Nail-Biters: The Who, What, When, Where, and Whys of a Common Anxiety-Driven Habit

“It was a nail-biter.”

We’ve all heard, and probably used, this expression, to describe a movie thriller, or an endless wait for a desired result, or, dare we say, our recent presidential election’s outcome.


When you don’t know what’s about to happen, but are anxiously enmeshed in how it plays out, you have a “nail-biter.” And that’s okay, because the unknown is part of existence. But it doesn’t mean you have to literally bite your nails, which leaves bloodied and unattractive hands at best, and can lead to infection, at worst.

What causes people to bite their own nails, anyway? Well, in one research study of just under 50 candidates, those participating were given a survey at the start that tested life-handling capabilities, things like controlling their own emotional balance and how well they mapped out their work and life “to do” lists.

Guess how the nail-biters – about 50 percent of the study – rated as far as personality traits? You probably won’t be overly surprised to learn that most were fussily perfectionistic, expecting every moment of their existence to go without a hitch. Because they are naturally hard workers in the cause of these goals, any break in their frenzied schedule can lead to nail-biting, but the researchers had an interesting take on what’s at the core of this problem.


“Individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic . . . they are unable to relax and to perform tasks at a normal pace. They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals,” said study organizer DR. Kieron O’Connor.

What can you do to break the habit, if the above describes you to a tee?

One website that focuses on “all things nails,” called, has a few suggestions.
They recommend a form of aversion therapy by using polish that intentionally tastes bad. You can also put a cuticle or nail trimmer in your bag and use it if anything is hanging between your nails, which might cause you to want to bite them in an effort to rip it off.


How about some pretty press-on nails or appliqued nail art? Investing in coverings for your own nails may deter you from getting to them easily. Finally, the site recommends having a way to keep your hands busy when you get restless, bored, or anxious. One idea is to take a larger coin, such as a quarter, and riffle it through your fingers like a poker player. You could say it’s a kind of new take on worry beads, which might also help, by the way.

Finally, the site suggests regular daily exercise, and even taking time out to meditate, as ways to calm yourself down. Will these suggestions help you?

That’s a nail-biter, for sure.


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