Regression Therapy

Don't bite me: Nail-biter's dirty little secret can help

There are ways to keep your fingers out of your mouth

When you're a chronic nail-biter, everyone's always sticking their fingers in your business. My elementary school teacher once asked me, "Did you know your nails are made of the same substance as a beetle's exoskeleton?", thinking that factoid would gross me out enough so that I'd quit.

It didn't.

I didn't.

I still nibble, gnaw and chew at my fingernails like a rabid squirrel going after Mr. Peanut. My mom tried everything to nip the problem in the bud early on, to no avail.

I've had my hand slapped away from my mouth by my boss, co-workers, friends, my boyfriend and complete strangers.

I've been a biter as long as I can remember. After a lifetime of daily chewing, my poor nails have been bitten to the quick and beyond.

I don't need anyone to tell me why I should stop. Nail-biting (the medical term is onychophagia) isn't pretty, it can cause infections, it's interpreted as a sign of insecurity by others, and with H1N1 lurking on every door handle, constantly putting your fingers in your mouth is just asking for trouble.

I've even developed a phobia of pointing. The last thing I want is for anybody to have a reason to look at the end of my finger. It's downright embarrassing.

"Lots of people bite their nails. It's nothing to be ashamed of," I tell myself, but sharing a body-focused repetitive behaviour with Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton provides little comfort. Then again, even Princess Di balled her hand into a fist when it came time to display her engagement ring, lest her raggedy nails be exposed. It's estimated that 30% of children and 45% of teenagers bite their nails. Most simply outgrow it once they reach adulthood, but not everyone does.

With unshakable resolve and a few tricks, many kick the habit.

Rubber-band bracelets are quite flattering (wear red and you're in style-step with Kabbalah-practising Madonna), but you have to remember to punish yourself with a snap on the wrist when you catch yourself biting. Nasty-flavoured nail polish can be effective, too.

There is never a drink or mint close enough when that foul taste hits your tongue. It's like licking the inside of the cap of a bottle of nail-polish remover and chasing it with a shot of lye. Tasty! Band-Aids around the fingertips invite awkward questions, as do gloves in the middle of summer, but you can't bite what you can't get at.

Fake nails seem to work. Press-ons do the trick for me, but they only last a week or so. I've never had gel tips, but I hear they are tough enough to break a tooth if you try to chow down on them. Eventually, though, the falsies must come off and you're back where you started.

I have tried all of these methods and have succeeded in quitting three times. But then my fingers make their way into my mouth again within a few months and all that hard work and will power are for naught. Wally Muller, who owns Advance Hypnosis in Calgary, says my compulsion to chew is all in my head. Some experience in my past gave rise to an emotion that makes me want to bite, he maintains. He uses regression hypnosis to help people identify the root cause of their bad habit and overcome it. "They don't know where it came from, but they can't get rid of it," Muller says. "They know it's there, but they don't know what it is. It's called anxiety."

Regression therapy is only one type of hypnosis. Direct suggestion -- you've seen the shows where some unfortunate soul clucks around the stage with his arms flapping -- involves the hypnotist reading a script to influence behaviour while the subject is in a trance. You can buy MP3 recordings and CDs online, and do direct-suggestion hypnosis at home. Muller says this method does work, but only temporarily. "Direct suggestion in a lot of situations is a Band-Aid. It'll fix it for a while, but then it comes back because you never really got rid of the cause."

Psychologists and hypnotists get along like doctors and chiropractors, but they do agree on some things. Most psychologists also think nail-biting is stress-induced. So if anxiety is to blame for the problem, then all I have to do is rid my life of stress and presto! Nails to die for. I'd also like a unicorn for Christmas and Albertans to vote for an NDP government in the next provincial election.

So I'm contemplating getting what could be the final nail in the coffin of my bad habit: a mouthpiece. Custom-moulded clear covers that fit over either your top or bottom teeth are an option, as is a device primarily used to discourage thumb-sucking; it has sharp bits that jab any fingers that wander into your mouth. As I also have TMJ, I'm thinking a clear cover could help me overcome two of my oral obstacles.

If you do manage to quit nibbling-I'm crossing my fingers for you- the hard part is keeping it up. The battle may be won, but the war is never over. Once you've stopped, buy a handful of nail files and never let yourself be caught without one. Seriously. The slightest sign of a ragged edge can undo all your hard work in a matter of minutes. Invest in some cuticle cream and a few new shades of nail polish. Flawless tips are the best defence against a relapse.