I didn't know whether to put this question under self-injury or anxiety because I have heard that anxiety might cause my problem, but I don't feel anxious. My question is why do I have this awful habit of biting my cuticles? I have been doing this since about the age of 10 or 11. I bite my cuticle all the way down to the top of the middle phalanx. I usually only bite on one side except for the thumb. I have tried to stop during summers and have come pretty close to stopping, but then school starts and I start biting again. I bite till I bleed. I know I am damaging my cuticles, but it's almost unconscious. I NEVER bite my nails. I actually like keeping my nails long and painted, but biting my fingers is starting to really damage my nails and makes them weaker and weaker. I rarely feel anxious or upset when I do it, but sometimes I DO feel nervous, but not often. I have tried putting Band-Aids on my fingers to let them heal, but I end up just doing it again. I also have tried that bitter tasting stuff to put on my cuticles, but I still continue to bite them. I never get infections, but they are sore. I am desperate to stop and any advice would be great. Thank you so much for your help!
What is the cause of my cuticle biting?
Jennifer, 16-year-old woman
Jennifer, This is a good question. Thanks for writing it.
Lots of folks have habits that are self-injurious. These range from smoking, excessive drinking, drug use, etc., where toxic substances are ingested, to behavior patterns which become problematic due to frequency and duration (overeating, binge eating, hyper sexuality, reckless driving), to the kinds of habit you are describing. Cuticle-biting is similar to nail-biting, itching or scratching, tweezing hair, picking at wounds or scabs, etc.
All of these behaviors may be mild to moderate to severe, but they do not seem to fall clearly into the category of self-injury, primarily because the intent of them does not appear to be to cause self-harm. In that regard, all of these behaviors are a bit different than the "classically" self-injurious ones, ie., skin cutting and burning and suicidal gestures.
Many of these behaviors (and others) have an obsessive-compulsive component, too. That means that any thought (to bite your cuticles) must be followed by the action (the actual biting) in order for the anxiety to be quelled.
In looking at all of these behaviors, then, whether or not they imply emotional or mental health problems is how they are (or are not) symptoms of a "bigger picture." In your case, your cuticle-biting may mean several different things. The concern you have about your trait may give some clues as to the (psychological) purpose this habit might be serving you.
You said, "I have tried to stop during summers and have come pretty close to stopping, but then school starts and I start biting again." The way you have insightfully connected the cuticle-biting to school is interesting, despite your denial that the cuticle-biting is anxiety-related. The equation of school = cuticle-biting tells us something. What do you think it says?
The habits above (and many others) bind anxiety. You've had six years of practising the way cuticle-biting "works" for you. In that regard, it's not unlike the way another established habit, like cigarette smoking calms a smoker. It's likely that your anxiety about school resuming may be something you are not really aware of. In fact, the only symptom you may even have of this anxiety is the cuticle-biting itself!
Your awareness of this habit may keep you vigilant in avoiding other, more potentially destructive habits and behaviors as you grow older, since these will probably all "work" (to some degree or another) to calm your anxiety.
What I am suggesting, Jennifer, is that it is very likely that anxiety is very much at the root of your cuticle-biting.
Anxiety is difficult to treat, and treating anxiety when the primary symptom of it is an anxiety-binding behavior (like cuticle-biting) is even harder. My suggestion to you is that you simply continue to be aware of yourself. Be aware, for instance, of the circumstances and environment when you bite your cuticles. Be aware of what you are feeling when you feel compelled to bite until you bleed. If it's at all possible, stretch out the time between wanting to bite your skin and actually biting it, so you can begin to know what you are feeling during this time. Chances are good that the main feeling you will have at this time (while you stall the biting behavior) will be frustration. You may even feel angry. The better you can get at "putting off" the compulsive behavior, the more opportunity you will have to understand the underlying feelings you are avoiding (by biting).
Any therapist can help you with this, so that the concerns and questions you have can be contained, answered and understood. Your cuticle-biting, Jennifer, can tell you a lot about you and about what you may have doubts, fears or anger about. Please use this troublesome habit to learn more about you. Your school counselor may be able to direct you to some counseling help for this.
At this point, you have found a way to bind anxiety which is minimally self-injurious. Through understanding how this "works" for you, you may learn to address the underlying feelings causing the anxiety. Without this self-knowledge, you could easily escalate to other, more self-injurious behaviors. You're wise to be concerned about this. Good luck.
Margaret "Peg" Burr , MA, MFT