If there’s ever been a time in history to kick a nail-biting habit, this is it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials encourage preventive measures like frequent handwashing, social distancing, and keeping our hands away from our faces, eyes, and mouths – a difficult ask for nail-biters. Along with increasing your risk for infection, nail biting can damage the nails and cuticles, cause distress or embarrassment, and may lead to a sense of relief or even pleasure. But when we’re trying to unlearn a deeply ingrained habit, the question is, how?
“A nail biting habit can be time-consuming to break, but it is not difficult to do,” says Evan Rieder, MD, an assistant professor of Dermatology at NYU who is board-certified in psychiatry and dermatology. “It just requires that people are motivated, consistent, and willing to deal with inevitable setbacks.” Here’s what may help:
Consider your level of motivation. If you are not truly willing to quit, it’s unlikely to happen. A genuine desire to break the habit is the first important step.
Don’t rely solely on bitter nail polish, manicures, or chewing gum. These strategies are not usually effective for breaking the habit. But if you’re a mindless nibbler, bitter nail polish and manicures could at least increase awareness that you’re biting. And if you find yourself in a stressful situation that would ordinarily trigger your habit, chewing gum might help keep your mouth busy for a little while – but it’s unlikely to help you quit for good.
Increase your awareness. If we mindlessly bite at our nails, without even noticing when we’re doing it, it can be impossible to break the habit. When you catch yourself in the act, take note of what you’re doing and how you’re feeling in that moment. Are you zoning out in front of the TV, checking work emails, or feeling anxious or bored? Dr. Rieder recommends writing down (even if you just make a quick note on your phone) where and when you find yourself biting, the time of day, and what’s on your mind when you do. This can help you to identify situations, feelings, places, and even people that trigger your tendency. A combination of a genuine desire to quit, awareness of biting, and note-taking or journaling are key components of habit reversal therapy – a proven approach, according to Dr. Rieder.
Consider a substitute behavior. If you feel the urge to bite, consider an alternative but less-damaging act, such as gently pressing one finger against your thumbnail, or secretly clenching your fist. Or try a method called decoupling: When you feel your hand moving toward your mouth, intentionally move it to a substitute location instead (like to your ear lobe, where you might do a quick, light squeeze before returning your hand to your lap). With practice, it may help some people break or reduce a nail-biting habit. This approach is less proven than habit reversal therapy, according to Dr. Rieder.
Accept that there will be setbacks. When you’ve had a habit for months, years, or even decades, no one can be expected to reverse it overnight. Recognize that relapses are a normal part of the process. Remind yourself of your motivation. Remain aware of the situations in which you bite. Consider a harmless substitute action. And seek the help of a behavioral health specialist if you’re having trouble – they can help you come up with personalized ways to work through the process.