How I Quit Biting My Nails – Breaking a 27 Year Habit

Today is a very significant anniversary for me. It’s been one year since I stopped biting my nails.

To put this in perspective, I began biting my nails when I was five years old. I nibbled my way through every year of school and more than ten years of being in the workforce. Then on November 16, 2012, I hit a low point and decided enough was enough. I was going to quit, and quit for good.

My low point looked like this (warning–graphic images ahead):

IMG_1506IMG_1507

I call this my low point because I was biting my nails when there was practically nothing left and yet I still wanted to bite. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d allowed the habit to get this extreme and wanted to put a stop to things before it got even more disgusting.

I’d tried to quit several times in the past, using techniques like this:

  • Painting my nails with clear polish that tasted bad
  • Painting my nails with any polish, to cover them up (which was not great because I was drawing attention to super short nails I was ashamed of)
  • Reminding myself of how filthy fingernails get and no matter how many times I washed my hands I was likely depositing that filth directly into my mouth
  • Reminding myself how much better my nails look when they exist, as opposed to being stubs
  • Reminding myself that the biting was likely wearing away my tooth enamel and I didn’t want to do any more damage to my teeth than what’s already been done. (My dentist asked if I ate a lot of citrus or threw up a lot because of the lack of enamel on my teeth. I rarely throw up and I eat a reasonable amount of citrus so I’m sure the nail-biting is the culprit.)

I never lasted more than a month. Once my nails got long enough that I could feel them tapping things I became constantly reminded that they were there and found the urge to bite overwhelming. I’m not a smoker but the pull I felt to do the thing I didn’t want to reminded me of that type of addiction. I was powerless.

I knew if I wanted this change to last I couldn’t just hope things would work out differently than in the past; I’d have to make the choice to do things differently than I did before and stick to it. So I did some reading online and found an article where someone suggested taking photos of your nails each week you don’t bite. That way you’ll have a clear representation of your progress that will encourage you to stick with it. As an accountant and a runner I love measurable things, so I decided to do this.

I decided to quit biting during the most stressful time of the year. Right before Thanksgiving is a really busy time for me at work and it continues until after Christmas. We’re all trying to get the same amount of work done in less time due to the holidays. Plus, holiday stress! Shopping and fighting traffic, ugh. But I decided to quit then anyway, knowing if I could get through the toughest part of the year, the rest of the time wouldn’t seem so hard. Kind of like how I get through hills while running–conquer the hard part, then enjoy the flatness. I could have quit as a New Year’s Resolution. But why? There’s no reason to postpone improving yourself to some arbitrary date. Do it now.

Early on, it was hard. I was used to biting in a variety of situations and having that taken away from me after 27 years was a major transition. (I haven’t done anything else in life for 27 years!) In keeping with my “do things differently to make the change last” philosophy, I decided to think about why I was wanting to bite when I felt the urge, rather than just tell myself no. Here’s what I came up with:

Anxiety

Anxiety is a pretty common reason people bite their nails. For those times I determined anxiety was the reason for the urge, I took a moment to relax and focus on my breathing (again, like running). I acknowledged the anxiety and tried to pinpoint the reason for it. If there was a reason for it, I tried to be rational with myself about it–this is something that will pass soon (i.e., holiday stress), this is something I’ve successfully dealt with before, this is something that feels like a big deal now but isn’t when compared to all possible problems in the world. Sometimes I wasn’t sure of a reason for the anxiety, but either way, as I thought about it I took slow, deep breaths instead of biting my nails. Eventually I would feel myself calming down and the urge would pass.

Boredom

A lot of times I was just bored and stuck my hand in my mouth as something to do to pass the time. I’ve done this with food too; also not a great solution for boredom. When I recognized boredom as the reason for wanting to bite, I told myself “Nora, you are bored. You need to find something else to do with your time because biting your nails is not an acceptable way to deal with this.” I think just calling out the boredom for what it is helped because then I could focus on what I wanted to use my time for and do that rather than mindlessly bite my nails.

Hunger

I wasn’t using my nails as a food source but I do think that sometimes when I was hungry I just wanted something to chew on, and my nails became an easy target since they’re always there. If I determined I was hungry, I’d eat. When I’m at work I’m eating every couple of hours, but stuff like yogurt, carrots, celery, fruit, etc. So it was pretty easy to substitute a carrot for a fingernail.

