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Nail-Biting 101: Breaking Down Onychophagy So You Don’t Have To

by Gina Farran |

So, you’ve heard of nail-biting and the nasty habit it can turn into, but what the heck is onychophagy? While it sounds like some exotic condition, it’s actually quite common and can be a sensitive subject for those who deal with it. Not entirely sure what we’re talking about? We’ve got you covered.


The Low Down:

Nail-biting, along with skin-picking and hair-pulling, can become a real problem when done too often. They’re grouped into what’s known as body-focused repetitive behaviours (BFRBs).

Essentially, onychophagy is different from regular nail-biting in the sense that it’s more of a disorder than a bad habit you can’t seem to kick. This is mainly because of its OCD-like nature. In fact, BFRBs are classified as “Other Specified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” and can cause a lot of damage to the nail itself and the surrounding skin.

If you’re an occasional nail-biter induced by random periods of stress, you probably have nothing to worry about. The condition becomes concerning when someone is unable to stop and experiences physical pain or damage often.


What Causes It?

As with many problems experienced today, onychophagy is often caused by severe stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, or even boredom. Unfortunately, it can often be mistaken for a less-severe nail-biting habit until it comes to the point of proper pain. Whether that’s from biting the nails until they bleed, biting the skin around the nails, or even going as far as picking or biting until there’s not much nail left. This can eventually cause the tissue surrounding the nail to become damaged and end up reducing your nail growth entirely.

The desire to resort to nail-biting when you’re feeling anxious or stressed can indicate a form of pleasure for you, something that brings you calm, even though it might not necessarily be the healthiest option. This is where onychophagy differs from OCD, as actions associated with OCD typically bring irritation or greater anxiety.

The adverse effects of this create a kind of cycle; there’s a trigger (anxiety, stress, depression, etc.), nail-biting worsens, stress and worry over the destroyed nails occur, and the person experiences physical pain. Then, the cycle begins again. Not fun for any person going through this.

Additionally, you open yourself up to greater possibilities of infections when biting your nails, so the consequences can become health-related, too, alongside the negative cosmetic and emotional effects.


What Can You Do?

If you’re struggling with onychophagy, don’t worry, there are solutions that can help you break the cycle.

One method to try is movement decoupling. As you can imagine, this basically means breaking up the unwanted habit and replacing it with something different and positive but similar in movement. For example, when you reach your nails to your mouth as if you’re going to start biting them, quickly change the final action to something like a good arm stretch or head massage. The movement replaces the urge for that nail-biting sensation with something less harmful.

You can also try keeping your nails manicured. Every time you think about biting your nails, you’ll be reminded of how gorgeous they look, and you may think twice about ruining them.


Take some time to focus on your wellbeing, too. Especially now, anxiety and stress are at an all-time high for many people. If possible, it’s worth making time to de-stress in the evening, so you don’t carry that into the following day.

It comes down to what you feel is best in terms of dealing with onychophagy or other habitual nail-biting. If it gets to a point where it’s affecting how you live, it might be worth looking into professional advice. It’s also good to be reminded that onychophagy is a disorder that can be overcome through practices, just like many others - it’s definitely something you can own and take control of with the right steps!