Maybe you’ve been a nail biter for years. Or you have a friend or relative who tends to snack on their digits. Sure, it’s not something you (or they) are proud of, but you’ve probably never viewed it as a full-fledged disorder. The American Psychiatric Association—which publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—is about to change your nail-biting outlook.
The DSM will soon label nail biting—currently listed as “not otherwise classified,” a.k.a. not a big deal—as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is most-commonly characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). It’s important to note that only certain types of nail biters—the extreme cases—fit into this category. “As with hair pulling and skin picking, nail biting isn’t a disorder unless it is impairing, distressing, and meets a certain clinical level of severity,” says Carol Mathews, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco. “That is not the vast majority of nail bitters,” she says. “It is a very small minority of people.”
What counts as clinical severity? “They have bitten so much that they are getting infections,” Mathews says. “There is physical damage that is impairing their ability to use their hands.”
Okay, let’s say your case doesn’t quite warrant an OCD label: That doesn’t mean you get a free, all-you-can-bite pass. It’s still gross. Plus, it’s unhealthy.
Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D., a dermatologist with the Mayo Clinic, says nail biting doesn’t come without risk. It can, “contribute to skin infection, aggravate existing conditions of the nail bed, and increase the risk of colds and other infections by encouraging the spread of germs from the nails and fingers to the lips and mouth.”
Four simple ways to ditch the disorder for good:
1. Become aware of mindless munching
You know how sometimes the entire bag of Cheetos® “disappears” while you’re watching TV? The same thing happens when you chew your nails. The key to conquering the brainless bite: You need to track the situation. Ask your friends and family to stand watch, and take note of every time you wind up with your fingers in your mouth. If you’re biting out of boredom, give yourself a task: Do your laundry (you have to do it anyway, right?), squeeze a stress ball, braid your hair, etc.
2. Keep your nails neatly trimmed or manicured
When your nails are beautifully painted or already trimmed, you’re less likely to feel the urge to bite. “For the occasional nail biter, a mild imperfection in the nail may be the culprit,” Mathews says. This is a great excuse to spring for a mani! Don’t have the cash?
3. Make your digits taste disgusting
Bring out some extra reinforcement with a product like Sally Supernail Professional’s Bite No More™, which is formulated to prevent casual biting of the nails by producing a mild, unpleasant taste to remind you not to bite.
4. Find healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety
Paying the bills, meeting work deadlines, keeping a stable relationship—your life is most likely packed with stress, and, since you’ve outgrown your childhood pacifier, you may tend to rip away your cuticles as a way to cope. Need new ways to relax?
Outsmart Your Bad Habits
Get this: 45 percent of the decisions we make daily are based on habit. That’s a tough number to swallow, considering most of us have a ton of habits we’d like to change, or new ones we’d like to start up. The good news is that scientists have discovered a three-step loop of cues, routines, and rewards that can successfully guide us through unlocking those ingrained patterns and starting new ones. We talked to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, to learn how.
So how do habits start? The brain converts certain actions into automatic routines because they require less energy (that is, we get to power down and it keeps us from being in constant overdrive). While it’s helpful when we’re doing things like driving, it’s also what makes old habits (and counter-productive ones) difficult to change.
Figure out what it is you’re actually craving, or the reward you’re seeking. Say you go hunting for office candy every afternoon around 4 pm. What is it you actually want? A quick hit of energy? Social time with your colleagues? When the urge hits, try four different things (Monday grab an apple, Tuesday go outside for a walk, Wednesday gossip with your coworkers, etc.). 15 minutes after the action, ask yourself, ‘Do I still have the urge?’ You should be able determine the true “craving” within a week.
Isolate the trigger that’s setting off the habit. What cues you to crave candy? Most fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, or what you were doing immediately before the behavior. So when the urge hits to patrol for loose jellybeans, write down where you are, the time, your emotional state, who else is around, and what you were doing right before you felt the hankering. Do it four days in a row and you’ll find a pattern. The answer might be that you’re programmed at 3:30 pm on the dot to want something.
Create a plan for changing the habit. Once you’ve figured out your habit loop (the reward driving your behavior and the cue triggering it) you can re-engineer it and shift the behavior. It’s much easier to take advantage of an existing habit when building a new routine, so piggyback on something you’re already doing. If a quick hit of energy is the reward you’re seeking, and the cue is 3:30 in the afternoon, write a plan such as “Every day at 3:30 I’ll go outside and walk around the block.” Set an alarm so that you remember, and after a few weeks, it won’t feel like a routine.
Try This Chocolate Trick
Duhigg says you’ll have much more success establishing a habit if you give yourself a reward you actually enjoy. “The number one way to start an exercise habit is to give yourself a piece of chocolate after the workout,” he says. If you’re just starting out, your brain hasn’t learned to enjoy your endorphins, the natural reward for exercise, yet. But you can trick your brain into associating a genuine reward with that cue and routine. Within two weeks, Duhigg says you won’t want the chocolate anymore.