What nail biting really means, according to psychology

What nail biting really means, according to psychology

Credit:  BBC

Credit: BBC

Onychophagia is the medical term for the habit of nail biting. It is classified as a compulsive habit where the person cannot control the action or the urge to bite their nails. While some might consider it just a “bad habit,” onychophagia is considered an impulsive control disorder, and should be taken into consideration, especially when the habit reaches a high level of severity. Nail biting can harm both the physical and emotional state of a person.


Physically, the damage nail biting can cause is considerable. As a start, the appearance of the hands is going to be pretty bad and unhygienic.

The nails are going to look red and sore, without forgetting to mention the pain and blood this habit will generate. In fact, the skin around the nails of a nail-biter is subject to being infected more easily than someone who does not bite their nails.

It is important to consider the bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted to the mouth and face through nail biting.

Regardless of the pain it causes, the mere fact of generating bad looking fingers can lead to having stress and anxiety when it comes to being in public. Nail-biters feel embarrassed of their own hands, and are aware of how disturbing it is to look at.


There is a lack of research when it comes to studying the exact causes and explanations for onychophagia.

But Dr. Kieron O’Connor, professor of psychiatry at The University of Montreal, said: “We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform a task at a ‘normal pace.’ They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom.”

Therefore, stress, boredom and loneliness can be considered some of the prompting factors of onychophagia.

Nail-biters tend to start this habit as a reaction to a stressful situation or a problem that occurred, but soon enough, it becomes unconscious and invades their routines without them realizing it, while watching television or reading. Usually, nail biting starts developing through teenage years, where the teenager is going through new experiences and emotions.

Psychology's viewpoint

From a psychological point of view, Freud linked this disorder to a disturbance that might have occurred during the oral stage. It can be explained as a way of auto-mutilation, a self-destructive activity and an inward turned hostility. Some researches linked it to an impaired mother-child relationship, which validates the Freudian theory.

When it comes to treating this ‘bad habit’ or disorder, people start by using bitter-tasting nail polish to restrain themselves from biting their nails.


Behavioral therapy is considered to be relatively effective in this case. It starts with helping the person figure out what are the situations that trigger nail-biting and eventually, try to create another habit or activity to avoid and eliminate their compulsive habit.

Most importantly, it is only with the person’s cooperation and decision to stop that change and improvement are possible.

Cover credit: Maxcure Hospitals

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