Are you a nail biter? A hair twister? Or always late? 4 tips for breaking bad habits

Nail biting is one of the most common nervous habits.
(George Marks / Retrofile/Getty Images)

Whoever came up with the expression “drop like a bad habit” most likely never tried to stop biting their nails. So-called nervous habits are considered cousins of compulsive disorders. “Some people would define these habits as obsessive behavior,” says psychotherapist Richard O’Connor, author of “Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits.” “It’s a matter of how much it impinges on your life, how much of an inconvenience or a disability or an annoyance it is.”

Many habits are coping mechanisms or ways to reduce stress. But at the same time they can cause anxiety — for example, a well-groomed, successful person may be embarrassed by ragged, chewed fingernails.

Stopping a chronic habit can be challenging because the behavior often is done unconsciously. “Habits can be relearned with a combination of motivation and persistence. But sometimes it requires somebody helping,” says psychologist Emanuel Maidenberg, director of the UCLA Cognitive Therapy Clinic.

That somebody might be a partner or spouse who can remind you when you’re cracking your knuckles or twirling your hair --- as long as the reminders don’t cross the line into nagging, another not-so-nice habit.


Self-awareness is key when trying to halt a problematic repetitive behavior. “If you’re really determined, be very vigilant, so you know when your fingers come to your mouth or whatever it is. If you successfully resist many times, then the behavior might go away. But if it becomes more and more difficult over time to resist, then you have to recognize the possibility that this is beyond your control. The more you don’t do it, the more you have a compulsive urge. Eventually, you give in. Then I would seek help, ideally, from a mental health professional,” advises John Koo, a UCSF psychiatrist and dermatologist.

Here are some ways to try to break common habits:

Chew on this

Nail biting is probably the most common nervous habit, and it’s a tough one to quit. One old-school behavior modification remedy — painting a bitter coating on the nails — works for some people. Others find a weekly manicure can offer a visual reminder not to nibble. In addition to fingernails, we gnaw on things like pens, pencils and ice. Less common is biting on the inside of the cheek, as well as nonstop teeth clenching and grinding, all anxiety related, says USC dentist Saravanan Ram, an expert in orofacial pain. He says grinding and clenching sometimes increase with SSRI medications, typically given for depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Long-term chewing habits can cause wear and tear of teeth, as well as jaw clicking and pain. To stop chewing on objects, try substituting sugarless gum or candy. Teeth clenching and grinding may require wearing a dental appliance, which, Ram says, should be made by a dentist.

Skin and bones

Constant skin scratching with no underlying physical problem is a habit with a big name: lichen simplex chronicus. “That’s a condition where people scratch a particular part of their body on a regular basis, often to relieve stress and anxiety,” says Koo. Picking at the skin, especially on the face, is another common habit, which can lead to irritation and scarring. Substituting something else, such as kneading a stress ball or worry beads, sometimes helps, as does wearing gloves. Cracking knuckles and the neck are habits that may or may not cause joint problems, depending on which study you believe. Some research suggests joint cracking could cause arthritis. The main danger of persistent joint cracking is that it can annoy other people.

Hair today

Twisting our tresses or examining the ends can become habitual. Done to excess, the hair root can be damaged over time, even resulting in hair loss. If you want to stop, try a pony tail, or wear scarves or hats. If you’re not just playing with your hair but actually pulling it out, this may be a sign of a more serious condition called trichotillomania. Treatment may include cognitive-behavior therapy, medication and support groups. “When people mess with their skin or their hair or their nails, it does have some benefit psychologically, in terms of relieving internal tension or anxiety,” says Koo. He recommends first consulting with a psychiatrist. “If you have enough insight to recognize that this is a problem, then ideally you have enough courage to go see a mental health expert and not expect a dermatologist to change your behavior.”


Better late?

We all know people who are chronically late or who never seem to be able to complete projects and assignments on time. “People who procrastinate typically avoid the distress of doing something they don’t like to do,” says Maidenberg. Delaying a potentially unpleasant situation also means the procrastinator doesn’t have to face the anxiety of having his performance judged. But some people who are habitually late are simply daydreamers. “Time is not the most important thing to them,” he says. Help can be as close as your phone. There are dozens of apps that promise to prod, prompt and push you to complete tasks.

Of course, these days, obsessively checking our smartphones is no doubt the most common habit of all.



Blast from the past: doctor house calls. An app, Heal, facilitates them.

For former professional drummer Robin Russell, no gig tops Griffith Park

We’re far more afraid of failure than ghosts: Here’s how to stare it down