10 Steps To Quit Even The Worst Nail-Biting Habit Once And For All

I was a chronic nail-biter for most of my life, and I’m sharing the self-devised program that finally got me to stop.

I know that the xoVain house is fairly divided on gross beauty confessions: some like them, feeling that they humanise we lofty beauty writers, and some don’t like them, feeling that they peel the curtain of glamour back a little too far.

I can see both sides, and if I’ve never made a truly gross beauty habit confession, it’s because I don’t have any gross beauty habits.

At least, not anymore.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I used to be a nail-biter, but I don’t think I’ve ever leveled with you guys about how badly I bit them or for how long. The following story is a little gross, so if you don’t like that stuff, please avert your eyes.

I don’t remember when I started biting my nails, but I remember when it first became a problem. I was in first grade, and my nails had been bitten so far down past the quick that they started bleeding. I tried to hide what I had done, but I was leaving bloody fingerprints everywhere and couldn’t hold a pencil without crying. I was sent home from school.

You may think that this would be the low point in my nail-biting life. You would be wrong. In the years that followed, I kept biting my nails. I bit them until they bled, feeling disgusted and a little bit proud when they did. I shredded my cuticles and the flat face of my fingernails with my teeth. I bit around my nails, slowly progressing to biting the skin all the way down my fingers. I started to bite my knuckles until they were nothing but scabs and welts of pillowy-pink scar tissue. I bit and picked even in my sleep. More than once, my mother taped socks to my hands like I was a particularly tall and self-destructive newborn baby.

I did this until I was almost 22.

Those of you who looked away: you can look back now. It’s not gross anymore.

There are a million reasons why people bite their nails. For me, it was a way to deal with the tremendous anxiety that I didn’t know how to deal with, and the boredom that eats my brain alive if I’m running at anything less than full-throttle. It became automatic and compulsive: the second my mind was elsewhere, I would begin to bite. I hated it and loved it, but mostly I felt like I couldn’t stop.

It was horrible. It seriously disturbed friends, roommates and boyfriends. My mum had nightmares about me biting my fingers until blood ran down my arms.

When your “nasty habit” is giving your mother nightmares, it’s time to stop. I went cold turkey in July 2006. It was, without exaggeration, one of the hardest things I have ever done, and it’s still something that I’m proud of today. It’s been almost eight years since I’ve stopped biting, and my hands are looking pretty great now.

That’s my chronic nail-biting story, and I’ve shared it to give you guys a clear idea of what I was dealing with when I decided to stop.

Not everyone is in such bad shape as I was, but even if you’re not, nail biting is still a hard habit to break. It’s bound up with a lot of emotions, and there are about a million variables at play, which means there’s no magic recipe for stopping that will work for everybody.

What follows is the “program” I devised that finally helped me stop biting my nails, fingers and hands for good. This worked when everything else had failed, and if it worked for ME, it’s at least a good place to start for you guys.

Step 1: Commit

This is the hardest part, even though it sounds so deceptively easy: You have to commit to STOP BITING.

And I mean you have to really commit to it. Do this however you have to. Say it out loud to your partner, parents or friends. Write it down and stick it over your desk so you can see it every day. Put it on Twitter. Hold it silently in the still part of your soul. Whatever.

Your word is your bond, and this is a promise you’re making to yourself. Take it as seriously as if you were making a solemn vow to your very best friend. No half-measures here--you’re in or you’re out.

Step 2: STOP

I know how annoying it is to have someone say “The only way to stop biting your nails is to stop.” Boy, do I know. But even more annoyingly, it’s true.

You have to stop putting your fingers in your mouth, or idly picking at loose skin, or scratching the surfaces, or messing with your cuticles, or whatever your particular habit is. Seriously. JUST STOP.

I’m going to get into ways about how you can do this in a second, but right now we have to talk about something else equally important.

Step 3: Identify Triggers

You may already know what these are; you might bite out of boredom or when you’re not paying attention, when you’re especially stressed, when you’re unhappy, to vent your anxiety, etc. If you don’t have these identified, that’s OK! Pay attention and see if you can find a relationship between events or emotional states and how much you want to bite.

In most cases, this will become clear really quickly. Once you know what gets you started wanting to bite, you can more easily head it off at the pass.

