Nail Biting a Mental Disorder?

As a recovering nail biter and sister to a chronic nail biter, I decided to look into the causes of nail biting to see whether or not nail biting  was a learned behavior or if it has a genetic component.  As it turns out, the jury is still out on this, and beginning to take nail biting more seriously.  According to The Huffington Post, the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, is a manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental disorders, may add nail biting to a group of disorders called Pathological Grooming.  Pathological Grooming also includes hair pulling such as the disorder Trichotillomania, which involves pulling out eyelashes, and has been diagnosed in people such as actress Olivia Munn.  In the latest version of the DSM, Personal Grooming may be lumped into the class of disorders known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, which deal with anxiety and responses to anxiety.  
While nail biting has mostly been thought to be a habit picked up from watching other people, this may not be the case.  According to an article from NPR, scientists at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York were presented with an odd behavior found in mice with a certain gene mutation.  The mice with this certain genome would scratch at the fur around their eyes, creating a ring of baldness.  Francis Lee, one of the aforementioned scientists, noted that this behavior resembled that of people diagnosed with Pathological grooming, especially hair pulling.  As it turns out, the mice with this genome, even when removed from other mice (to eliminate the possibility of picking up a habit), began to exhibit the same behavior.  This causes the scientists to believe that Pathological Grooming, such as nail biting, may indeed have a genetic cause.

Stop Nail Biting.jpg
Nail Biting may be genetic.

In my opinion, I'm not sure if nail biting should be considered a mental disorder.  In terms of life interference or distress, (one of the two must be present to be classified as a disorder), nail biting is pretty low on the scale.  The most distress it's ever caused me is that nail polish doesn't look very good on my fingers, and in terms of interference, it hurts a little if I rip my cuticle.  As to whether or not I believe there is a genetic component to nail biting, or in a broader perspective, Pathological Grooming, I'm not sure.  Clearly, humans are much more complex than mice, but I'm not sure that there's nothing there.  In my family at least, both my brother and I are chronic nail biters, but neither of my parents are, or ever have been.  Clearly, there is some genetic component, but at the same time, I believe that there is also a component of nail biting being a learned behavior. 

So what do you think? Nature? Nurture? Both? 


I personally don't think that nail biting has a genetic component. Calling it a learned behavior seems more accurate. From my experience, I pick my nails when I'm nervous or bored. It gives me something to do with my hands and keeps me occupied. But part of me thinks I started this habit because people have always associated being nervous with picking your nails. It was a habit I picked up by watching the habits of others. One of the easiest ways to avoid this painful picking/biting is to occupy your hands with something else when you get nervous. Maybe fiddle with keychain, or rubix cube.
I found a great article on the blog, Elle & Blair, that gives advice on how to stop biting your nails. Some of the tips are really great and I would recommend checking out the link if you're a sucker for this habit.

Personally, I think there is a mental component to nail biting, but not enough so to classify it as a disorder. Nail biting is a habit that our subconscious controls. Perhaps nail biting might be associated with OCD or maybe there's an evolutionary component to it when it comes to groom. For example, some people might have it in their evolutionary genes as something they do for cleanliness or grooming factors? I think that it is a combination of nature and nurture, being that habits are also picked up subconsciously from observation.

My mom used to bite her nails until she was a senior in high school. She told me that she didn't want her fingers to look bad in her senior portrait so she stopped biting them. I really don't think nail biting is a type of disorder, I just think it's a bad habit. It's not controlling your life or anything and it seems like when you want to stop, it's not that difficult. I've found similar habits such as thumb sucking ( some adults do this), hair twirling and nose picking under the same category as nail biting.

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