Onychophagia

Practically everyone engages in one type or another of nervous habit when they’re feeling nervous, scared, bored or anxious. One of the most common habits is onychophagia – more commonly known as nail biting.

Who Bites Their Nails?

You might be surprised to know that approximately half of children between the ages of ten and eighteen bite their nails, and many of them carry the behavior through to adulthood. You’ll probably be even more surprised to learn that men are considerably more likely than women to bite their nails. Women, however, are usually more troubled by the habit, since they tend to care a lot more about the appearance of their nails.

Often, nail biting goes hand-in-hand (no pun intended) with other types of nervous behavior, like picking at your skin, sucking your thumb, twisting your hair, grinding your teeth, or picking your nose.

When Does a Habit Become a Disorder?

It’s probably a rare person who hasn’t at one time or another tried to gnaw off a hangnail, or fix up a chipped nail by chewing it when a nail file wasn’t immediately at hand. That’s not the most desirable behavior, but it can often be easily corrected with simple behavior-modification techniques. Nail biting becomes harmful, and slips into the area of psychological disorder, when it gets to the point where you’re biting your nails down to the cuticle, causing pain and bleeding. Essentially, onychophagia is a type of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Why Is Onychophagia so Harmful?

This is a no-brainer – it’s harmful because you’re harming yourself! If you’re biting your nails to the point where you no longer have any cuticles, you’re risking infection and permanent deformity.

What Causes Onychophagia?

The true root cause of onychophagia isn’t really known. Some researchers believe that there might be a biological or genetic component. Some people are, for whatever reason, predisposed to soothing themselves by, paradoxically, inflicting pain on themselves. Essentially, you hurt yourself by biting, and then the brain releases endorphins that make you feel better. That’s why the nail biting goes on and on – you bite, you feel better, you bite again, you feel better again…you get the idea.

People also often bit out of a misguided compulsion to fix imperfections. “These cuticles are so ugly – I’ll just bite them off!” Of course, you never really fix the imperfections; you just make them worse.

How Is Onychophagia Diagnosed?

Most of the time, it’s diagnosed when the biter goes to the doctor and says, “I can’t seem to stop biting my nails.” Other times, a family doctor will flag the condition after noticing the condition of the patient’s nails and cuticles. Often, people don’t seek treatment because the behavior isn’t disrupting their lives all that much – it’s only when the damage becomes so severe that it’s interfering with daily tasks like bathing, washing dishes, using a computer or driving that the sufferer seeks help.

How Is Onychophagia Treated?

There are treatments available. Most of the time, the treatments recommended are the same methods that are used to combat nail biting that hasn’t tipped over into the category of a disorder. Remedies can include bitter-tasting polish, false nails, manicures, wearing gloves, or wearing a rubber band around the wrist that the suffer snaps when the urge to bite hits. If the problem is severe, though, then psychotherapy may be the only option.

Why Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy helps the patient to work through the issues that led to the behavior in the first place, and to find ways to cope with those issues. With cognitive behavioral therapy, the thoughts that motivate a person to bite can be addressed.

Frequently, self-monitoring is a component of psychotherapy. The patient is asked to keep a log of how they’re feeling, and when they have the urge to bite. Sometimes, just the act of stopping to record the feelings can interrupt the process and reduce the biting. Identifying the factors and the moods that trigger the compulsive behavior can help to minimize them, and then the patient can learn behaviors that replace the destructive ones.

Therapists also often encourage what’s known as a “competing response.” This means simply finding other things to do with the hands – the biter might learn how to knit, make jewelry, do needlepoint, or take up woodworking as a means of finding something else to keep his or her hands occupied.

With psychotherapy, many onychophagia sufferers can achieve relief from their symptoms in anywhere from four weeks to a year.

Medication

When psychotherapy fails, anti-anxiety medications may be helpful. Often, the same medications that are used to treat clinical depression (Zoloft, Prozac and Paxil, for example) can work to suppress the compulsive behavior.

Resources

If your nail biting isn’t severe enough to qualify as onychophagia, here are some ways how to stop nail biting:

-Keep a log of when you bite your nails, so you can be aware of what’s triggering the behavior.

-Get manicures to keep your cuticles in good condition.

-Wear gloves whenever you can in order to create a barrier.

-Clench your fists so that your nails aren’t readily available for biting.

-Wear bad-tasting polish.

-Tell yourself regularly, “No biting!”

-Take up a hobby that keeps your hands occupied.

If the need to bite has become so severe that you can’t control it, there are resources that you can turn to that will help you with your compulsive behavior. They are:

The Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation: This is a non-profit organization devoted to educating the public about OCD, and supporting research into OCD and related disorders. Their website is very easy to navigate, so take some time and visit http://iocdf.org/

The National Alliance on Mental Illness: This is an organization that is devoted to enhancing the lives of anyone who has a mental illness or a compulsive disorder. You can visit their website at http://www.nami.org/

The Trichotillomania Learning Center: This is for anyone who is suffering from any type of repetitive behavior that’s harming their body. For help with hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting, and other compulsive behavior, visit http://www.trich.org/treatment/article-related-habits-penzel.html

Living With Anxiety is a website that offers support for anyone who has an anxiety disorder, or who has someone in their life who’s suffering from such a disorder. You’ll find blogs, vlogs and articles, along with links to other resources at http://www.livingwithanxiety.com/

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