“Learn to resist the urge,” says Tara S. Peris, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is co-director of the Child O.C.D., Anxiety and Tic Disorders Program. Psychiatrists consider nail biting a “body focused repetitive behavior,” along with things like hair pulling and skin picking. Nail biting tends to begin in childhood and adolescence, but researchers estimate that as much as 30 percent of Americans are chronic nail biters. Often a form of self-soothing, the disorder can, over time, disrupt the functioning of a brain’s reward circuitry. An occasional nibble probably isn’t concerning, but if you gnaw until you injure yourself — if your fingers are bloody or infected — or if the biting distracts or shames you, you should know that you can get help.
A treatment established in the early 1970s called habit reversal therapy can break the cycle in as little as eight to 12 weeks. “First become very aware of the behavior,” Peris says. Keep a written log. Focus attention inward. What sensation do you experience just before you start biting your nails? What mood accompanies the biting? Then turn outward to your surroundings. Are you more likely to chew your hands in certain rooms? In the car? When watching TV or reading? This first stage of treatment, awareness training, typically takes about a week or two. “Next you’ll learn what we call a competing response,” Peris says. When you feel a nail bite coming, you’ll do something else instead, like clasp your hands or pinch your thumb and index finger and hold it for one minute, or until the impulse subsides. Try modifying your environment — by, for example, doing your homework at the kitchen table, rather than where you tend to bite more — and then practice catching and replacing the behavior over and over again.
Keep in mind that putting your hands in your mouth during a viral pandemic increases your infection risk. “During times of high stress, you might see symptoms pop up or worsen,” Peris says. “That’s normal and you’ll just need to practice those competing behavior skills again.”