Nail Biting, Hair Pulling! How to Stop Stress-Fueled Bad Habits

Ever catch yourself biting your nails, picking at your skin, or even avoiding physical interactions due to germs? It can be hard to explain why we do the things we do, especially as we experience stress, anxiety or frustration. But what we do to cope with these things matters the most.

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC based neuropsychologist and Teaching Faculty Member at Columbia University Teacher’s College, gives insight on behaviors that are more dire than merely bad habits.   

Hair Pulling (Trichomania)

Trichotillomania is a disorder that urges individuals to pull out body hair. This is usually triggered by anxiety and can provide a feeling of temporary satisfaction.  “The exact cause of trichotillomania isn’t known. It may be related to abnormalities in brain pathways that link areas involved in emotional regulation, movement, habit formation, and impulse control,” Hafeez says.  Excessive hair pulling from the scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes can lead to patches and bald spots. ”Distract yourself with sensory toys which allow your body to focus on other things.” Adding petroleum jelly to problem areas will allow you to be less likely to put the hair because it is slippery.”  The main treatment for trichotillomania is a type of behavior therapy called habit reversal training. Basically, this means replacing a bad habit with something else that’s not harmful.

Nail Biting (Onychophagia)

This is an oral compulsive habit and that can develop from stress, nervousness, or excitement. A study published this year in Scientific American puts nail biting in another realm of behavior: body-focused repetitive disorders, like scratching or patting your own hair. And it seems to tie into one particular personality type that has a higher potential for boredom, stress, and anxiety than many others: perfectionists. Excessive nail biting can lead to infections, inflammation, and even tooth problems. The usual method for beating this habit?  “Override your old habit with a new one by “tricking” your brain using rewards, awareness exercises, and other methods,” Dr. Hafeez says. “A typical strategy is to get subjects to note whenever they feel the urge to bite their nails, a feeling called a “cue,” and reward them with something else whenever they feel it, like stroking one’s hands.”


Germaphobia, also known as Mysophobi , is a fear of contamination and germs. This is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. You may feel the need for excessive washing and cleaning, constantly focusing on a way to sanitize everything you come in contact with. Germaphobia can lead to irritated skin and discomfort over time. Consider medication that moderates serotonin in the brain known as SSRIs or Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Skin Picking (Excoriation)

Skin picking is a repetitive self-grooming” behavior. This disorder can develop in two ways, through stress and after some kind of rash or minor injury. Skin picking can lead to tissue damage, infection, and even scarring. “Use exercise as a way to distract yourself and improve your mood,” Hafeez says. “Taking care of any scars you have already with essential oils will also lessen the urge.”

Also Read: Foods To Help You With Stress



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