It could be an intense football game, with both teams tied as the clock winds down. Television cameras pan over the audience, showing members of the crowd looking anxious. “It’s a real nail-biter,” the commentator says, as the teams set up for their next play.
It might also be a scary movie or a thriller, with each scene bringing an unexpected surprise. Or it could even be the fear of the unknown and confusion in your own personal life. We call those events “nail-biters,” too – but are stressful conditions really the cause of you chewing your own talons?
And such questions have made the nail-biting debate a long-raging one. Arguably one of the most talked-about points, though, is whether or not nail biting is a healthy habit. Another common query, meanwhile, is how those who constantly chew their nails can stop doing so.
Well, many experts agree that biting your nails is not great for your health, at least, with the most obvious reason being that our hands often touch unclean surfaces. Indeed, no matter how often you wash your hands, they can still transfer bacteria to your mouth. And as a result, the chances that you’ll catch a cold or other infection may increase.
Furthermore, if you bite too often, you can cause an infection of the skin surrounding your nails, too. Those with the habit know only too well how painful this can be: the skin turns red, swells and then just plain hurts.
And it gets worse. Have you ever bitten a nail near to a wart on your finger, for instance? Well, most people don’t realize that this increases the chances of warts spreading to other parts of your hand. Indeed, as Mayo Clinic dermatologist Dr. Rochelle Torgerson told The Huffington Post in 2014, “The more open skin you have, the more you’re going to spread [the virus that can lead to warts].”
In addition, nail-biting can cause lasting damage to the health and appearance of your nails. Any infection or inflammation to the skin in that area, in fact, can lead to nails with bumps or ridges. So, if you’ve ever wondered where those little lines came from, that may be the reason.
Yet despite all of these potential side effects, many people continue to chew their nails. And for a long time, there has been a widely accepted explanation for doing so: stress. Specifically, doctors such as Torgerson believe that the habit is a way to channel or reduce one’s anxiety.
However, new research points to a different – and surprising – explanation for this particular bad habit. And it’s down to the fact that one in 20 people have body-focused repetitive disorders – an umbrella term under which nail biting falls. Other behaviors, such as picking skin or pulling hair, are also considered to be disorders of this kind.
However, these habits aren’t linked entirely to stress. In fact, they’re more closely related to tic disorders – sudden muscle movements that are difficult to control. Such repetitive behavior is also distantly aligned with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which encompasses uncontrollable behaviors and thoughts. For example, a person with OCD might be overcome with fears of germs and sickness and so wash their hands multiple times in a row.
So, with these connections in mind, researchers decided to explore the reasons why people bite their nails. They also thought it likely that body-focused repetitive disorders were linked to something deeper than stress, since the behaviors are so hard to control.
They started, then, by surveying 48 participants, 24 of whom had body-focused repetitive disorders. And, intriguingly, the researchers subsequently found that those in the nail-biting group scored as “organizational perfectionists” in the survey. This means that they tend to overthink, over-plan and work too hard; they also frequently become irritated with low activity levels.
Taking into account this information, scientists then put their subjects into situations engineered to elicit four different emotions: stress, relaxation, frustration and boredom. In particular, they wanted to see how each emotion caused those with body-focused behavior disorders to react.
So, those in charge of the study had their subjects watch a movie of a plane crash in order to generate stress. For relaxation, meanwhile, soothing footage of waves was played. Participants were then left in an empty room in order to make them feel bored. Then the researchers gave each subject an extra-hard puzzle; they told the individuals it was an easy puzzle, though, just to create feelings of frustration.
And in each situation, the scientists sat back and observed how the subjects reacted. Moreover, they found that those with body-focused behavior disorders engaged in nail biting – or other repetitive disorders like hair pulling or skin picking – in every scenario except the relaxing one.
As a result, the scientists deduced that stress is not the only cause for people to start biting their nails. Indeed, boredom and frustration can be a trigger for people to start doing so, too.
What’s more, the researchers findings’ didn’t end there, either. They further theorized, for example, that because these habits temporarily reduce boredom and frustration, they might be a side effect of perfectionism. Yes, those who bite their nails might all be perfectionists deep down.
And this hypothesis falls in line with other research into habitual scratching and biting. Indeed, previous studies have showed that the actions made perfectionists feel better because they were doing something, rather than sitting around and doing nothing at all.
Of course, after partaking in their habits of choice, often people subsequently feel embarrassed or pained. And because it isn’t well known that these behaviors may be caused by an underlying perfectionism, many attribute them to stress and weak willpower. Consequently, this causes more frustration, which only serves to reinforce the habits.
However, researchers hope that their findings will help those who suffer from such disorders – by finding the right therapy, say, to combat them. Indeed, it seems as if learning other ways to deal with tension – whether it’s caused by stress, boredom or dissatisfaction – is the key to letting go of nervous habits and letting those beautiful nails grow.