Why Do We Pick at Our Nails? A Psychologist Explains

Amanda Montell
PHOTO:

BaubleBar

I remember the very moment I realized I was addicted to picking my nails. I was 4 years old, in the sandbox at preschool. Even then, I remember feeling the irresistible compulsion to tear off my millimeter-length nails and wondering, Is this something I’m going to do for the rest of my life?

Until about a year ago, it seemed like it would be. For nearly 20 years, I couldn’t resist the urge to pick my nails any better than I could resist the urge to breathe oxygen. My nails were always short and jagged; I couldn’t keep nail polish on them for more than a day before feeling the itch to chip it off. I felt embarrassed every time I went to a nail salon.

But one day, without even realizing it, I just stopped. Suddenly, at age 22, my urge to pick, chip, and chew off my nails was gone. Finally, I had an answer for my 4-year-old self: It is possible for a chronic nail picker to recover.

Apparently, my experience is not uncommon. Research shows that about 50% of kids ages 10 to 18 pick at or bite their nails. The habit tends to dwindle in your late teens and early 20s, and it usually goes away completely by 30.

Fascinated? So was I. To learn more about the psychology behind the ubiquitous nail-picking habit, I spoke with three mental health experts. Keep reading to find out what makes nail-picking so addictive (and how you can quit).

Explore: nail biting

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