woman biting nails
Leah Berenson
Leah Berenson
April 10, 2024 ·  5 min read

The Psychology Behind Nail Biting

People may pick at or chew a loose or chipped strand of their nails from time to time. In contrast, even more, people make that a frequent habit. While it’s an annoying and seemingly unhygienic habit there may be more to it. It turns out nail biting is actually a medical condition.

Complexities of Nail Biting

The behavior or habit of nail biting is incredibly common. So much so popular belief about the cause is actually misguided. Most people assume it’s simply a sign of boredom. Although that is to some extent true, there are actually many reasons for the behavior, and a key factor is regarding mental health.

The medical term for frequent nail biting is onychophagia. Considered pathological grooming, the behavior has often been associated with several forms of OCD and can include biting toenails. Despite being a sign of a mental health condition, nail biting can also cause certain mental health conditions. Other risks include damaged cuticles, which can result in bacterial infections and dental problems such as severe enamel loss.

Causes and Behaviors

More recently, researchers have put more time into understanding the effects of nail biting and what may happen if the condition goes untreated. Some mental health conditions, including ADHD and separation anxiety, can cause nail biting as a form of self-soothing. Or, in more extreme cases, major depressive disorder, enuresis, and pervasive developmental disorder. Alternatively, nail biting can be the cause of mental health disorders like low self-esteem or feeling ashamed.

Another common reason someone might develop the habit is being prone to anxiety or being driven to perfection. Nail biting can seemingly calm the nervous system. Being emotional may also spark a desire to partake, particularly in the midst of a highly stressful or traumatic situation. Alternatively, children may also pick up the habit as a form of mirroring behaviors because they’ve seen nail biting from adults or other kids. Furthermore, some studies have shown that genetics plays a role meaning some children develop the habit from their parents and grandparents, but not always as a form of mirroring behavior.

Nail Biting Demographic

Sadly, nail biting is most prevalent in teens, children, and young adults, with nearly half victim to the seemingly harmless, albeit gross, habit. In most cases, people kick the habit before reaching adulthood. However, 1 in 3 adults have the characteristics of at least one pathological grooming behavior, which can also include trichotillomania and dermatillomania. Hair pulling and skin picking, respectively.

While there are several classifications for nail biting, some of the most common include the following:

  • People who don’t even realize they’re nail biting.
  • People who do so in an attempt to control anger or aggression.
  • Being on the OCD spectrum. Or other related disorders, including emotional or behavioral.
  • Pathological
  • Non-Pathological

Read: How to say sorry and give a good apology, according to research.

Tips to Prevent Nail Biting

Despite being an incredibly common habit, that some people do without even taking note, there are several solutions. Luckily, the possible prevention tips are widely ranged. Therefore, at least one method should be suitable for everyone.

Firstly, bring awareness.

Becoming aware of a problem or condition, be it personal or external, is often the first step in making a change for the better. When people are well informed, they can make educated decisions that will ultimately result in greater success. One possible aspect to self-education is to dive deep into the possible bacteria that could be lying beneath the surface.

Additionally, being aware of the risks and problems associated with the habit can also help to bring your awareness inward. Giving you a chance to assess what triggers the behavior. Further working through mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression.

Next, Keep Them Short

Keeping nails trimmed and filed will ultimately prevent someone from having sharp edges, chipped nails, or nails long enough to chew. Keeping them short will help break the habit of nail biting, so long as it doesn’t result in picking at the skin and cuticle around the nail bed.

Maintain Pretty Nails

Keeping nails short is a great step in the right direction. However, you can take that step a little further by ensuring your nails are well maintained. Keeping nails polished, colorful, and or shiny will be a subtle reminder of the effort and money that went into keeping well-manicured nails.

Change the Taste

Maintained nails are a great reminder not to chew on them. However, some people don’t notice when their fingers are in their mouths. Therefore, a less subtle reminder may be necessary. In this case, a bitter or gross tasting polish or lotion may be the solution. When someone mindlessly chews on their nails, they’re bound to get a wake up when those nails now have a strong and bitter taste.

Reward Progress

It’s not uncommon when trying to quit a bad habit, eat better, or live a cleaner life, that people may reward themselves for their progress. As silly as it may seem, doing this throughout the process of trying to stop nail biting, may help keep you motivated and excited to continue to see progress.

It’s always important to consult with a medical professional because while the internet does have some helpful hints, they’re typically generalizations. Meaning, most online info can help to point someone in the right direction. Moreover, without a face-to-face assessment or tests run by your doctor, familiar with your medical history, it’s possible and even highly likely to misdiagnose oneself. In contrast, should you find yourself compulsively biting your nails, speak to a primary care provider or psychologist to better understand how this annoying and gross habit may actually be impacting your life.

Keep Reading: 15 Mindblowing Facts We Learnt Last Week


  1. The Psychology Behind Nail Biting.” News Medical. Dr. Nicola Williams, Ph.D
  2. 12 Expert-Backed Tips to Help You Stop Biting Your Nails. Huff Post Nicole Pajer. March 5, 2018.
  3. How to Stop Nail Biting. Very Well Health. Rebeca Schiller. January 12, 2022.