The dreaded nail biting

You sit down to take a test, feeling pretty confident. Not too nervous, not too stressed, but after you turn in the test, you look down at your fingers. Your nails, which you’ve been spending weeks growing out, are now nubs. Fingernails chomped down as low as they can go. Why does this happen every time? Is it nerves or stress? Is it just the jitters? Is it something that you mindlessly do will your brain is at work? This issue is important to me because it is something that I have struggled with for years. It’s something my mother did, my sister did, and my grandpa did. My sister and I have even gone to the extent of painting layers and layers of foul tasting nail polish on our finger that was meant to break the bad habit. Unfortunately, it didn’t really taste that terrible and our bad habit was barley broken for 24 hours, until we managed to peel the nail polish off.

This habit, something that is very present in many people’s daily lives, especially in the teenage population, is something that scientists are only beginning to seriously study. Small studies that have been performed show that roughly a quarter of the adult population in America suffers from forms of it, some more severe than others. But the ideas that people once thought triggered the development of the habit are now heavily refuted. Even with no evidence to support his theory, Sigmund Freud thought it was a result of too much breast-feeding. He believed this not only caused nail-biting, but also just a general urge to chew on things. Obviously with no scientific evidence to back up this idea, it was not heavily considered for long. Coming from a nail biter, this also wouldn’t explain why my nails suffered the worst during tests and stressful situations. In Joseph Stromberg’s article, he briefly discusses Freud’s theory, along with some of the other ideas scientists have brainstormed. Some believe it is casually linked to a form of self-harm, though not many support this idea. Researchers who study body-focused repetitive disorders refuse to link it to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because for most nail biters, it is not a compulsive action. In Stromberg’s article he explains that most commonly accepted hypothesis is that it is a method that we use to regulate our stress, anxiety, and other heightened emotionsnail_biting_stress.

This study supports the hypothesis that nail biting is caused by certain heightened emotions. Forty-eight participants filled out a questionnaire that measured their levels of emotions, some of which included anger, guilt, and anxiety. Twenty-four of these participants previously experienced body-focused repetitive disorders, while twenty-four of them did not. All forty-eight participants were then taken through 4 events, each event was meant to cause a specific emotional reaction. The 4 emotions that were triggered, to a certain degree in each participant, were stress, relaxation, frustration, and boredom. Most of the half of the participants who initially experienced nail biting and other repetitive disorders were affected and triggered by the feelings of boredom and frustration. This supports, but does not prove, the hypothesis that nail biting is caused by stressful situations and feelings of anxiety. The study also revealed that the reactions that the participants with repetitive disorders had were very similar to the reactions and symptoms of perfectionists. Being a perfectionist is a possible third variable that could trigger similar reactions among the nail biters, and also the nail biting itself. Some holes in the experiment could be the order in which the tests were performed, and the level of effect the tests had on each participant. It is also almost impossible to tell if each participant had matching emotional reaction to each test. Perhaps while some tests were successfully able to induce boredom in most of the participants, in the other participants, it caused anxiousness.

Because the causes of nail biting are only just starting to be seriously studied, a clear mechanism has not been discovered. The causes of this habit may vary from person to person, but if an exact mechanism is discovered, the answer that connects all victims of this addictive habit may become obvious. Because of the links to perfectionism that were concluded in O’Connor’s experiment, psychologists think the habit can be reduced by therapy sessions that focus on stress control and impatience.

The image in this post came from

Works Cited

7 thoughts on “The dreaded nail biting

  1. dms6679

    My whole life I have never been a nail bitter, and never understood why other people did. Before reading this post I thought nail bitting was just a gross habit one could easily choose to kick. This post showed me that it is more of an internal problem. I am really glad I read this as I have gained insight on a topic I never fully understood. This post has also caused me to wonder why I, as an extremely anxious person, does not bite their nails, but other anxious individuals develop this habit.

  2. Maura Katherine Maguire

    Really awesome post, I myself am a nail biter. I have been biting my nails since I was little. It is not even a nervous habit I just always do it without a reason. I have tried everything, nail polish (which is highly annoying how I always ruin a new manicure) etc. My mom always yells at me and I have tried to stop but no progress has been made. This post really got me thinking and I am going to try harder to break this habit.

  3. Grace Ellen Leibow

    Wow, this post was incredible! Although I can’t personally relate, my best friend suffers from this problem, as she is a frequent nail biter. She, like many other commenters, has tried the nail polish, and she still manages to bite them into stubs every time she gets nervous or anxious. However, recently, she has been going to the nail salon and having them put on false nails, a method that, though expensive, actually has been working for her. Oftentimes, she even coats the false long nails with the nail polish that discourages nail biting, and this method has done wonders for her problem. I found a fascinating article that outlines exactly why nail biting occurs, and how to “reform” a person who suffers this issue. Check it out here:

  4. Emma Murphy

    This was an interesting topic. I am also a nail biter. I always keep my nails painted to try and avoid biting them. It was more severe when I was a child and I’ve found myself doing it less and less as I get older. I used to think that maybe it was because I was very shy as a child and would sometimes have slight social anxiety and now I am the opposite of that. I still find myself on occasion bitting or picking at my nails when I get into an uncomfortable or stressful situation. This article that I found links anxiety and compulsive disorders to nail biting, and while I see the connection I do not suffer from either of those.

  5. Mackenzie French

    Very good blog topic! Very common for a lot of students, so many can relate, like me. My best friend’s nails are nubs because she bites them every time she gets nervous which tends to be most of the time. She also tried the nail polish like you mentioned in your post, but that didn’t work for her like it didn’t work for you and your sister. I have always wondered if she would grow out of this habit or if there was anything she can do for it. She still hasn’t grown out of it, but she was thinking of maybe getting hypnotized. She heard from someone that if you are hypnotized correctly, bad habits or fears can be removed from your body, but who knows if this is true! Here is an article on hypnosis and nail biting you might want to check out!

  6. Samantha Francesca Sichenze

    Great job! This is an interesting topic that college students can definitely relate to. I don’t bite my nails often, but when I do, I bite them down to the nub. It always frustrates me because I would spend money to get them painted and then once I have a test or an exam, my nails are completely destroyed. I always thought it was a nervous habit. For example, my nervous habit is twirling my hair 24/7. When we are put under stressful situations, our nervous habits come out. I don’t believe that breast feeding has anything to do with nail bitting because I nail bite and I was never breast fed. Also, I believe at the age of 17, you would get out of the habit of something you did as a newborn. In this article,, it explains how we can quit nervous habits because some can actually be bad for our health, like overeating. It is very important that we try to stop these nervous habits because nobody wants to be the adult whose still sucking their thumb.

  7. Margaret Marchok

    Maria- I felt this post on a personal level. Much like you, I can’t seem to kick my nail biting addiction. I have tried everything- and I mean EVERYTHING- to get rid of my habit. The most annoying thing in the world to me is when my family members yell at me for biting my nails or say, “let me see your nails!” at every family gathering. For me, I think my nail biting is largely due to my ADHD and OCD. I constantly have to be moving and constantly have to be doing something. Because of this, I get bored very easily. Therefore when I am in class and I get bored, the first thing I turn to to preoccupy myself are my nails. Sometimes I will even do it subconsciously, which is really bad. I posted this article once before in someone’s comments, but I think this article is great- This gives great advice on how to kick a nail biting habit. Enjoy!

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