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Nail Biter Psychology

Why Nail Biters Bite

An estimated one in every four people bite their nails. While most often dismissed as a bad habit, the reasons for nail nibbling could run deeper than sheer routine. Understanding the reasons why your clients bite can be beneficial to all nail techs in helping clients break their nasty habit.

As nail techs, we all know we shouldn’t bite our nails, right? And we impart this upon all of our clients too, right? Then why do so many people still do it? The bad news is that nobody knows exactly why people bite their nails. The most popular reason given is stress relief. Just as some people scratch their heads, chew on their hair, or crack their knuckles when they are anxious, others bite their nails. While little research has actually been done on the subject, theories range from classifying it as a simple bad habit, to an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even a form of self-inflicted injury.

Nail biting is a common habit that is quite difficult to break. It has been estimated that one in every four people bite their nails. Not only does nail biting ruin the look of the nails, it is also a good way to transfer infectious organisms from the fingers to the mouth and vice versa. Nail biting can also damage the skin surrounding the fingers, allowing infections to enter and spread.

Is It Just a Simple Bad Habit?

A habit is defined as “a strong behavior pattern that is repeated over and over again,” says Tim Wysocki, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. “A person displaying the behavior usually lacks an awareness of the habit.”

Experts admit that they’re not always sure what causes a habit to form, but that it is a learned behavior that usually provides a positive outcome. Habits may develop as entertainment for a bored child or, more commonly, as a coping mechanism to soothe an anxious one. The next time you see a client biting, try to help her recall if she has recently had a stressful experience. This client may be trying to relieve her tension just as another person might by having a cocktail or working out at the gym.

Most habits are harmless and require no professional intervention. But if a habit affects a client’s physical or social functioning, or persists even after they have tried habit-breaking techniques, the behavior may have a more serious emotional or physical cause. In these situations, your client should consult a mental health professional.

Jan Wills, a clinical social worker in Chicago, says “Nail biting, or onychophagy, is one of the most common habit disturbances among children and is no longer classified as a ‘special symptom reaction.’ Once seen as an indicator of extreme stress, this behavior has become a more normally accepted habit. Nail biting rarely occurs before four years of age. Then, around six years of age, there is a marked increase in the number of child nail biters, and the figure remains constant until puberty. The habit can evolve to biting the toenails and picking at the nails with the fingers. It’s interesting to note that boy nail biters seem to outnumber girls as the children get older.” While the habit is typically outgrown with age, it has been linked to anxiety or boredom with older children and adults.

Nail biting is the most common of the so-called “nervous habits” that start in childhood, which also include thumb sucking, nose picking, hair twisting or tugging, and tooth grinding. Nail biting is most common in high-strung and spirited children, tends to run in families, and is the most likely of the nervous habits to continue into adulthood.“

It is estimated that one-third of all children between the age of 7 and 10 bite their nails,” says Robert Steele, a pediatrician at St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield, Mo. “Boys lead the pack of nail biters after the age of 10.” Statistics also show that one-half of adolescents bite their nails at some point and between one-quarter and one-third of college students say they still bite their nails.

Some researchers believe there’s a genetic component involved, while others claim the habits are learned. Nail biting and hair pulling may trigger calming sensors in the nervous system, says Barbara Hanft, an occupational therapist based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in working with children. Such activities may look painful to an outsider, but children can feel a sense of relief in response to internal nervous-system turmoil.

Or Is It Something More?

Nail biting falls into the category of obsessive-compulsive behaviors, according to Lorraine D. D’Asta, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Hinsdale, Ill. This doesn’t mean that everyone who bites his or her nails has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It only means that they are prone to engage in certain of these behaviors when under stress. So nail biters probably also have other small routines that comfort them. They might always put their keys in the same place on the counter (so they can find them without being anxious) and would be quite upset if you moved them. They might have a very specific order for given tasks and become very anxious if that is changed. In other words, there are likely little pockets of rigidity or routine which soothe them in their daily lives. Mbr>

Nail biting is usually thought to be a “primitive” mechanism — stemming from early childhood (e.g., Freud’s “oral period” of infancy). In fact, most nail biters will admit to this being a lifelong compulsion. “Like other compulsive behaviors, the point of doing it (biting) is to diminish anxiety from either an internal or an external source,” says D’Asta. What makes this a compulsive behavior is that the individual is driven to perform the behavior (or ritual) even if her rational, thinking mind tells her that it’s silly or useless. In fact, most nail biters are not pleased with the effects of biting — they don’t like how it looks or feels on their fingers, nails, or cuticles. “Sadly, this recognition of dissatisfaction can be another source of anxiety, which starts the cycle all over again,” adds D’Asta.

