How to stop biting your nails
January 11th, 2010 02:36 pm
I don't remember when I started biting my nails but there is not a memory in my childhood in which it is not a prominent fixture. After many frustrated years of failed attempts to drop the irksome and embarrassing habit I finally succeeded for the first time when I was twenty. I have started and stopped a few times since then and every time the topic comes up someone asks with desperation in their eyes, "How did you do it?"

A friend of mine once wrote, "Imagine trying to quit smoking while being forced to walk around all day with a lit cigarette in your hand." Reading that was an ah-ha moment for me as to just why this insidious habit is so difficult to break.

I stopped again a week or so ago at the end of a particularly stressful stretch in my life. I've got a system down pretty well at this point, so I thought I'd I would share what I have learned.

Step 1: Timing is everything

One of my many unsuccessful attempts to stop biting my nails involved a nail polish marketed for the purpose. The taste was intended to be unpleasant enough to cause you to jerk your hands away from your mouth in disgust. Halfway through the first day of trying it out, I found myself idly pondering the likelihood of success ...which made me to realize that I was gnawing away at my fingers that very moment.

Those of you who have this habit know that it is a deeply ingrained subconscious action. Initially breaking it is going to demand your constant and rigorous attention. If you are worrying about your mom in the hospital, finding a job, or how you are going to meet that deadline, you won't have the mental cycles to spare for a project like this. Wait until things settle down.

If you find that you are always in a time of overwhelming stress, you'll need to fix your life first. It's cool, go ahead. I'll wait here.

Step 2: The tools of the trade

If you are like me, the thing that compels you to worry at your fingertips (aside from the bundle of nerves itching for a way to manifest) is that one little jagged edge. There you are, minding your own business when a rough edge of a nail demands your attention. "Well, that won't do," your hind-brain proclaims. And it sets about to resolve the nagging imperfection with the tools at hand.

Unfortunately, teeth are not designed for such fine detail work and tend to botch the job, leaving more of a gnarled mess than what started.

Instead of leaving your poor digits to the mercy of your well-intentioned but clumsy subconscious, acquire the tools to do the job right.

The Nail File

The canonical nail tool. If you get nothing else, carry a nail file with you at all times. The moment you notice a precious bit of density protruding from your recovering derma, stop what you are doing and smooth it out Right. Now.

If you forget your nail file one day, there is nothing to stop your jaws from closing in on your poor budding nails. They won't stand a chance. I... I speak from experience.

The Cuticle Trimmer

It always starts out innocently enough. A little vertical tear in the skin around the edge of your nail bed. But it doesn't take long to develop into a little triangle of unrelenting aggravation. And worst of all, you can't get at it! For all your fretting at it, you've massacred the surrounding flesh, while it remains insolently untouched.

This is where the cuticle trimmer comes in. Made for fitting into the curve of your nail, it cleaves off the stubborn dry bit leaving behind a neat and healthy nail bed.

The Cuticle Nipper

The flat patch of skin further back from the nail bed can be trouble too. A hang-nail torn off in absent-minded chomping will scab over and leave more of a mess. Attack these with the precision of the cuticle nipper, which leaves no ragged edges in its wake.


There are lots of fancy products for softening your cuticles. Go as crazy as you like with the skin products, but I've found that plain ol' lotion will do just fine. Apply to the tips of our fingers at least once a day in the beginning, until your skin is a little more skin-like.

These are your tools. Take them with you everywhere. Keep a backup in your glove box, your purse, your desk at work. If you notice a hang nail or rough edge, stop what you are doing and address it right this moment.

Step 3: The actual stopping

Here is the moment you've been waiting for. The secret to defeating the habit that has afflicted you since childhood. Ready?

Stop biting your nails.

Sorry to say, but in all of my experimentation and machinations battling with this particular affliction, I have never discovered a magic bullet. There is no trick, there is no get rich fast, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and no, you can't have a pony. In the end, the only effective strategy is to just... stop.

