Often a coping strategy for stress and anxiety, distraction is the key to ending the bad habit
Dr Elena Touroni – The Guardian
‘You need to search for alternative ways of coping or distracting yourself.’ Photograph: Getty/iStockphoto
Nail-biting doesn’t necessarily begin as a result of stress or anxiety, but is often something that is observed and copied from a young age. Over time, it becomes a habit, potentially crossing the boundary into becoming a coping strategy. As a very physical act, nail-biting can provide a welcome distraction or sense of relief when you are feeling anxious or are in a heightened emotional state.
The key to changing such habitual behaviours is to determine your motivation. Whether you don’t like the way your hands look with bitten nails, or you want to find a better way of dealing with your anxiety, you need to establish the negative consequences of biting your nails and why you want to stop.
Then you need to search for alternative ways of coping or distracting yourself. Simple activities such as reading can help to divert your attention, or you can try occupying your hands by messaging friends or playing games on your phone. It’s essential to create your own self-soothing “toolkit”, involving little activities that help to calm you in an alternative way. For example, when you feel the urge to bite your nails, you could make yourself a cup of tea, or put on a nice hand moisturiser instead.
These methods can work in tandem with products that are designed to combat nail-biting, such as bad-tasting nail varnishes. Such products work by attributing adverse consequences to the habit, helping you to suppress the addictive behaviour. However, for sustainable change, the key to kicking a habit is to be proactive. Identify what you are using the habit for and then find other activities that can replace it, creating healthier coping strategies.
Dr Elena Touroni is a consultant psychologist and co-founder of the Chelsea Psychology Clinic in London. She was talking to Alice Macfarlane