Nail strengthener, bitter-tasting polish, YouTube videos that promise to manipulate your mind as you sleep: I’ve been a compulsive nail biter for as long as I can remember, and I’d tried everything to quit. I’d all but given in to the fact that I’d be going around in circles with this bad habit for the rest of my life. But as I write this, I can hear my nails tap, tapping away, which is my new favorite sound.
For me, nail biting wasn’t just a nervous habit, reserved for watching Handmaid’s Tale, or the night before a big work presentation. I’d bite my nails when I was bored, hungry, or simply because it brought me great comfort. A review of studies from 2011 found as many as 20% of adults bite their nails, and like other body-focused repetitive behaviors, it’s one of the more difficult bad habits to kick. I know, because I’ve tried and failed a million times. One winter, I took up knitting just to have something else to do with my hands. I tried sitting on my hands for a while, to keep them away from my mouth. (That made it hard to do anything else, though, so this attempt—like many others—was short-lived.)
After years of trying to maintain my nails, but finding them back in my mouth time and time again, I went a different route: I started spending 10 minutes each morning using a meditation app. I quickly realized that in order to change my nail biting behavior, I’d have to invert the way I’d been thinking about it altogether. It wasn’t about my willpower or self-discipline—it had everything to do with my mental health.
A few really busy months at work had my stress levels on an eleven. I was so exhausted that I kept canceling plans with friends, which made me feel so guilty I just stopped making plans in the first place. I’d spend whole weekends making lists, agonizing over the future, and scrolling myself into social media oblivion—one-handed, of course, as the other one was stuck in my mouth. My nails were the worst they’d ever been, which may sound superficial, but if you’ve been here you know that this feeling of failure made everything else going on feel worse.
My coping mechanism is pretty par for the course, explains Chloe Brotheridge, a hypnotist and author of The Anxiety Solution. "In [anxious] moments of not being present, it's easy to slip into unhelpful habits, such a biting your nails. It can also be an unconscious way of dealing with the nervous energy and keeping your hands busy.” In her book, Brotheridge recommends meditation as a way to cope with anxiety. That's what made me want to try mindfulness, and then speak with her, as a Hail Mary for my lifelong nail issues.
“Meditation could help you to become more calm and present, as you're less likely to fall into unconscious habits because you're more aware,” she said. And since it couldn’t be worse than that bad-tasting nail polish, or as publicly self-shaming as wearing a rubber band around my wrist, I signed up to Headspace, an app with a huge catalogue of guided meditation audio clips. I started using it regularly in February, and within three weeks, the daily practice of mindfulness had already made a noticeable difference to my everyday life. I had to buy a nail file.
I started out by listening to the Basics program, which introduces you to deeper breathing techniques and a “body scan,” which is a common mindfulness method. This is basically visualizing what your body looks like from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, checking in with each part as you mentally move your way down, and it helps you ground yourself while you’re meditating.
I then completed a 30-day program for managing anxiety, which delved deeper into why worrying is a totally normal part of life—but doesn’t have to be debilitating. I learned that if I could change the thought patterns that made me feel so anxious, I could kick the lifelong nail-biting habit, too. This motivated me to continue with my daily practice, and combined with the soothing tones of the narrator’s voice, interspersed with long periods of much-needed silence, I actually started to enjoy this approach to quitting nail-biting, for reasons beyond the newfound tips I was growing.
Because I would most often bite my fingernails at work, I stuck a blank Post-It note next my computer screen, a hack I also learned from Headspace. Seeing that flicker of orange in the corner of my eye would remind me to be more aware of what I was doing; preventing me from biting my nails before it was too late (and actually bumping up my productivity a little).
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I began to notice that I hadn't just been raising my hand to my mouth thoughtlessly, I was doing it while overthinking. Being able to defuse the anxiety-driven thoughts before they take over—and before I have the need to nibble—has meant the biggest change, not just to my nails, but to my overall wellbeing. I am calmer and more at peace than I remember feeling before. And, yes, this was all wrapped up in my fingernails.
Nearly six months in, I still try to meditate every morning, or watch a yoga tutorial on YouTube if I have slightly more time to roll out mat. There are occasionally days when I do neither, but I try to squeeze in a few minutes—on my lunch break or before bed—to engage my body with my mind, become more aware of my surroundings, and then admire my new nails.