Thirst

That said, a lot of times I think I’m hungry but I am actually just thirsty. I drink water all day and have plenty before I begin eating at any point to make sure I’m addressing the right need. And it turned out a lot of times taking drinks of water worked as an alternative to nail-biting.

I was just used to it

Like I said, I bit my nails longer than I did anything else in life. It became part of my identity and removing that part of me took some adjustment. A lot of times I had to tell myself “you’re used to biting your nails, but you’re going to become used to not biting them as well”. It was hard, but it’s supposed to feel hard. That’s how you know you’re changing.

(continue to page 2 for photos of my progress and how I’m doing today)

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30 responses to “How I Quit Biting My Nails – Breaking a 27 Year Habit

  1. I’m so proud of you. It takes guys to admit to stuff like this and share with world. You probably gave someone else hope on a habit they want to break. Your methods could be used for anything.

  2. Looking at that picture if your nails- my nails look like that now and have looked like that since as far as I can remember. I always told myself I’m a calm guy because I keep nervous habits. I used to chew my pen caps in school.
    I don’t know how you quit but congratulations. Maybe someday I can give up this filthy habit. It drains you mentally, sometimes!

    • It is a draining habit! For me it was about replacing the bad habit with something else, like deep breathing. (And taking about ten attempts to quit.) I feel so much better about myself now.

  3. Wow, this is great! So many insights into yourself and the process of quitting an addiction and establishing new habits. Oh–and Congratulations!!!

  4. Congratulations! I’m not a nail biter but I’m still very happy for you. Happy Nailiversary!

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  6. Congratulations!! Great idea to take pics along the way. What’s amazing to see is all the skin regrowing around the nail. I’ve been biting my nails every since I can remember…..I’m 44 now. I’m trying to quit. Haven’t bitten in over a week. Was actually able to clip a few. : ) I have a desk job, so I find when I’m trying to figure something out I immediately start biting……..then reprimand myself under my breath. Anyway, wish me luck.
    Thanks for the post.

    • I also have a desk job and did the same thing. I really had to train myself to let that urge be a reminder to stop myself rather than mindlessly bite away as I thought about work.
      The photos really do remind me how much healthier my fingers are in general now–skin included, like you said.
      Congrats on one week! I’m still not biting and very happy about it.

  7. I just had to comment to tell you thank you so much for this article! I’ve been biting since I was 9, but before that I always picked my nails, so I’ve never really had nice nails. I stopped a couple years ago and managed to stop for three months but had a massive anxiety attack, bit all my pretty nails down to the quick, and after that, I was so depressed about my bitten nails and my lost progress that I gave up. It was so embarrassing to have torn and tattered nails. I was a receptionist so people saw my badly bitten nails as I wrote out their receipts and appointment cards and they were looking at my hands holding their bills as I handled their money transactions. I couldn’t even pick up their appointment cards! I’d have to slide them to the edge of the table to pick them up because my nails were too short to do it. Plus I have a four year old and I don’t want her to start the habit. She’ll see me biting and will likely do it too. Right now her nails are prettier than mine! Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I bit my nails down to the quick. They were so sore. I went to Costco that afternoon and the cashier was watching me write my check for my groceries and I knew she could see my nails. I saw her expression out of the corner of my eye. It may have been all in my mind but she really did look disgusted. When I got home that day, I decided that was my last “hurrah” for nail biting (kind of like the smoker’s last cigarette, where he or she makes sure it’s their best smoke ever before they quit) and now I am on day 15 of not biting them. I’m pretty excited because now I’m starting to get just barely some white tips. I have had to physically take my hands out of my mouth and sit on them. A couple times I have outright yelled “No.” I bite for the same reasons you listed: anxiety, boredom, I was just used to doing it, and I guess I’ll add a reason: I just never thought I could quit, so I didn’t bother to try. Your article really gave me some encouragement. It’s great to know someone out there was in this exact same boat as I am in now (your early pictures of your nails to the quick looked exactly like mine did), and your nails look amazing. Instead of dwelling on the stubs I have, I’m now looking forward to my nails looking like yours do now. Well done, congratulations on your lovely nails. ~History Geek

    • Thanks for the lovely comments! I know what you mean about not being able to pick up things…that was one of the most annoying parts of having no nails. But the public embarrassment was worse. Congrats on day 15! I’m still not biting but recently have begun picking at them/tearing them instead of using nail clippers. I think that’s another way the anxiety is coming through so I’m going to try to work on not doing that. It’s always a process!