Step 4: Cultivate Mindfulness

A lot of bad habits happen when we are zoned out--nail polish gets pulled off, dry skin on lips gets picked, and yes, nails get bitten. You need to fight against this. Be present and aware of what you’re doing all the time, or as much of the time as you can, so that you aren’t unconsciously engaging in nail-biting.

This was hard for me, because if I’m not 100% focused on what I’m doing, my brain is off dancing on a moonbeam and busying itself with a million different things. Learning to be present, rather than zoning out all the time, has been super-helpful. With my brain paying attention to the here and now, I couldn’t accidentally bite my nails anymore. I had to consciously do this gross, painful thing I had decided that I no longer wanted to do.

That made a difference.

Step 5: Behavioural Conditioning

I think that out of everything, this is the part of the plan that will vary the most from person to person. I’m going to tell you what worked for me, but please vary this as much as you like.

My biggest challenge, as I mentioned, was being being mindful. For a very long time, focusing on the now was an impossible task; I’d get anxious or bored and my hands would be at my mouth immediately.

I didn’t notice it was happening. While I learned to be more present--which took time--I needed to start NOTICING.

What worked for me was to get a very tight elastic hairband and put it around my wrist. The second I noticed my fingers going to my mouth, I would snap it. Not incredibly hard--you don’t want to wound yourself--but enough to catch my attention. As soon as I’d snap it, I would tell myself “I really do not need to bite my hands right now.” And then I’d sit on them, or draw something, or go for a walk. Really anything that didn’t involve anxiously or idly gnawing.

Something else that worked for me when the hair tie wasn’t enough (or I didn’t catch it in time), was some mild public embarrassment. I was quite sensitive to “making scenes” during this time of my life, so if my fingers still found their way to my mouth, I would literally slap my hand and yell at myself. “No! Stop it!” usually worked.

I probably looked bizarre. That was the point. I was replacing the relief of nail-biting with the embarrassment of a bunch of people staring at me, confused and slightly scared. I never let myself off the hook, either; after all, I had committed. I’d smack my hands and scold myself in the middle of conversations, in crowds, even in class a couple times. I hated it SO MUCH, which was the whole point. Making that kind of scene wasn’t worth biting my nails for.

For a long time, I could not stand the feeling of my nails having any white free edge. The feeling grossed me out, and I wanted to bite it off SO BADLY. I found that keeping a nail file in my bag was invaluable to fighting this feeling. I’d whip it out and shape my nails instead of chewing at them, which was something I learned to like doing. If you can replace a negative habit with a more positive one, you should definitely do it. I still find filing my nails to be a very relaxing, calming experience.

Step 6: Start to Fix Underlying Causes

Remember those triggers? Yeah, you gotta deal with that, otherwise another bad habit is just gonna replace the one you’re trying to get rid of. Whether this is therapy, medication, yoga, meditation, competitive paper airplane folding, whatever--get into it and rout it out.

I’m a much happier person now that I don’t let my anxiety do the driving anymore, and although I still hate boredom, I’m learning to relax. I’m also far less compulsive. I want the same thing for you guys, whatever the issue is. Happy and healthy forever!

Step 7: Enlist Help

Because I was The Living Worst for the first six weeks after I stopped biting my nails--constantly snapping bands and scolding myself and generally being twitchy and overly-anxious--I sat all my friends down and told them what I was trying to do. I asked that if they ever saw me start biting my nails, they should say “Alle, hands.” This called my attention to it so that I could make the conscious choice to stop, without putting the responsibility on them to stop me.

This was invaluable. I have no idea if any of them knew how helpful these gentle reminders were, but oh man, they so were. Belated thanks, everyone.

Step 8: Manicures

I am big into nails as self-care, and although I’ve always enjoyed nail polish, this is where that really took root and became a cornerstone of my life philosophy.

The best thing you can do for yourself if you’re a nail-biter is to get really meticulous about at-home manicures. It sounds weird, but do not judge my ways until you have tried them! I found that if I spent one or two hours getting my nails to look really amazing, I was way less likely to want to bite at them and ruin all my hard work.

Start by shaping and filing your nails so that they’re all the same length and shape. I’d recommend a short oval shape to begin with, because it’s easy to maintain. It also gives more strength to damaged nails--no corners to catch on as with a square shape. Take your time with this. Enjoy it. Be nice to your nails and yourself.

