more serious OCD behaviors. She soon after clarifies that now the broad categorization is very incorrect and explains exactly how pathological grooming distinguishes itself from OCD; pathological grooming is enjoyable! While in both cases, there is an urge to do the action, Standen explains that OCD tendencies cause the person to panic if an action is not done correctly. For pathological groomers, the action leaves us with a weird sense of satisfaction and enjoyment. Even though pulling, biting, and picking is something that leaves us pathological groomers with stubby nails and scratched up skin, as weird as it sounds, it makes us feel good.
While relatively insignificant to the loads of people attesting to enjoying pathological grooming, Standen also adds in extra explanation based on an observation on mice. As I summarized before, grooming is something that everyone and everything does. For mice, that would be rubbing their eyes to get rid of fallen hairs. In these observed mice though, they too took regular grooming too the extreme and would rub their eyes until they got bald spots around their eyes. In this study done by Dr. Francis Lee, the mice were seen to have an alteration in their genes which seemed to lead to the excessive grooming, raising the question of whether pathological grooming is a genetic trait. This hypothesis is somewhat supported by Standen when she laments that her own daughter had begun nail biting, and I’d be lying if I said my own mother also wasn’t a nail biter. Still, I would need to see lots of evidence that would prove that nail biting is genetic in order to believe it. But, seeing that this study was done in 2010 and there hasn’t been further research on the topic, in my opinion, all of this is just by chance and pathological grooming is just a quirk some people have.
Regardless of the questionable genetics hypothesis, this article made me feel a lot better about my weird little habit. Knowing that it is psychologically proven to be satisfying now gives me a little comfort in knowing that I’m not just weird. It also gives me an answer for when people scold me for biting my nails.
So for all you nail biters reading this, yeah it’s probably not a good habit and I’m still going to try to quit, but hey, you’re not gross or weird, you’re just a pathological groomer!
Mouse article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20418887