Confession time: for the past 20-odd years, I have not once had nice, neat, nails. I’m nearing 30 now (okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration, I’m 26) and in recent years, it’s been a serious cause for self-consciousness. For one, 2/3rds of my time taking mirror selfies was spent trying to adjust my hands so my knawed on nails wouldn’t show.
But the one moment that remains etched in my mind – the one that pushed me to make serious moves to kick my nail-biting habit – was when I was teaching my five-year-old student how to block a punch. As a martial arts instructor, I spent a lot of time with kids and often, we’d be in close proximity with them (this was pre-COVID, mind you) during games. At one point, my student look at my hand, looked at me and asked, “Miss Marissa, what happened to your hand?? Why do your nails look like that?” with a look of absolute terror. Throughout the class, she’d continue glancing at my hands. I felt embarrassed and worried: “Would the kids start thinking that it’s okay to have such messy nails?”And rather than let myself feel that way again, I decided that it was high time I put a stop to something that was more harm than good.
1. I committed.
As easy as it is to think, “That’s easier said than done,” – it’s easy to believe, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,”. The human mind is a scary tool simply because of the sheer magnitude of the tasks we can get done if we just…well… set our mind to it. The idiom:
“Mind over body,”
Exists for a reason and it is at the moment where you think, “Hey, I really want to get this done; I want to achieve this goal,” that you realise just how much of a difference that commitment to the cause makes.
2. I sat myself down and figured out what it is I’m feeling when I do bite my nails.
For some reason, I attribute my nail-biting habit to my dad. It could be because I grew up noticing him biting his nails when he was thinking. Unconsciously, I picked up the habit. Now, despite the fact that nail-biting has a scientific name (onychophagia), not much is actually known by way of science for why nail-biting occurs. Scientists can conclusively say that nail-biting is genetic but studies show that kids whose parents bite their nails are more likely to bite their nails, too (even if the parents stop doing it before their child is born). But then, like many of us who bite our nails, as I grew older, nail-biting became an act of comfort when I got stressed or emotional.
Because nail-biting, when a habit, is automatic – you do it without thinking – it can be hard to realise you’re doing it until you do. So after making the conscious decision to stop biting my nails, I had to make a conscious effort to a) stop myself every time I found that I was going to and b) understand that when I was feeling stressed, nervous or anxious, I needed to pay extra attention to the fact that I would be more likely to bite my nails.
3. I reminded myself why I wanted to stop biting my nails.
Often, we start working towards a goal and, midway through, forget why we started out towards that goal in the first place. What helped me a lot is having a physical reminder – I wrote a note on my mirror and on my laptop so I would see it as I go about my day. Another thing that helped is that I looked into the side effects of nail-biting. Other than the fact that it can cause you to fall sick (what with you picking up all sorts of germs as you go about your day), it can actually have adverse effects on your smile.
When you bite your nails, you’re more likely to chip or misalign your teach, cause dental resorption (dental injury or irritation that causes a loss of a part or parts of a tooth) and even temporomandibular joint pain. The last can cause tenderness at the joint, facial pain, and difficulty moving the joint that connects your mandible (lower jaw) to your skull. PLUS! Swallowing your nails can increase your risk of stomach and intestinal infections.
4. Instead of biting my nails, I built a different, healthier habit for when I feel stressed.
First and foremost, I started keeping my nails short. While others have suggested going for manicures, this wouldn’t have matched up with my lifestyle (I’m always doing things like bouldering or pole; both easier done with short, non-adorned nails). But what I did find was that my inclination to bite my nails only grew as my nails grew; the longer they were, the more likely I was to bite them. So keeping them short was, in a way, a cheat code. Other ways that proved to help was actively meditating – when I started and ended my day with meditation, I had better, more calm days.
Of course, just because these methods worked for me, doesn’t mean they’ll automatically help you get over your own nail-biting tendencies. Over the years, others have shared their own ways of stopping themselves before chomping down on their fingernails, like –
• Getting a manicure: It can be expensive to continuously go get your nails done but you don’t have to do anything extravagant. Something simple to make your nails look pretty enough that you wouldn’t want to ruin them. Often, the thought that you’ve forked out money is enough to cause you to pause before your fingers reach your lips (kinda like how you’re less likely to drop out of that spin class after you’ve paid for it).
• Keeping your hands busy: Remember when fidget spinners were a thing? Time to dig out yours! Stress balls, silly putty, those little cube things with the many knobs – whatever it is that you can carry with you wherever you do to keep your hands busy.
• Using bandaids/ wearing gloves: Now, this is a bit extreme but if all else fails, cover your nails. Gloves would be more feasible for the long run but in humid Malaysian weather, band-aids may be less sweaty option.
The important thing to remember while working on breaking the habit is that you’re doing just that: working on it. If you accidentally slip up, that’s okay. Heck, I still find myself biting on my nails when the day has been especially tough. Don’t beat yourself up or feel like the whole process was ineffective and therefore a waste of time. Let the people close to you in on your challenge and ask them to give you gentle nudges or reminders if they notice you biting again (my best friend had a way of communicating the reminder to me with just the barest linger of her eyes). Be kind to yourself and remember that every conscious step forward, is one away from the habit you want to break.
*Cover image credits: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash