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How to Stop Nail Biting to Cope with Stress

Medically reviewed by Nicole Aliling, MD · Neurology · Centre Médicale Internationale

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated May 25, 2021

How to Stop Nail Biting to Cope with Stress

Do you find yourself biting your nails whenever you feel worried or stressed? Are you concerned about the potential health risks it may cause? In this article, we’ll discuss some tips to stop nail biting.

Stress: All You Need to Know

Nail biting, defined

Nail biting shouldn’t always be a cause of concern. In fact, for most people, it’s just an occasional thing. However, if nail biting becomes a long-term behavior that causes physical or mental stress, medical attention may be necessary.

Defined as the long-term, seemingly uncontrollable habit of biting the fingernails, onychophagia or chronic nail biting can destroy the nails and their surrounding tissues. Furthermore, under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is classified as “Other Specified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorder,” specifically a “body-focused repetitive behavior.”

People with onychophagia often do not have a preference for biting any of their fingernails. Most of them are also aware of the problem; however, they cannot stop the behavior on their own.

Triggers for nail biting

To stop nail biting, we must understand why it happens.

The exact cause of onychophagia is still unknown, although scientists suspect genes may be involved. After all, kids whose parents bite their nails may also develop the habit.

Another possible trigger is stress. Some people find the act of biting their nails soothing, as it can provide them with feelings of calmness of relaxation so they do it when they are anxious or stressed.

Researchers also discovered that people might bite their nails when working on a difficult problem or simply when they are bored. Moreover, a hangnail or nail imperfection may drive someone to groom their nail excessively through nail biting.

Finally, people who experience the following mental health concerns may also turn to nail biting:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Separation anxiety
  • Oppositional defiant disorder; a condition where the person defies or disobeys people in authority
  • Other forms of body-focused repetitive disorder such as hair pulling, cheek biting, and chronic skin picking

The potential dangers of onychophagia

According to experts, long-term nail biting is not likely to cause permanent harm to the nails as long as the nail bed, the skin under the nail, remains intact. However, it’s still crucial to stop nail biting to prevent the following health risks:

  • Damage to the nails
  • Damage to the teeth
  • Increased risk of skin infection in case the skin surrounding the nail sustains damage
  • Possible spread of germs from finger to mouth
  • Mental distress, such as anxiety and impulsivity

Additionally, onychophagia may occur due to the presence of a psychological concern (anxiety disorder, ADHD, etc.) that requires medical treatment.

Treatment to stop nail biting

People who experience occasional nail biting may find the following tips from the American Academy of Dermatology Association helpful:

  • Identify possible triggers and try to replace the nail biting habit. For instance, if you feel stressed, try squeezing a stress ball.
  • Trim nails regularly, so it will be less tempting to bite them
  • Consider applying bitter-tasting nail polish.
  • Consider getting regular manicures to make your nails look attractive
  • How to Release Happy Hormones Naturally

    If a person is experiencing onychophagia, these self-help tips may not be enough. For chronic and uncontrollable nail biting, experts also recommend:

    Getting therapy

    Attending therapy sessions can release negative emotions linked to onychophagia. Additionally, talking to a therapist or counselor can help increase awareness about the nail biting triggers.

    Building a support system

    Discuss with your friends your goal to stop nail biting. When you feel the urge to bite your nails, talk to them about your feelings.

    Treating mental disorders

    Like mentioned, nail biting can be a sign of an underlying mental health concern. If that’s the case, the person may need to take medications or attend therapy sessions to manage their condition.

    Self-care practices

    Since most cases of onychophagia happen because the person finds the habit soothing, it’s important to practice activities that promote relaxation. Have a healthy diet, exercise regularly and consider journaling, meditation, and yoga.

    Key Takeaways

    Occasional nail biting may not be a cause of concern and can be managed through some self-help tips. However, people with onychophagia or chronic and uncontrollable nail biting may require medical treatment because it poses some health risks.

    If you or your loved one experiences long-term and seemingly uncontrollable nail biting, make an appointment with the doctor or a mental health professional, especially if the repetitive behavior occurs with mental distress.

    Learn more about Stress Management here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Nicole Aliling, MD

    Neurology · Centre Médicale Internationale

    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated May 25, 2021

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