I’m an off and on nail biter and I’ve been one since I was a kid. I tend to go through phases where I grow my nails out, but then other times I find myself biting them. Usually when I’m growing them out, I keep them polished with a clear coat, and meticulously take care of them. But when I’m in a nail-biting ‘phase’, it’s usually due to stress and frustration.

Recently, I read Amy Staden’s piece on NPR chronicling her history of nail-biting. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has now classified nail-biting as “pathological grooming” and is in the same category as over compulsive disorder (OCD). Pathological grooming also includes doing things like skin picking or hair pulling. Each of these have been intensely studied by Carol Mathews, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco who specializes in pathological grooming.

“They are behaviors that stem from normal grooming — the kind of thing that most animals do and is evolutionarily adaptive, right?” says Mathews.

What distinguishes these behaviors in pathological groomers is that they go “haywire”, as she described it to NPR.

Instead of being triggered by, say, a hangnail, the pathological nail biter is triggered by driving, reading or feeling stressed out. “After a while, the behavior becomes untriggered,” says Mathews. “It becomes just an automatic behavior that has no relationship to external stimuli at all.”

Although nail-biting isn’t as extreme as skin picking or hair pulling, it can still cause embarrassment for some people in certain situations. Like Staden, when I used to in a biting phase, I was cautious when it comes to showing my nails, and learned how to keep them hidden when in public. But nowadays, since I do keep length to them, it isn’t much of an issue.

Mathews goes on to explain the signifying differences between OCD and pathological grooming. “In OCD, the compulsion is really unwanted,” says Mathews. Basically no one wants to wash their hands 50 times a day. But with pathological grooming patients, Mathews says it’s rewarding “It’s rewarding. It feels good. When you get the right nail, it feels good. It’s kind of a funny sense of reward, but it’s a reward,” she says.

For some people nail-biting is hard to overcome, but for others sometimes help is needed. Like Amy, I found the easiest way to overcome my nail-biting when I was in my teens was to wear acrylic nails. But eventually, I learned that they did more damage to my natural nail in the long run. Although nail-biting isn’t life threatening, there seems to be a more underlying cause than what people originally thought.

Have you or anyone you’ve known had a nail-biting habit? How was it resolved?

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  • C

    Seems like everything these days is considered a condition. Anyway, I have a really, really bad habit of biting/pinching off the skin inside of the front part of my mouth with my teeth. I do it when I’m nervous, stressed, upset, thinking hard or sometimes just because. I’ve tried to stop, and I did for a couple of months, but then when a stressful situation came around, I started back. I want to stop it completely, but it is a mindless habit and I don’t notice until I start doing it.