The first three days are the hardest. This is about the length of time it takes for your nails to grow out enough that they can be filed, your skin to heal enough that it can manicured.

Step 4: The trick

Okay, I lied. I have discovered one trick. Develop an alternate nervous habit. Tap your foot, twirl your hair, chew your lip. I've found that worrying at my nail bed with the pads of my fingers can be an effective, if somewhat odd, expression of my nervous energy.

Train yourself to use some substitute habit as a crutch while you get through the toughest stretch.

Step 5: Fail

You are going to fail. At some point in this undertaking, you are going to have a shit day, your boss is going to yell at you, your kid is going to push you to the end of your rope, the car won't start, the deadline was missed, and you look down and realize that your fingers are bloody stumps once again. You have failed.

This will happen. It's best if you just accept that right now.

The important thing to understand is that failure isn't failure. Failure means that you have discovered the part of the process that doesn't work for you. You've identified the weak link in the chain. Now you have the insight to tweak your behavior to account for this new information, and start again.

If you take failure as a sign that you are hopeless and will never be able to stop biting your nails, you won't be disappointed. If you accept your inevitable slip-ups as an opportunity to debug your habits and behavior, you can eventually find a configuration that can be sustainable integrated into your life.

Step 6: The aftercare; getting professional help

Alright, you're two weeks in and you seem to have the situation under control. For the first time in years, your nails are just barely peeking out beyond the nub of your fingers. Now, how to keep them from retreating again?

I strongly recommend regular manicures. I know, I know. If your paws have served as lifelong, ravaged gauge of your stress level, the idea of going in for a mani might seem a bit odd. But a regular appointment will keep your nails and surrounding skin happy and healthy. Besides, the thought of showing up to the salon with mangled claws might be just embarrassing enough to keep you on the straight and narrow.

In summary

The crux of this strategy is quite simple: Smooth nails and soft neat cuticles do not make appealing victims for your nibbling nerves. Getting them that way is the hard part, but luckily once you're there an entire industry just waiting to welcome you and your dollar bills with open arms.
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Date:January 12th, 2010 - 04:20 am
I know I appreciated this! I'm constantly starting and stopping and have found most of the things you have, except I haven't tried carrying nail supplies around. Great suggestions.
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Date:January 12th, 2010 - 04:38 am
Best of luck!
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Date:January 12th, 2010 - 10:33 am

A follow-up/ sister suggestion that people might find helpful.

I am not a nail-biter, but I am a cuticle-picker, -tearer, -chewer, what have you. Over the years I seem to have grown out of my onetime sister-habit of nail-peeling, only to have the cuticle thing get worse. So now I have fairly healthy nails of some length most of the time, surrounded by red, sore, or bleeding skin.

Among the specific problems with this particular obsession is that the tools of the trade, those things which are supposed to help you kick the habit, just become ways of furthering it, of ferreting out ever-tinier bits of flawed skin. Even though they don't generally leave the rough craters that digging at it with fingernails or teeth do, it is still not exactly a step in a healthier, less OCD direction. And anyway, as soon as I'm in the car without my nipper and feel a rough patch, the nails and teeth come back into play soon enough.

The only thing I can recommend for this (having managed to stop for up to a week at a time in the past), is to figure out when it is that your fingers start roaming over each other, checking for flaws. Since picking is about finding perceived problems, basically the only way to stop it is to stop the checking, and allow everything to heal so there are fewer flaws to find.

For me, it's pretty much every time I am not actively doing something else, especially when I am nervous or bored: Sitting at a red light, unable to listen in class, at the computer thinking of the next thing I am going to type, etc. Once the pattern is known, take conscious steps just to not check. Don't look, and don't let your fingers look for you. If you don't know where the rough patches, hangnails, or little flaps of skin are, they can't drive you crazy by their mere existence.

