When we think of people who bite their nails, we probably imagine that they’re anxious people, maybe even someone who has been medically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. This is just an assumption, of course, based on the impression many of us perceive when we see a nail-biter. To the outside observer, the action seems like a nervous tic that you’d see someone do when they’re overwhelmed.
But science has shown us that there’s a lot more to this frowned upon bad habit. One particular trait has been recently linked to nail-biters, one that you might not be expecting.
Biting your nails isn’t something particularly dangerous to your health. Yes, if bites are left open and untreated they could contract infections, but ultimately it’s the social stress that makes nail-biting seem “bad”. Studies have found that 20-30% of the population, mainly women, chronically bite their nails. This can cause negative self-esteem issues and nervousness, as biters often are embarrassed to shake hands or display their nails in any way.
Needless to say, the habit is addictive and very difficult to stop. The sensation of biting nails has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system, making it a physical outlet for mental anxiety. So in a way, our original impression of nail-biters is correct; they tend to be nervous people who suffer from anxiety or a stressful lifestyle, and the habit calms them down. But this is only part of what drives nail-biters.
The list of why people bite is a long one, and it naturally varies from case to case. It can be a learned habit from a parent or sibling, a means of staying alert when bored, something that’s genetically inherited, or even a way of causing self-harm. And the most recent drive to be added? The need to be perfect.
That’s right, according to a study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, nail-biting may indicate that someone is a perfectionist. It’s thought that biting is a frustrated reaction to an imperfection, i.e. a broken or chipped nail, in this case.
Perfectionists are people who like to go, go, go, and obviously have a drive to get things done their way. So when things aren’t going as planned (another huge component of perfectionists, over-planning EVERYTHING) or they’re bored, maybe because of an idling project, they tend to get frustrated and look for relief. And that’s where anxious habits that give your nervous system relief come into play – in this case, that’s our nail biting.
“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform tasks at a normal pace,” Dr. O’Connor says in the research. “They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals.”
So nail biters, come to terms with the fact that you might be perfectionists, whether you know it or not. This is a hard habit to kick, but there are ways to stop nail-biting urges in their tracks, which is good for your mental and physical well-being. And until you do get control over the tic, try expressing your frustration in a different way; take up kickboxing, write down all the things you’re annoyed about, or even distract your hands and mind with coloring or a crossword puzzle.
Like anything, it’s a work in progress. If it feels like it’s really getting out of control, never be ashamed to seek therapy or a consultation with a board certified dermatologist. If you have any experience with nail-biting or words of wisdom to impart, make sure to share them in the comments section below.