In my opinion, there are two kinds of people in this world; those who bite their nails and those who don’t. If you have ever asked yourself ‘Why do I bite my nails?’ you are in good company. 

Many famous people have been pictured with bitten-down nails, including Jackie Kennedy, Tom Cruise, Britney Spears, and Andy Roddick. 

I admit I bite my nails, but only to keep them short when I don’t have a nail file handy. As soon as I find an emery board, I leave my cuticles well alone. 

Then again, I’m not talking about the occasional trimming of my nails by biting. This kind of nail biting smacks of laziness on my part, to be honest. I’m more interested when nail biting becomes a problem and the psychological reasons why people bite their nails.

Excessive nail biting is called onychophagiaThe phagia suffix means eating or devouring and the onycho prefix pertains to the nails. 

It is a condition similar to other body grooming disorders such as hair-pulling (trichotillomania) and skin picking.

So if you bite your nails and want to find out why, I’m hoping this article can help you. 

‘Why Do I Bite My Nails’? 5 Psychological Reasons Behind This Annoying Habit

1. You are a perfectionist

We don’t usually associate bitten nails with perfectionist behaviour, but one 2015 study might change your perception.

Researchers at Université de Montréal showed that people are more likely to indulge in nail biting when they are bored or frustrated

A group of people was chosen, one half with body grooming habits such as nail biting, and one half without. They were all exposed to the same scenarios such as boredom, anxiety, frustration, and relaxation, designed to elicit a nail biting reaction.

The participants were also asked how many times they experienced negative emotions like anger, frustration, irritability, boredom, and anxiety.

Participants with known nail biting tendencies recorded a significantly higher urge to bite their nails when they were placed in the frustrating scenarios. They also had higher levels of boredom and would resort to nail biting after only a few minutes of being left alone.  

So why did boredom and frustration cause nail biting? 

Lead researcher Kieron O’Connor relates nail biting to perfectionist behaviour

“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviours 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.” Kieron O’Connor

2. Childhood behaviour

Nail biting is associated with anxiety as the act of biting relieves stress. This type of nail biting can start in childhood as a direct response to tension at home or school. Children do not have the emotional capacity to deal with anxiety so they learn to self-soothe with nail biting.

Nail biting is a common nervous habit that starts in childhood around the age of 6 years. Boys are more likely to bite their nails than girls. 

“It is estimated that one-third of all children between the age of 7 and 10 bite their nails. Boys lead the pack of nail biters after the age of 10.” – Robert Steele, a paediatrician at St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield, Mo

As they mature into adulthood, the habit is difficult to shake. The link between stress relief and nail biting is firmly entrenched. Statistics show one-half of adolescents bite their nails and one-third of college students still bite. 

Also, although research is sketchy, there is a suggestion of a genetic link, however, other experts believe it is learned behaviour. 

3. Satisfies an oral fixation

Sigmund Freud associated the act of nail biting with over-stimulation during breastfeeding. Mothers that excessively nursed their babies had inadvertently created oral-dependent adults. Although there is no evidence for this theory, you have to consider that babies do put objects in their mouths when they first begin to explore the world around them.

So, perhaps it is natural for adults to want to chew on something. Not to mention that by their nature, hands are readily accessible. 

4. Repetitive behaviour that relieves stress

Some people believe nail biting is an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Nail biting does sound an awful lot like OCD, in that people have a compulsion to keep biting their nails, even when they are inflicting damage. 

Clinical psychologist Lorraine D. D’Asta, Ph.D., believes that nail biting is a compulsive disorder. However, this doesn’t mean people bite their nails all the time, as a person with OCD would have to wash their hands 100 times a day. 

It simply means that this is a routine used to relieve stress. They may have others that help them, such as always hanging their coat up and putting their shoes away in a certain place. 

Compulsive behaviours are linked with anxiety and panic, whereas nail biting is associated with soothing sensations. 

So although the behaviour is repetitive, it is not compulsive. Lead researcher, Kieron O’Connor, at Université de Montréal, agrees:

“Although these behaviours can induce important distress, they also seem to satisfy an urge and deliver some form of reward.” – Kieron O’Connor

5. Self-harm

Extreme nail biting causes real injuries to the biter. Biting down to the cuticle of the nail can leave the nail bed exposed and vulnerable to infection. Yet, research suggests injuries are the reason why people want to stop this annoying habit. They don’t receive pleasure or a release of tension from the pain caused by biting. 

“Nail biters can — though this is not usually the case — use biting as a self-destructive mechanism.” – Lorraine D. D’Asta, Ph.D.

It is only when nail biting becomes excessive and causes real harm that this tips over into what is described as self-inflicted violence (SIV). 

Tracy Alderman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in San Diego, Calif., describes SIV as: 

“Self-inflicted violence (SIV) is best described as the intentional harm of one’s own body without conscious suicidal intent.” – Tracy Alderman, Ph.D.

Severe types of SIV can involve amputation of limbs, burning oneself, and breaking bones. Self-harm is typically used as a coping mechanism and a temporary relief from stress.

Final Thoughts

When I started this article, I asked myself, ‘Why do I bite my nails?’ Whilst I have found some interesting psychological reasons, I’m still not sure any of the above apply to me. My answer is a simple one. It is because they are there! 



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