I can also advocate for picking up a less-damaging habit for the duration. On the advice of a paper I once read on the subject, I once picked up spinning a ring around my finger every time I had the urge to check my cuticles, and it worked well enough.

I am still waiting for a calm enough period of my life where I can keep my hands on the steering wheel and not on each other at every single red light for more than a week's time, but given the one habit I have managed to conclusively drop so far, I'm hopeful. As it is, I am far too embarrassed to get manicures, since my habit seems so much more odd, and becomes so apparent once I put my hands in hot water. People generally understand nail-biting, or at least know that it exists, but you don't hear so much about those people who just tear into their own skin in frustration. But this is the one process that I have found helps, at least for short periods, and I hope it can help someone else.
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Date:January 12th, 2010 - 05:29 pm

Re: A follow-up/ sister suggestion that people might find helpful.

I am a worry at my cuticles as well, and a big chunk of what I wrote was geared toward that. In fact, I managed to stop biting my nails years before I was able to leave the surrounding bits of skin alone.

However, it seems like your compulsion is a little different from mine. As long as I can get at hang nails and the like with a cuticle trimmer and keep the skin mostly neat, I'll do alright. I considered including a caveat in the post along the lines of, "If your patterns or compulsions are different from mine, this probably won't work for you." But I kind of take that as a given for anything I write, so I decided against it.

The tactic of identifying the habit at the root and stopping it there is clever. (Clever in one of those ways that when you hear it articulated it seems so obvious.)

Using lotion seems like it might work for you. I did use a super fancy cuticle lotion one of the first times I was successful, and applied it every time I found myself wanting to nibble. I'll see if I can stop by the salon where I got it and find the brand name.

Thanks for the insight, and best of luck!
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Date:January 12th, 2010 - 06:03 pm

Re: A follow-up/ sister suggestion that people might find helpful.

I can't take credit for the cleverness - I got it out of some research I did on the problem, in a spate of feeling like I was the only one on Earth with this compulsion, or at least, with this compulsion to this degree (I frankly don't know how I've managed to avoid infection and/or damaging my nail's growth permanently). That being said, it's definitely true that the checking, at least for me, is the only part I can (sometimes) control. Once I know where a hangnail is it will bother me for hours until I do something to fix it. But I can consciously think about keeping my hands on the steering wheel/keyboard/desk whatever.

I also find it a lot easier to stop in the summer, when clothes are silky and brief and less likely to catch on rough skin in the simple process of wearing them.

In any case, thanks for writing up your tips! I think that this "stop vs. quit" mentality is a very realistic one, and addressing the problem through realism is a lot more helpful than those people who just tell you to "leave it alone".
Date:January 12th, 2010 - 04:36 pm
I wonder if MC Frontalot's "Habit Abatement Campaign" would work for this particular habit.
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Date:January 12th, 2010 - 05:30 pm
That is pretty awesome.

That's also the only person I have ever encountered with the same, "I don't quit, I stop" philosophy that I have about smoking.
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Date:January 22nd, 2010 - 11:01 pm
I'm sorry that this is working out to be hard for you.

Up through when we worked together I had been a life-long nail biter. I often bled and had painful rips of skin, etc. I decided at some point that I had enough of that and I stopped without a relapse. It was amazingly easy for me. Given the difficulty I've had with other things like quitting smoking, I don't think this is a general difference in my makeup or anything. Just for some reason this one was easy.

So sadly I have no advice. Good luck.
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Date:January 29th, 2010 - 05:19 pm
It was hard many years ago. Happily at this point deciding to stop is a piece of cake--which is why I decided to share my method.

I treat nail biting very much like I do smoking. It is a pressure release valve that can be used in break-glass-in-case-of-emergency levels of stress. So when I say that I have stopped many times, it is not due to "falling off the wagon," but rather having decided for some brief period of my life, I prefer having bloody nails to to not.

That's pretty amazing that you had such an easy time stopping. Of all the nail biters I've talked to, I've never heard that before.
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