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Stop Biting Your Nails! A Psychiatrist’s Top 6 Tips

September 29, 2023

Show of hands: Do you need to stop biting your nails? You’re in good company.

“Nail biting is so common that we have a medical term for it, onychophasia,” says psychiatrist Carla Schnitzlein, DO, medical director of Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network. “Lots of people struggle with this as they manage day-to-day anxiety.”

Here are a few psychiatrist-approved tips to stop nail biting.

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1. When you have the urge to bite your nails, pay attention to what else is going on.

This takes some practice, but it’s the key to unlocking your bad habit.

“Sometimes, before the actual nail-biting starts, you might feel anxious or worried. If you catch it at that stage, you can draw attention to what’s going on in the moment and find a different way to manage that anxiety,” says Dr. Schnitzlein.

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2. Have a coping strategy on hand.

Here’s the ideal scenario. When you feel your stress rising — and with it, the urge to bite your nails — stop what you’re doing and switch to a soothing activity. Take a walk. Do a few sun salutations. Phone a friend.

“Do something that breaks that anxiety before you engage in the compulsion to bite your nails,” says Dr. Schnitzlein.

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3. Try gum, mints or hard candy as an alternative to biting your nails.

Of course, it’s not always practical to drop everything to focus on your adult coloring book. When you’re on the verge of nail-biting but can’t stop what you’re doing, try popping in a piece of gum, mint or hard candy. For bonus points, pair this with an affirming thought, like “I’ve got this. I’m doing something that’s healthy for me.”

Psychologists call this “habit reversal therapy.”

“You’re substituting something harmful with something that grabs awareness of what’s going on and gives an alternative,” says Dr. Schnitzlein.

4. Track your progress.

Mindfulness is the name of the game here. Keep a daily log of your efforts to avoid nail-biting. No matter how your report card looks, you’ll be on your way to habit change.

“It’s about building mindfulness, not shaming,” says Dr. Schnitzlein. “It’s about saying, ‘It looks like I’m struggling with this today. What might be going on?’”

5. Reward yourself with a manicure.

Behavior Change 101: We get furthest when we reward progress, rather than punishing slip-ups. Along with all the above strategies, how about an at-home or professional manicure?

You’ll positively reinforce all your efforts toward habit change. And with your nails looking bright and healthy, you may think twice about mangling them.

6. Get help with what’s worrying you.

If you dial down the stress in your life, you may just dial down the urge to bite your nails. Your healthcare team can help you get there faster.

“If other techniques don’t work, seek support from a therapist or mental health professional,” says Dr. Schnitzlein. “The earlier you catch any habit, the easier it is to manage and reverse.”

Soon, you’ll be waving goodbye to nail-biting — and those hands will look better than ever.