We all know how stressful everyday life can be, and we might be biting parts of our bodies to calm down, even if no one else sees. People often pick at and bite their nails or split ends to deal with stress. Stopping is hard, even if we do not want to or even notice it. Find out why people bite and how to stop doing it.
Why people feel the urge to bite things when stressed
Some things, like food, can make us feel better when we chew on them. Biting can still be relaxing, even if you are not eating anything. Some foods, like sugar or fat, make you feel better right away.
It is often a subconscious way of getting rid of stress and tension. Sometimes it feels like you cannot stop, even if you know you are done with it. In this case, you may feel like you have no control over the habit.
Does it actually help to relieve stress?
Biting can offer relief, but unfortunately, it’s usually temporary. Overall, it’s not the healthiest or most effective way to manage stress. It can also lead to physical harm, and it doesn’t directly address the underlying causes of your stress.
For some, it can make things even worse. Extra stress might build up from hating the habit and its physical effects, like tender nail beds or damaged hair.
Different types of stress biting
Stress biting can show up in many different ways, such as:
- Nail biting. This is one of the most common stress-biting habits, leading to damaged nails, infections, and potentially dental problems or reduced self-esteem.
- Cheek chewing. Chronic cheek biting can cause sores, ulcers, and even scarring.
- Skin biting. Dermatophagia involves biting around your nails or other areas of your body, potentially creating skin damage or infection risks.
- Hair biting. Chewing on hair strands can damage teeth and lead to digestive issues if swallowed.
Other habits for stress relief
On top of biting, there are many other habits people turn to for stress relief. For example, you might notice people shaking their legs or tapping their feet during exams or a hectic workday.
Some habits can be hidden, such as teeth grinding. Many of us know all too well what it’s like to wake up after a tense night’s sleep with a sore jaw. Unfortunately, this can also lead to mouth damage, a mouth guard, or headaches during the day, exacerbating stress and tension.
Also, excessive grooming isn’t just for stressed pets. Hair pulling, or trichotillomania, affects up to 2% of the population. Picking and pulling at your hair can easily become a compulsion that feels impossible to stop.
Another habit we all have experience with is stress eating. Without realizing it, we can easily polish off a bag of chips or a package of cookies. The sugar and fat offer almost immediate relief and send dopamine off in our brains, soothing our worries away—at least for a moment.
How to take advantage of the habit
As with most unhealthy habits, awareness of our actions has to come first. This can be done by practicing more mindful techniques. For example, daily guided meditations teach you how to become an observer in the present moment.
Once you tap into why you’re performing the bad habit, you may be able to use it to your advantage. Make a connection between stress and your nervous habits. What is your biting trying to tell you? For example, are you biting at a specific time, place, or situation?
For instance, if you catch yourself biting your nails throughout the day, start to journal when, where, and what the stressors might be. Then, the next time you notice yourself biting, ask yourself what it is that you really need at that moment. Is it to stop procrastinating and get to work? What about having an uncomfortable conversation to express your true emotions? Whatever it is, let your biting be a sign to take action.
Other strategies on how to stop stress-biting
Replacing your habit with another, like chewing gum or squeezing a stress ball, doesn’t get to the root issue. For long-term management, focus on using your biting habit to guide you toward what your body truly needs.
- Relaxation techniques. Add relaxation techniques to your day to reduce overall stress levels and prevent stress-biting. This includes mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, and exercise for long-term mental health benefits. Movement, in a form you enjoy, can be especially effective for tension release.
- Professional therapist. If the biting is severe or compulsive and you don’t feel you can manage it, a professional therapist can be a support system and pass along tools you can use in the long term.
- Experiment with different strategies. Every case is different, so one single type of advice won’t work for everyone. Like the scientific method, it’s all about trial and error for adopting healthier habits into your day.
Healthy ways to manage stress
On top of practicing mindfulness, daily healthy habits can reduce biting. Slowly think of introducing one habit at a time that calms you, like going for a light walk before bed or after waking or practicing daily journaling.
Overall, movement, emotional expression, rest, nutrition, and a supportive community will have the biggest impact on our overall mental health, but starting slow and small is key. Release the pressure of trying to “do it all” or change your lifestyle overnight. One habit at a time is all you need to create a domino effect of positive change.
After all, emotional stress is what led you to bite in the first place. That means putting more pressure on yourself to stop biting may only make things worse. Instead, use your biting as a cue to guide you toward the action and emotion your body is looking for.
What is stress-biting?
Stress-biting is a compulsive anxiety-like behavior where you bite a part of your body, such as your nails, skin, cheeks, or hair, to reduce stress.
What causes biting urges?
Stress and anxiety are frequently the root causes of biting urges. They can also be a learned response to certain situations or feelings.
Is biting a mental health disorder?
No, biting is not a mental disorder. However, it can be a symptom of an underlying issue, such as an anxiety disorder or an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Noticing your self-soothing habits, like stress biting, is the first step to understanding why you do it.
Once you identify and understand your triggers, you can use your biting habit to guide you toward more effective solutions.
Instead of putting more stress and pressure on yourself to stop biting, let it push you toward the action you need, even if that's rest, to achieve the emotion you're looking for.
- BioMed Research International. Mastication as a Stress-Coping Behavior.
- Minerva Endocrinology. Stress and Eating Behaviors.
- The American journal of psychiatry. Trichotillomania.
- International Journal of Women's Dermatology. Art of Prevention: The importance of tackling the nail biting habit.