    • I totally get it and appreciate hearing stories of people in similar situations. I see people gawking at my nails when I do transactions when I pay for things and I, too, can’t pick up credit cards off the counter nor coins off of the floor if they fall. How embarrassing. I wear fake nails to cover mine but find that I will bite those off too, picking at them until they peel off. My teeth are ready to break off lol. I’m 37 and not sure how to quit! But the embarrassment factor is getting to me. Thanks for sharing and I appreciate this person’s article and photos too. Nice to see someone in my position. 🙂

      • It is terribly embarrassing, isn’t it? The effect on teeth is definitely something I experienced as well. My teeth are on the small side and I think part of the reason is years of biting.

  8. congratulations I have nails like your were !and have tried everything to stop, I even bite my toenails, well, pick at them and then bite

  9. You obviously struck a chord with a lot of people with this post! Good job quitting, and sharing!

  10. How are they now can we see some new pics 🙂

    • Well, they are not as short as they were when I was a hard core biter, but I have to admit I have fallen a bit back into my old habits–a nibble here and there. No photos yet but I have thought about doing a new post about how hard to quit for good.

      • Thanks so much for this post. It is nice to see that someone had somewhat similar nails to me. Mine are a tad shorter and more embarrassing. I work with kids who see my nails all the time and if if they are not covered up with my fake nails, the kids will gasp or gawk and it is totally embarrasing. Especially when I drop money at the grocery store and can’t pick up the coins. Do I leave them on the floor or act like I didn’t notice or do I bend down and grasp at them unsuccessfully? So many disadvantages but so hard to quit. I bite my press-on nails even. What a bad habit. I’m 37 now and have not been able to quit yet. :(. Thanks for sharing your success story!

  11. Wow, your no-nail-biting journey is very inspiring! Congratulations! 🙂

    I’m a nail-biter myself, or should I say ‘was’ because I’ve not been biting my nails for eight days (yay!). My bitten nails were just like yours were—bitten to the quick with frayed eponychium/cuticles (yikes!).

    I’m impressed with your nail-growing progress and was wondering if you had ever treated your nails during that time (using cuticle oil, pushing back eponychium/cuticles, etc.). My eponychium isn’t looking good so I’m kinda worried if I should do anything to it, or leave it as it is and let it heal naturally. Please enlighten. Thank you! 🙂

    • I didn’t treat my nails with anything but that’s just because I didn’t know about options to treat them, so maybe that would have been helpful. When I first tried to quit it was November and my skin gets really dry and cracking in the winter. It naturally improves when we transition to spring, so I think that contributed to my hands looking better overall. But probably also the fact I wasn’t getting my acidic saliva all over them anymore. 🙂
      Good luck, I hope you can find tactics that work for you!

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  13. Thanks for this! I was a really, really bad nail biter for over 20 years. I stopped back in September…well, I didn’t stop but I paid for months of acrylics till they grew out. I was so tired of being embarrassed, being self-conscious, and lacking confidence because of them. Now my nails are so long I can see them from over the tops of my fingers when I turn my hand around! It still amazes me that I’ve stopped; I never thought I could because it was such a strong impulse. For anyone struggling with breaking the habit, I’d say ACRYLICS. I personally hate them aesthetically, they’re expensive to keep up unless you have a great salon, it’s embarrassing to even go in and get them in the first place, and they make typing a pain in the ass, but it worked for me. I kept them on and kept filling them and replacing broken ones from about September to December or January (that’s how short and bad my nails were). After that, they grew out enough that I started getting manicures and painting my nails. I have the urge to bite sometimes but mostly when there’s a snag somewhere, so I keep the nails polished and keep a file and nail glue handy to get rid of any snags and tears. It is all so worth it to have one less thing to worry constantly about and affect your self-esteem. Everyone who struggles with this….you can do it if I can.

    • I’ve never heard of that but it sounds like a good strategy. I agree, once you have nails you’ve got to use a nail file to keep them even instead of biting. I’ve been biting snags recently.

  14. i bite my nails, but was it just will power that made you stop??? xx

    • I have no idea. I’ve actually had a really stressful week and relapsed. Now that my nails and short and gross I’m motivated to stop again. I try to tell myself, just slow down, breathe, don’t shove your fingers in your mouth as a coping mechanism. It’s hard though.

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