Often nail biters are perfectionists, or at least push themselves very hard. They probably have a whole set of “worrying” habits. They might focus in on a nail because it “feels funny” or has a small piece of skin hanging. The biting can then take on a life of its own beyond the “repair.”

Some medical professionals even suggest that nail biting falls into the category of an addiction, and that treatments for nail biting be approached in the same manner as other addictions — alcohol, cigarettes, food, shopping, gambling, etc. — with emphasis on making sure that a new “bad” addiction does not replace the old one.

“Nail biters can — though this is not usually the case — use biting as a self-destructive mechanism,” says D’Asta.

Tracy Alderman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in San Diego, Calif., agrees, adding: “Self-inflicted violence (SIV) is best described as the intentional harm of one’s own body without conscious suicidal intent.” Excessive nail biting falls into the category of self-inflicted violence, according to Alderman. Most types of SIV are much more severe and can involve cutting of one’s own flesh (usually the arms, hands, or legs), burning one’s self, interfering with the healing of wounds, pulling out one’s own hair, hitting or bruising one’s self, and intentionally breaking one’s own bones. “The explanations for why people intentionally injure themselves are numerous and diverse. However, most of these explanations indicate that SIV is used as a method of coping and tends to make life more tolerable, at least temporarily,” says Alderman.

Awareness Can Help Stop Biting

Biting your nails not only makes them look ugly, but exposes you to skin infections as well. So how do you stop this manic nail-gnawing habit? Since the psychological reasons for nail biting are so varied, so then are the psychological methods of dealing with the problem. Understanding some of these methods will help us as nail technicians when dealing with our clients who bite their nails.

Behavioral techniques for stopping nail biting are primarily interference techniques: doing something else with your hands (i.e., buffing your nails, worry stones, knitting, pressing your fingers together, etc.) or something else with your mouth (i.e., gum chewing, sucking on straws, lollipops, etc.). For some nail biters (those for whom this is a mild habit) a bad-tasting gel on the fingers usually works to remind them to stop biting. But for most hard-core biters, the bitter gel doesn’t work.

For long-time nail biters, D’Asta claims that hypnotism often works to help eliminate the behavior. However, it is important to realize that the reason behind the biting is usually anxiety, and if you eliminate one form of coping (nail biting), the client will still have to cope with the anxiety somehow. It’s usually a good idea to try to find the source of the anxiety, which might be addressed in psychotherapy or — in cases of extreme, clinical anxiety — with appropriate anti-anxiety medications.

However just as the professionals don’t all agree on the reason for nail biting, they also don’t all agree on cures and treatments. One thing that is universally agreed upon by specialists in the treatment of nail biting is that punishment should never be used as a method. Shaming or belittling a nail biter is always counter-productive. That usually reinforces the habit, making the biter even more anxious about it. Psychologists have demonstrated that punishment is not nearly as effective as reward when it comes to training.

People who bite their nails often do it unconsciously, so the only cure is to know exactly when and under what situations they are most likely to start chewing. In other words, the biter must be very aware of where her hands are at all times. When she does feel the longing to bite, have her clench her fist gently or use one of the other coping mechanisms until the urge passes.

Parents who want to stop their children from nail biting should not resort to scolding or punishment. Doing so will only cause more tension that may result in more fervent biting. What they can do is to tell their children when they are biting their nails, and with as positive a manner as possible, encourage them to be aware of their hands. With some creativity, parents can also change or remove the situations that lead to nail biting, or find a way to distract their children from biting.

In the next article we’ll discuss practical real life solutions and salon-tested proven techniques to use with nail biter clients, such as a nail biter full-set and maintenance, and other tools and tricks for keeping these clients on track.

