Stop Biting Your Nails!

Photo: Hans Neleman/Getty Images

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The coronavirus is alarming, to say the least. Luckily there are ways of alleviating stress that we can turn to in times like this. Punching a weight bag, for example. Meditating. Washing our hands properly. Having a cup of chamomile tea. Biting our finger nai— NO!

Stop biting your finger nails!

The filthy habit is something that should be jettisoned even under normal circumstances; your hands are gross, the detritus under your nails is disgusting, biting and biting and biting is bad for your nail beds, and no one wants to see you with your grubby little fingers in your mouth all the time. Horrible! But now that we’re in the middle of a coronavirus outbreak in which the main way of prevention comes by keeping our hands clean and out of our face, training yourself to stop chomping on your little germ-covered finger shields is absolutely imperative.

“We encourage people who work within the hospital system to keep short nails, because nails in general can collect a lot of germs,” Purvi Parikh, an allergy and infectious disease specialist with New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told me. They collect bacteria, viruses, dirt, debris, and if you’re not washing your hands properly, or just relying on hand sanitizer, all that stuff tends to just stay in there. “And then every time you touch your face — especially your mouth, nose, and eyes — you’re transferring all of those germs. And you can get sick.”

Plus, if you’re biting your nails, all of those things are, obviously, going directly into your mouth. “That’s the easiest way you can contract any infection,” Parikh said. This is important to remember anytime, but particularly during cold and flu (and coronavirus) season. “There are so many infections going around this time of year, from bacterial to viral to the flu. But then on top of that, given that we now have this coronavirus, there’s even more reason not to bite your nails.”

To will yourself to stop, she recommends keeping your nails short, or possibly wearing nail polish to discourage yourself from biting with its unpleasant chemical taste. “But the best way is to look at the cause, because often people do it out of boredom or stress or anxiety. So if you can catch yourself doing it, you can think about why you’re doing it, and you can try to divert your mind to other forms of stress relief.”

Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist and author, agrees. Over email, he shared with me his four best tips for quitting your filthy habit.

1. Figure Out What Triggers You

“It is key to spend a day noting the time and place for your nail biting,” DePompo said. Pick a day to pay attention to your behavior and note when you begin biting your nails, and why. Does it happen when you’re zoned out? When you’re stressed? When you’re looking at Twitter? Becoming aware of what triggers you will help you understand why you’re biting your nails, and allow you to get it under control.

2. Find a Substitute

“Substitute your lies for fact,” said The Who. In the case of nail biting, they may have said, “Substitute your nail biting for something like a fidget spinner.” DePompo said, “Once you find out where and when you are most likely to nail bite, you can substitute that soothing (yet now dangerous) way of coping.” He recommends small plush toys or squeezy stress-relieving objects.

3. Punish Yourself

If you aren’t finding any success with the substitution method, you can try self-punishment. DePompo recommends stretching out your fingers for an uncomfortable amount of time. “Once you catch yourself nail biting, the rule would be that you extend all of the fingers of that hand for no less that 2.5 to 3 minutes.” It will be uncomfortable, he said, but not harmful, and it would make you very aware of what you’re doing with your hands.

4. Or, Instead, Pamper Yourself

When you find yourself itching to bite, do something nice for your nails instead: give them a little file, tell them they’re very pretty today, douse them in a nice-smelling hand sanitizer. Whatever it takes to get you off of the nail-biting path.

Stop Biting Your Nails!