Nail Picking: A Sign of Anxiety?

Nail picking and biting may occasionally appear as a coping mechanism. In other instances, these common behaviors may be difficult to control and are done habitually in response to anxiety disorders.

Nail biting, in particular, is especially common. It’s thought to start at some point during childhood, with about 45 percent of teens showing this behavior. Still, many others persist past the age of 18. In fact, 20 to 30 percent of people are thought to engage in habitual nail biting.

Nail picking or biting aren’t individually recognized disorders by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, they may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Such habits may also be considered a body-focused repetitive behavior, which can coincide with anxiety.

Researchers believe that nail picking may indicate an underlying issue if you:

  • compulsively pick your nails out of habit
  • continue to bite or pick at your nails despite any resulting injuries
  • try to hide your habits out of shame
  • repetitively continue with these behaviors

If you struggle with chronic nail picking or biting, you may also be at risk for other types of body-focused repetitive behaviors, including:

  • cheek biting
  • hair pulling, or trichotillomania
  • skin picking disorder, or excoriation
  • teeth clenching or grinding, or bruxism

Other symptoms of anxiety

Picking and biting your nails aren’t the only symptoms of anxiety. Other indicators of anxiety can include severe symptoms that interfere with your everyday life for at least 6 months, such as:

  • irritability
  • trouble falling and staying asleep
  • irrational fears, or phobias
  • constant worry
  • concentration difficulties
  • muscle tension
  • restlessness
  • fatigue

Body-focused repetitive behaviors like nail biting and picking may also be symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When you engage in these behaviors, you gain pleasure or relief, which then continues the cycle. Research also shows that nail tics (repetitive movements) may relieve tension.

As a subtype of anxiety, OCD is known for creating a cycle of obsessions and compulsions to help cope with unwanted thoughts and feelings. It’s also possible to have OCD along with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Other related mental health disorders with nail picking behaviors include:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • separation anxiety disorder
  • Tourette syndrome