How You Can Help Your Nail Biters

Talking about nail biting is essential to dealing with nail biting clients who may fall into the category of self-inflicted violence (those who totally mutilate the nails as opposed to a nibble here and there). After all, they are in your chair because they want to quit the nail biting habit. Only through open discussions about nail biting will you be able to help the client. By addressing the issues of biting you are removing the secrecy that surrounds the action. You are reducing the shame attached to it. You are encouraging connection between you and your nail-biting clients.

Although it may be difficult for you, it is really important that you keep your negative reactions to yourself. Because judgments and negative responses contrast with support, you will need to put these feelings aside for the time being. You can only be supportive when you act in positive ways. Don’t scold clients for biting their nails. Instead provide help, such as repairing the damage they have done with nail enhancements.

In order to quit, a nail biter really must want to quit and be willing to do the work and maintenance required. Some clients may never be able to make that commitment or keep it up forever. For your client who is frantic about her nail-chewing child who refuses to quit, remember to tell her this: devoted nail biters can achieve top grades, have satisfying friendships, and happily continue their habit into adulthood with no serious consequences other than cosmetic appearance.

Confessions of a Nail Biter

A look inside the mind of of nail gnawer

I don’t remember when I started biting my nails. I have always done it. It’s not something I’m proud of; but rather something I share with you now to show that it is not a sign of a “weak” person, or someone who doesn’t want to try to be a better person. Most people who know me personally or professionally consider me an over-achiever, certainly not a slacker or someone slovenly and prone to bad habits.

In fact, it was my own nail biting that led me to a career in nails. You just might be surprised to find out how many of your fellow nail techs secretly safeguard this embarrassing fact of their own history. A fascination with attaining beautiful nails usually starts with those of us not naturally blessed with them; and the lure of beautiful nails is certainly increased in those who bite their own nails.

While I don’t remember when exactly I started biting my nails, I do remember when I first tried to stop. Shortly out of college and into my first corporate job in my early twenties, I was recruited to do the initial interviewing process for new-hire prospects. One of the candidates I interviewed was a male who had expertly manicured hands — a fact I noticed as he handed me his resume. My own nails were ragged and bitten. It was then and there that I resolved to change the appearance of my hands. That was the first of many resolutions, but I had no idea how to stop my nail biting.

The next moment that I remember is being presented with a candid photo taken of a group of us on a lazy Sunday afternoon; there I am with fingers in mouth, chewing away ravenously. It was a disgusting site that forced me to face the public side of what I had thought was my private secret (after all, up till now I had usually been successful in hiding my pitiful paws from public view). Thus began my foray into the world of nail enhancements.

Nail enhancements were my answer and salvation from nail biting blues and embarrassment. Of course, I soon exchanged nail picking for nail biting. I can’t tell you how often I sat waiting for my appointment at the salon, gnawing on my nails, right in front of my tech. I honestly thought I was “helping” by removing (biting off) the lifted acrylic; of course we know that only produced more lifting and worsened the problem. But how was I, a mere client at the time, to know this? My techs NEVER told me to stop biting or picking at my nails, even though they saw me do it right in front of them.

Eventually, my obsession with nails turned into a profession. I vowed to educate my nail biting clients on how they could overcome their bad habits (through regular fill appointments and following my nail biter regimen — seems simple doesn’t it?). For many years I was able to overcome my habit. Once my own nails were grown out under the enhancement (gels in my case) through regular maintenance, I was able to overcome the biting urge.

However, when I get “too busy” and skip a fill appointment and let my nails get ragged, it is a lost cause. This has been my renewed plight for the last six years since the birth of my third child; I just can’t get the time together on a regular basis to maintain my nails. I have other priorities and a full book of clients. Nails are for pleasure, not torture. If you don’t have the resources (time and/or money) to enjoy them, then don’t do it. Nails are supposed to be a source of joy and happiness, not agony and stress!

I am not a perfect person; I acknowledge and accept that. We all have our faults. This is part of what makes me uniquely “me.” Some may argue that my “problem” makes me unsuitable as a professional nail technician or educator. I must strongly disagree! My record and accomplishments state otherwise. Besides, I can apply a new set to myself in under 20 minutes. Anytime I want to instantly hide my “bad habit” I can. I am confident that my true friends and professional partners accept me for me, nails or not.

 

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