How to stop adults nail-biting and picking

Apr 21, 2021Anxiety, Common Disorders, Counselling, Hypnotherapy Information and Advice, Other

How to stop adults nail-biting and picking

Do you know what happens with nail-biting and skin picking?

I do. I have met so many nail-biters who have been nibbling for years. Let me tell you about nail-biting and picking…

If you are a nail biter, you probably don’t feel very proud of the habit. You want to stop. You don’t want this embarrassment and shame.

So you usually hide your hands at work. You might like to keep your hands in your pockets.

But hiding won’t stop it, as you have now discovered through the lockdown.

At least the pandemic and social distancing has meant that you don’t need to shake hands now.

If you are a nail-biter, have you noticed that you fiddle with your hands and fingers a lot?

It’s the rough bit that triggers it. You feel for that rough nail edge.

You rub a finger over it, and the more you feel that loose bit of skin or broken nail, the more you seem to hone in on it.

You get that urge. Unconsciously or consciously, you know that you need to bite. To attack and sort it out.

You want to deal with it now. You must!

Then without much thought, your hand comes up to your mouth, and you bite on that nail or skin.

Your teeth penetrate the offender. You might hear a crack.

If it’s a bit short, you might have a couple of attempts at biting. Like a pneumatic drill, you will break it.

If it’s a bit of skin, it probably feels sore, but you want to get rid of that extra skin, so you carry on until you can bite it off.

Sometimes a bit of skin peels off, but that feels really sore when it gets to the fresh new skin. Ouch!

Then when it’s free, you roll it around in your mouth and then realise you need to swallow it or spit it out.

So you look around, and hopefully, there isn’t anyone around, so you spit it out.

Your finger then rubs over that area again on your finger. Has the rough edge gone now? If it has, you stop biting for now, but if there is still a rough area on that finger or another finger, you repeat the pattern.

You might even start to explore another finger now.

This is the cycle many people go through when they bite their nails.

What is nail-biting?

Nail-biting is called onychophagia.

When nail biting includes skin-picking, excessive skin picking is called excoriation.

It’s a pattern or habit. It isn’t a major problem until it becomes more frequent and impacts your daily life. As it gets worse, your fingers become unsightly, sore and sometimes bleed and become infected.

When you get into a habit, you don’t think consciously about what you are doing unless someone calls your attention to it.

This behaviour can be changed if the person wants to change, but sometimes people need help.

What have you tried already?

If you are a nail-biter, you probably have tried willpower, but that didn’t work. If you get into stressful situations, it makes things worse.

You may have tried painting your nails, either with attractive coloured nail varnish or horrible tasting stuff that you brought from the chemist shop. But that didn’t work either.

Maybe your mum or friend has told you lots of ‘traditional’ ways that they were taught to stop. They didn’t work.

Usually, you would just try and get on with your life.

But if it’s been really bad and your fingers have become infected, you might have had to go to the doctors. But once the infection was tackled that didn’t stop it either.

What causes people to bite their nails?

People bite their nails because they get into a habit.  Habits usually start when you are emotional, and stress and anxiety are emotions that contribute most to nail-biting.

It’s more common to start nail-biting as a child or young adult, especially if you feel stressed. There are some other conditions that are more commonly associated with nail-biting such as ADHD.

Too much stress or being bored is thought to make it worse.

Nail-biting can be associated with mental ill-health such as anxiety and depression. Severe nail biting can lead to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and body dysmorphia. It’s a form of body-focused repetitive behaviour.

Why stop nail-biting?

Some children and young people stop on their own. But if you are over 18 years old and continually bite your nails, you should try to stop because

  • It’s not considered a nice habit socially.
  • It can lead to damage to the nail bed and body deformities.
  • It can lead to serious physical health problems such as bone and joint infections.
  • It can involve dental problems, for example, cracked teeth.
  • It can affect you psychologically because you feel embarrassed, shy, shameful and lack confidence and self-esteem.
  • It will have an impact on your relationships and possibly your career.
  • It can affect your self-image.
  • It can cause digestive problems and infections. This can lead to abdominal pain and diarrhoea.

Ways to stop nail biting and skin picking

  • Keep nails short and have a regular manicure if you think you are developing a bad habit.
  • Habit reversal training. This is about learning new behaviours.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT helps you understand the thought processes, emotions and behaviours that drive the habit. It’s a type of counselling that has the additional benefit that it often helps with anxiety and depression, and OCD.
  • Hypnotherapy. Hypnosis helps to reduce anxiety, reframe any negative thoughts and help you to relax. CBT can be used with hypnosis as it gives a better success rate.
  • Medication. For some people, antidepressants help.
  • Learn to relax. Try deep breathing, yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet.
  • Take up a new hobby, mix with friends or have a laugh as these can reduce anxiety.

If you have already got terrible nails and sore areas, then keep your hands clean and cover bleeding areas. You can also apply an antiseptic cream to help in the healing. Ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.

Finally, Awaken the Change can offer help to adult nail-biters through hypnotherapy and CBT. Contact Linda for a free initial consultation.

Awaken the Change is about Focusing Minds for Positive Results

Awaken the Change is a self-help service providing education and information.

Linda sees clients at her practice in Bournemouth, in the UK. She is also happy to provide online help via webcam for hypnotherapy, counselling and supervision. Counselling and supervision can also be provided by telephone.

Linda is an accredited trainer and supervisor.

Linda Witchell
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