Nail Biting: Why You Do it and How You Can Stop

I am pleased to have Tsgoyna Tanzman contribute this unique and informative article. Please keep in mind that the information posted represents her opinions – and does not mean I endorse or validate her techniques. While I can personally validate the majority of her information on nail biting, I cannot attest to the efficacy of NLP.

Why do People Bite Their Nails?

Simple. The same reason people do anything.

To gain pleasure and/or avoid pain. No matter what we do in life, it nearly always boils down to this simplistic behavior. Whether you’re going after a goal such as getting a dream job or finding your soul mate, we believe the pursuit and attainment of that end goal will make us feel good (pleasure) and help us avoid pain (homelessness and loneliness).

Why do YOU Bite Your Nails?

At some point in your early life there was most likely a condition, perhaps a parent or other significant role model, who bit his or her nails and your duckling brain imprinted it as a means of connection and identification. You felt good. You belonged. Then the next layer of feel good happened when you associated the behavior with more pleasure. In other words, the behavior became a self-soothing event. It rewarded you. You felt calmer.

photo of fingernail worn down from nail biting

The evidence! The wear pattern on this fingernail is consistent with chronic nail biting.

Unbeknownst to you, you activated your parasympathetic nervous system, triggering a cascade of hormones that calmed you down and gave you pleasure. Your brain subconsciously made a connection, conditioning you to connect the two events. Since the brain likes efficiency, it got to work and laid down a neural highway. If I do this (bite my nails) then I get this (pleasure and I avoid pain).

Dental Complications from Nail Biting

Nail biting is complicated because it is both pleasure and pain tied up in a one-two punch. It has the immediate short-term effect of soothing, but it is coupled with some pretty nasty long-term side effects.   Here’s the ugly truth:

  1. Despite the fact that enamel is the strongest substance in your body, your teeth are not meant to be chew nails. Excessive and continual pressure from nail biting can cause your enamel to wear down, chip, fracture and/or misalign your teeth, as well as potentially contribute to temporomandibular joint pain. (TMJ). In fact, the Academy of General Dentistry estimates nail biting can result in up to $4000 more in dental bills. So much for the pleasure principle.
  2. Beneath our nails are some of the most gnarly bacteria, viruses, and fungi. In fact, there are as many as 150 different bacteria that can live under our nails including salmonella and E.coli.
  3. As a nail biter you’re a transporter of bacteria and those bacteria can lead to infections that may lead to gingivitis.
  4. Broken and/or jagged nails can tear or cut the gums. The Mayo Clinic warns that viral infections like herpes and the HPV virus can be transmitted from open cuts to the gums.
Nail biting photo showing characteristic groove with front teeth.

Photo showing a pronounced groove on her two lower front teeth from chronic nail biting. She is in her mid 20s. If this continues, what will her teeth look like in her 40s? Photo Dr. Nicholas Calcaterra.

Despite all of this, people will continue. The logical part of your brain tells you to stop biting your nails. If you’re like most nail biters you’ve already tried “everything.” You’ve tried the bitter nail polish and while it initially worked you strangely overrode the aversion, sufficient to keep biting. You’ve tried rubber bands, Band-Aids, gloves, chewing gum, and exhaustive willpower. You can never punish your way into changing a behavior and expect it to last. These “outer game” strategies are like trying to stop a train going 100 mph.

So How Do You Stop Nail Biting?

Before it begins and from the inside out.

If that just caused you to chomp down, on your very last nail, hold on. One of the first questions I ask my nail biting clients is, “How do you know it’s time to bite.” Most often they immediately answer, “I don’t, it’s unconscious.“

As a Master Practitioner of Neurolinguistic Programming, I know that all behavior is encoded in our brains in patterns we repeat efficiently. Bringing that pattern of behavior to a conscious level right down to the nanosecond, just before the fingers are in the mouth, is the most important first step to effectively altering the pattern. The truth is you’re an expert at biting your nails and everyone has a unique repeatable sequence of events. It may begin with a visual or tactile inspection. Your right thumb is the lead inspector, rubbing each finger to find roughness. Or perhaps you rub your fingers against some fabric. Or you visually inspect for evidence of a hangnail. When we are able to identify a pattern and then consciously decide on a desired different behavior we want, it sets the foundation for making this neurological shift.

How Does Neurolinguistic Programming Help?

Besides being a mouthful of syllables, it’s a method of influencing brain behavior (“neuro”) through the use of language (“linguistic”) and other types of communication to enable a person to “recode” the way the brain responds to stimuli (“programming”) and manifest new and better behaviors. This field of science/psychology came on the scene in the 1970’s and if it were renamed today, it might be called Upgrade Your Operating System.  Why NLP works quickly and effectively is because it scrambles the pattern of behavior, much like scratching a record, rendering it unable to play the same way.  It fixes the bugs and re-patterns the brain to new more desirable behaviors. Using our basic modalities Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic (feeling), Olfactory (smell) and Gustatory (taste) we are able to modify and shift old behaviors.

If you truly want to stop biting your nails, you have to work from the inside out. Align your subconscious and conscious minds. Re-pattern the behavior and re-condition your associations.

What’s the upside? Healthy aligned teeth, beautiful nails, restored confidence and overall improved health, and you might just save thousands of dollars.

Webmaster’s Note: I hope you enjoyed this article from Tsgoyna Tanzman. If you would like to learn more about this unique approach, visit her website at howtostopbitingnails.com. She offers a complementary “Let’s Get Growing” consultation.

Comments

  1. Oral Health says:

    It’s interesting that I came across this article when I did. I’ve been a nail biter for *years* and as you guys aluded to, I’m pretty sure I picked up the habit from my dad. I’ve tried a variety of techniques to keep myself from biting me fingers/fingernails and nothing has worked so far.

    The biggest issue I have is that once I stop biting my teeth, I pick up a different, equally as bad habit. Sometimes it’ll be biting my tongue, sometimes it’ll be twisting my fingers in weird ways – it’s like there’s this nervous tick that always needs to be filled. I’ve been doing a decent job lately of not biting my fingernails *too* much, but I still do it.

    I’ll look into this neurolinguistic programming idea and see if it helps at all. It would be awesome to not be biting my nails anymore. Hopefully it works – thanks for the write-up.

    • HI, Thanks for your candid reply. I’d love the opportunity to help you find more useful things to do with your energy. I’ve helped many people who were long time nail biters stop completely, Please feel free to look at my website and schedule a complimentary consultaion. howtostopbitingnails.com I work (remotely) with people all over the country so as long as you have a computer, distance is not an issue.
      Tsgoyna Tanzman, MA/CCC
      Master Practitioner of NLP.

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