How to Stop Biting Your Nails with Mindfulness

  • By: Ryan Kane
  • Updated: March 30, 2022
  • Time to read: 4 min.

Biting your nails is a habit that’s common in childhood, but many people kick it by adulthood. 

Not me.

I’ve been an on-again, off-again nail-biter for most of my adult life.

I’ve tried the normal approaches, like putting foul-tasting nail polish on my fingernails. So far, everything’s worked for a little while, until it stopped working. Decades-long habits can be tough to kick. 

That’s why I was so pleased to finally crack the equation on nail-biting. 

Here’s the solution:

Mindfulness. 

I’ll walk you through my process, make some recommendations, and explain why this approach seems to work better than most. 

How mindfulness can help you stop biting your nails

Nail-biting is a process that tends to happen unconsciously, often starting as a reaction to stress and tension. After a while, it becomes a habit that reinforces itself through years of practice.

Techniques like putting bitter nail-polish remover on your fingernails help dissuade you from biting your nails through negative reinforcement. If you bite them, you get a terrible taste in your mouth.

There are also positive reinforcement techniques, like attempting to replace nail biting with another oral fixation habit. Some people turn to chewing gum or eating sunflower seeds, for example, or keeping a nail filer handy so they can file their nails rather than bite them.

Mindfulness is more powerful than either positive or negative reinforcement techniques because with enough practice, it creates a buffer of awareness. This awareness buffer allows you to pause before making the decision to bite your nails. 

Awareness leads to choosing a different action and with enough time and repetition, this leads to a sustainable reversal in your habit.

You can still combine mindfulness with positive and negative reinforcement. In fact, that’s exactly what I did. 

My solution: an app called NailKeeper

NailKeeper is a free app that gives just the right amount of positive and negative reinforcement while helping you build awareness around your nail-biting habit. 

It takes a few approaches:

  1. It’s highly visual: The app is centered around taking daily photos of your fingernails. This way, you can track your progress over time, conveniently seeing a “before” and “after” snapshot of your progress. The photos show you how far you’ve come, leading to #2 below.
  2. It uses positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement is a big part of this process in two ways. First, you have a visual reminder of how great your nails look now compared to when you started. Second, the comparison helps to build a sense of accomplishment even as quickly as the second day. Within the first week, you’re seeing huge progress.
  3. It builds awareness multiple times per day: I hesitate to call this negative reinforcement, but in a way it is. The app also includes a timer, challenging you to go as long as possible without biting your nails. When you bite them, you reset the timer and start from zero. That means you know that if you bite your nails, you’ll have to go through the hassle of grabbing your phone, navigating to the app, and resetting the timer. You also have to go through the disappointment of seeing your streak of non-biting go back to zero. 
Mindfulness App to Help You Stop Biting Your Nails
Gross! I know, I know. But mindfulness fixed it in 3 weeks.

All of these components together result in a strong awareness-building program that allows you to make quick progress by putting a spotlight on a single habit you want to change.

You’ll probably want to keep the app going for at least 21 days, which has often been the standard recommendation for breaking in a new habit. However, new research suggests you may need over two months before your new habit feels automatic.

Of course, there are other ways you can go about this, like journaling about your progress or using a habit tracker to note each time you bite your nails. You could even take an approach as simple as making a checkmark in a file on your phone each time you bite your nails. 

I just happened to find that this app built awareness in all the right ways.

Mindfulness, nail-biting, and the power of awareness

There’s a broader point here: 

Nail-biting is just one tiny example of the power that awareness can have in your life. 

In fact, I think starting with habit modification is a great way to build momentum in a mindfulness practice. 

By focusing on one action (instead of improving your awareness more broadly), you may be able to see quicker results and get visceral feedback on the power that awareness has in your life.

Meditation and mindfulness more broadly are intended to create a broad awareness throughout your life. Awareness of the actions you take, yes, but also of the emotions you’re experiencing, the way your body feels, and the thoughts going through your mind. Over time, a broader awareness over the totality of your life experience can be transformative.

Ask yourself this question: 

If mindfulness and awareness can help you quit biting your nails, what else can it do?

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