Nail biting is a habit of many.
Chronic biters aren’t even aware they’re doing it. The consequences, however, are more than aesthetics.
Unlike obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) such as hand-washing or continuous counting, nail-biting is more innocuous and stems from a positive response: biters feel good after trimming a little piece off the side.
OCD stem from a fear of the consequences of not doing something and therefore a particular behavior is engaged. When biting your nails becomes a chronic habit, it falls under the psychological category of pathological grooming.
Not Yet Classified as Obsessive-Compulsive
Everyone concerns themselves with personal grooming to some degree. But when it becomes compulsive, as in pulling hair (trichotillomania), or skin picking (dermatillomania), it is an uncontrollable impulse.
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These are pathological grooming behaviors that have now been classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as Obsessive Compulsive and Related Disorders. For now, nail biting has been omitted from its most recent revision.
For nail biting, there are health implications that may get overlooked, making a strong argument for taking steps to stop the habit. Biting nails often results in irritated or open skin which can become infected, potentially leading to paronychia, the term given to such infection. If left untreated, paronychia can spread throughout your hand and into your bloodstream.
Open wounds make you prone to the spread of warts (caused by virus HPV, human papillomavirus) and the development of fungus on your fingers and hands.
By constantly putting your fingers in your mouth, you are exposing yourself to whatever germs and pathogens that you touch: bacteria, viruses, and dirt. That’s obvious.
There Can be Permanent Harm
Constant biting over time can actually change the shape and texture of your nails. When the underlying cause is non-medical in nature, this condition is called “habit-tic deformity”. The nails can grow with ridges and the cuticles can completely disappear, putting the health of the whole nailbed in jeopardy.
Nail biting can affect your teeth, causing them to become loose and displaced, as well as damaging the integrity of the teeth and their enamel.
As with any habit that has deleterious effects, if chronic nail biting results in infection, fungus, or psychological distress, it’s a good indication that the habit is a response to anxiety or stress. We all experience stress at different levels and manage it in different ways. If you want to stop any habit, you must first figure out why you’re doing it.
May I Please Kiss Your Hand?
And then there are the aesthetics. Did anyone else cringe every time there was a close-up of Frodo’s hands to show The Ring? Often people who are habitual biters are embarrassed by the appearance of their hands.
They wear gloves or fold their arms or devise odd hand positions to otherwise hide their hands from others. This can lead to other psychological distress–like shame. Your whole body language changes when you are embarrassed by your physical appearance which, in turn, affects your interactions with others.
Fortunately, even life-long nail biters can kick the habit if they are truly committed to it. If you bite your nails, you are in the company of a great many people. Becoming cognizant of it is a first step if you want to stop. Easier said than done.