Anxiety and Nail Picking: I Can’t Stop Picking My Nails

Category: Mental Health
6 minute read.

Old habits die hard, and nail picking is not an exception.

Picking and biting your nails is not an uncommon behavior; in fact, nearly half of teens have been reported to do it. If you haven’t grown out of it, you’re a part of the 20-30% of the general population with the nail picking habit. And research shows that if your parents have the urge to pick, the chance that you do too increases by almost 4-fold.

This seemingly harmless and familiar behavior could have serious implications for your physical and mental health if left unchecked. Along with disfigured fingernails, it’s a major indicator of anxiety and underlying stress. Because of this, it is important to address both your anxiety and nail picking habit together.

Why Is Nail Picking Bad?

There’s a reason why you can’t stop picking your nails when you’re anxious. Body repetitive behavior can function as a coping mechanism that soothes the nervous system. It starts as an unconscious response to stressors, and eventually builds into a pattern that’s difficult to break.

Although it’s a common coping tool, it could be counterintuitive. It can lead to other health concerns such as:

  • Damage to your nails and surrounding skin
  • Bacterial infection in nail beds and your mouth
  • Gastrointestinal infections
  • Dental issues

This compulsive biting habit is also associated with psychological problems as well. As previously mentioned, it’s a common manifestation of anxiety. However, the behavior itself can lead to poor self-esteem and shame associated with the inability to control the behavior as well as judgment from peers.

Despite its implications, nail picking isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a disorder on its own. But studies show it may put you at risk of other types of body focused repetitive behavior disorders such as:

  • Skin picking (excoriation)
  • Teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Mouth biting, such as lips or cheeks (morsicatio buccarum)
  • Hair pulling (trichotillomania)


How to Stop Biting and Picking Skin Around Nails

1.     Recognizing Anxiety

The first step is to notice the signs of anxiety. Anxiety can manifest in multiple ways:

  • Feeling on-edge or restless
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Unexplained body pains such as headaches, stomachaches, etc.
  • Uncontrollable worry
  • Problems with falling or staying asleep

Being able to recognize your triggers and checking in with yourself is a great way to be mindful of your anxiety and nail picking. It can also be soothing to understand the reasons behind your behavior and gain back a sense of control over it.

2.     Develop Coping Strategies for Anxiety

It’s important for those with anxiety or stress to learn healthier strategies for handling their emotions.

Talking it out can be a great way to relieve stress and anxiousness. Reach out to loved ones who understand what you’re going through; a social support system is a must when tackling any mental health issue.

Practicing mindful breathing and meditation can also be grounding for some people. Studies show that after 20 sessions of diaphragmatic breathing, participants had a significant decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone linked to depression and anxiety.

If you’re looking for a more vigorous way to get out your restlessness, exercise or other physical activities can be a great way to distract yourself from anxious thoughts. Numerous studies indicate the effectiveness of exercise on anxiety reduction as it boosts anxiety-fighting neurochemicals such as serotonin and GABA.

Overall, everyone is different so choose a method that works best for you.

3.     Find Other Things to Do with Your Hands

Now that we’ve addressed the mental issue, let’s tackle the physical issue. Habits are automatic behaviors, so it’s best to find ways to either keep your hands busy or make them harder to access.

Keeping your fingers away from your mouth is easy when your fingers are too busy. A creative way to keep them occupied is by taking up hobbies such as knitting, painting, sculpting, pottery, etc. You can also invest in stress balls or fidget toys as another anxiety outlet.

For when you can’t explore your artistic or playful side, consider indulging in manicures. You can either make your nails too pretty to tear up or cover them in polish that’s too awful tasting to bite. If not, cutting your nails short can be helpful as well.

If all else fails, consider wearing gloves or nail covers like band aids. It might be a little unpractical or inconvenient, but out of sight is out of mind and you can’t bite what you can’t touch.


Knowing When to Reach Out for Help

Breaking habits is hard, and we all need a little help sometimes. Professional help may be the best route for you if:

  • You bite your nails till they bleed, are severely damaged, or in great discomfort/pain
  • You experience anxiety, guilt, shame, or obsessive thoughts about nail-biting that interfere with daily life functioning
  • You are not able to stop despite consequences and after attempting multiple strategies

Not only is there medical help for any resulting injuries you may have, but there are also multiple types of therapy that can help address both your anxiety and nail picking. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a popular choice for nail biters as it treats anxiety disorders and other psychological issues that may have led to the behavior. Habit reversal therapy is also an available option for those who are trying to tackle it.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for the help you need – it could be the first step towards a more fulfilling life. If you find yourself struggling with your anxiety, LAOP Treatment Center can provide the necessary resources and support to empower individuals suffering from mental illness. From therapy sessions to medication management, LAOP Treatment Center can develop a tailored plan that is right for you. Contact a member of our admissions team today.