Also, no matter how strong the temptation, don’t file the flat face of your nail. Your nails might be really ridged and uneven, and that will heal with time. Buff if you absolutely have to, but do not file. You’ll just weaken them more, and you don’t want that.

Use a strengthening base coat before you lay down any colour. This will stop delicate nails from staining, splitting or breaking. My favourite is Nutra Nails Strengthener with Green Tea. I still do not have terribly strong nails, and this is the only stuff that protects them enough to let them grow long.

Initially, I’d recommend using red or bright pink nail polish. Because these colours both show bites or self-inflicted damage really quickly, you’ll be less likely to bite at them. I decided to use OPI Red by, duh, OPI, which is a really great cool true red. I wore this exact shade almost constantly while I was rehabbing my nails.

Apply two to three coats of colour, letting each dry completely before you apply the next. If this takes a long time, oh well! Watch an episode of True Detective in between each coat of colour.

When you’re all done, common knowledge says to clean up your cuticles with an orange stick or cotton swab dipped in nail polish remover. But if you have badly bitten fingers, this might be really painful--so what’s a girl to do?

When my hands were too sore to stomach acetone, I would soak my hands (with their totally dry nails) in a bowl of hot water and then gently push the residual polish away with an orange stick. Tah dah! Clean nails without the pain.

Finish up with a clear topcoat. I know I sound like a broken record, but Sally Hansen Insta-Dri is truly a miracle. It’s by far the best topcoat I have ever used--strengthening, quick drying (though not instant), ridiculously shiny and long-lasting... it’s amazing. It also doesn’t hurt as much as some top coats do if you get it in the cuts of sore fingers.

A lot of people ask me what I do to my cuticles, and the answer is nothing. I never have. I don’t cut them and I don’t use any special oils or creams on them--I gently push them back while I’m in the shower and apply some Keri lotion all over my hands afterwards, but that’s it. My cuticles were so bad back in the day that if I showed you a picture, you’d probably feel sick, so I now have a strong “less is more” philosophy.

Step 9: One Day at a Time

I’ve been involved with Al-Anon since I was 13. People are kind of divided on 12-step programs, and that’s OK; everyone makes their own choices. Personally, I shudder to think where I would be without it. Al-Anon gave me the tools to cope with the alcoholism I saw in my family, but beyond that, it also gave me the tools to cope with everything else. I use what they taught me in every aspect of my life, and I will forever be thankful for that.

A lot of those tools were used as I tried to break my severe nail-biting problem. I knew that the only way to stop this was to get through it one day at a time. I knew that every day, I would have to wake up and commit anew to making different choices and forging better habits. I knew it would be hard. I knew I had to take responsibility for what I could. I knew I would have to be patient.

I also knew that I could do it.

Some days, I am desperately tempted to bite again. I want to get rid of all my nails and chew my skin until I bleed. And for eight years, I haven’t done it. For eight years, I’ve felt that horrible itchy feeling and made different choices. Obviously I didn’t make those choices so that people would praise me for them, but whenever you guys compliment my nails or my hands, I hear applause and I feel like I’m on the right track. Every day, my resolve feels a little stronger, and so do I.

Step 10: Patience

Your nails will take a long time to get nice. Skin heals slowly, damage done to the nail bed take a long time to repair, quicks are NOT quick to get better. But that’s OK because you’re playing the long game here. You want your nails and hands to look and feel good for your entire life, so keep caring for them, and don’t get discouraged. I think it was about three years before my hands began to look consistently decent, and it felt like an eternity. I thought I’d mangled myself forever, but I hadn’t, and you haven’t either.

It’s going to be hard, but it’s also going to be OK. If you only take away one thing from this, have it be this. It’s going to be OK.

I am not special. I do not have any magical abilities that made it easier somehow for me to stop biting my nails. I don’t have superhuman willpower, and I’m not naturally so amazing that making huge changes--and I consider breaking a habit I’d had most of my life a huge change--was a piece of cake.

Stopping biting my nails was really hard for me, but I did it. And if I can do it, anyone can. I can’t promise it’ll be easy, as the old saying goes, but I CAN promise it’ll be worth it.

Let’s talk: Do you bite your nails? Did you? How did you stop? What helped you get through it? Was anyone a really terrible nail-biter like me? How do your nails look today?