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 emotions.
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 futurederm.com