Stressful Situations Often Lead to Nail Biting

Berlin/Munich - Whether it's problems at kindergarten or in the office, lots of people respond to stress by chewing on their fingernails. Often, it's just a bad habit. But sometimes it indicates a lot more than that. "Nail biting can be a habit or the expression of inner tension," says Markus Biebl, a psychologist in Bad Saeckingen in the southern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

The tensions often grow out of conflicts, or stress in the workplace or personal life. Children might simply repeat what they see others doing, says Gisela Dreyer, a psychologist from Bonn. "The habit helps relieve stress in emotionally difficult circumstances."

Nail biting can manifest itself suddenly or start as a regular habit as early as kindergarten. Experts estimate that about 30 per cent of children and about 15 per cent of adults chew their nails. Some simply chew on their nails, others chew so far down they damage their nail beds.

Dreyer says the behaviour is often a form of automatism that fades with time. For example, if school stress goes away, then the reason for the nail biting fades and the habit disappears. But adults who endure long periods of stress and respond by chewing on their nails can find the habit hard to break.

Whether child or adult, if it's simply a bad habit, it can be broken. For example, people can wear a bitter tasting substance on the nails. Ursula Sellerberg of the Federal Association of German Apothecary Groups (ABDA) in Berlin says this works because it stops people from chewing on their nails absent-mindedly.

If the nail biting is only sporadic, there's no reason to be concerned. But if it continues and the trick with the bitter substance doesn't work, then it needs to be observed closely.

Biebl advises people in those situations to think about when and why they chew on their nails. "You have to see what the catalyst is and then see if there's another way to get rid of tension," advises Gunhild Kilian-Kornell of the Federal Association of Paediatricians (BVKJ) in Munich.

Yoga, autogenous training and sports can all help to relieve tension. Children can benefit from targeted distractions. For example, parents can gently take the child's finger out of his mouth and replace it with something appropriate for chewing. But it's important that parents don't draw attention to their children or yell at them, says Kilian-Kornell.

At the same time, Dreyer says people should not trivialize nail biting. People with friends who bite their nails should be open to discussing the problem, because nail biting is routinely a sign of a deeper-lying psychological problem. It can be an indication of obsessive-compulsive behaviour or indicate an inclination toward self-inflicted injuries, says Biebl.

"The main factor is how strong the drive is," says Dreyer. If it's too strong, psychological help should be sought out.