I've been biting my nails for as long as I can remember. I do it automatically, without even realizing it: I focus on writing a story, and before I know it, my finger is in my mouth and I'm eagerly chewing on a nail or cuticle. I hate biting my nails; It makes me feel ashamed, and I have tried to quit smoking several times. So why do I keep doing it? The answer is more complicated than you think.
Scientists, in fact, are still trying to figure out exactly why people bite their nails. But they do know that it's a habit for many of us: roughly 20 to 30 percent of the population are nail biter, including up to 45 percent of teens. I thought biting them was a sign of nervousness or anxiety, but research shows that's not necessarily true. People also bite their nails when they are bored, hungry, frustrated, or working on difficult tasks. Plus, and this is where the shame comes in, it feels good.
I know it may sound impossible. Often if I go too far, I get a bloody finger and my nails hurt. But the very act of biting into a tiny skin or cuticle actually feels rewarding. Tracy Foose, associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF School of Medicine, agrees. She is also nail biting and says she does it because she likes it. "It feels relaxed when I do it," says Foose.
The theory that nail biting is somehow related to pleasure is suggested by some animal studies, Foose says. In these studies, when rats were given pain-reducing chemicals called endorphins, they prepared less. If those pain-killing endorphins were blocked by drugs, the animals would prepare more. This behavior seems to suggest that the preparation is pleasant. So when we nibble on our nails, a form of grooming, we may just blow it away.
If nail biting is like rat grooming, it could explain why people bite their nails during stressful situations or while doing difficult tasks - let's bite nails for comfort. The "reassuring" theory is also supported by recent research linking nail biting to perfectionism. Nail bites are perfectionists, people who plan too much and get frustrated quickly when idle, says Kieron O'Connor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal. So chewing on a nail can help these people calm their boredom and irritation. "Perfectionism is a great element, a great ingredient in triggering the problem," says O'Connor.
Some research shows that nail biter may also be genetically predisposed to a bad habit. A third of nail biters claim they have a family member who bites their nails too, says Shari Lipner, an assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, who investigated nail biting. And when you look at identical twins, Lipner says, it's very common for both boys to bite their nails.
It is not clear why he starts biting his nails at a young age. But it could be that it's easy for kids to fall into the bad habit because the part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making, called the prefrontal cortex, is still developing, Foose says. So the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex means that children are more impulsive than adults - they can't help but eat all the Halloween candy and pick their noses in public because social pressures don't affect them as much.
“They do all kinds of things that we might be tempted to do as adults but we think, 'Oh no! I can not do this! ‘” Foose says. "We have a brain that can really stop us from picking our noses." Children, not so much. "
In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association decided to list nail biting and other pathological grooming behaviors, such as scraping and stretching of the skin, as obsessive compulsive disorders, or OCD. OCD includes people washing their hands over and over again or compulsively shaping their shoes. Pathological grooming and OCD are somewhat similar: in both cases, a natural behavior (in this case, nail biting) becomes excessive. But some psychiatrists disagree with the American Psychiatric Association's decision. While it's true that nail biter sometimes has other psychiatric disorders like ADHD and separation anxiety disorder, OCD is an anxiety-driven obsession, while nail biting is not, they argue.
"As an anxiety specialist, I think it was an overreach for bulge disorders," says Foose. O'Connor agrees: “I really don't think it's OCD at all. It doesn't seem to fit any criteria ”.
Whatever the medical definition of nail biting, doing so can have many unintended health consequences. First of all, it is bad for the teeth and even the jaw. Nail biting can result in up to $ 4,000 in additional dental bills over your lifetime. Second, it's dirty. The area under the nail is a "great breeding ground for bacteria," says Foose, including E. coli. When you bite your nails, those bacteria are carried within your body and can cause gastrointestinal problems, such as nausea and diarrhea, Lipner says.
The mouth is also home to many bacteria, some of which can cause a nail infection. Warts and herpes can also be transmitted from the mouth to the fingers and vice versa, Lipner says. "Almost the two dirtiest parts of your body come together while you bite your nails," says Foose. "I feel like I don't want to do that when I say that."
Is that reason enough to stop? I've tried this many times, with bitter nail polish, manicures, and even a device that gives you electric shocks to break bad habits. Wearing gloves or wrapping your nails in tape or band-aids can work, as can replacing the habit with another, such as using a ball to stress yourself or running your hands over the worry beads, says Foose. Relaxation and meditation, techniques used to treat perfectionists, can also work, O'Connor says.
But if nail biting is about comfort, then maybe quitting is about replacing that habit with something more comforting. For me, that's reading Harry Potter in bed or petting the closest available dog or eating homemade pizza. I'm not sure how feasible all of that is during working hours, but I can check with my boss.
By Alessandra Potenza, The Verge