Psych Central

Anxiety and nail-biting

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Hello,
I have been biting my nails and biting/picking the skin around my nails since I can remember, probably 8-10 years old. I used to pick at my acne very badly, but I found the cause of my acne and my face has cleared so it’s not a problem anymore. I have tried to stop many times, thinking it was merely a bad habit, but it seems like no matter how hard I try, or how much progress I make, I can’t rid myself of the issue. It’s definitely much better then it was when I was doing it unhindered, but my husband has taken a great interest in helping me stop doing it and supporting me.

I just feel like its something I can never fully stop. I seem to do it consciously when I’m stressed, but it also seems to just happen unconsciously to keep my hands busy. I have a very hard time staying focused if I’m not doing something with my hands, like doodling/picking/knitting, etc.

I also consider myself a very anxious person. I don’t know if maybe this contributes to my bad habit. I think my level of anxiety is not proportionate to the problems I face, but I don’t know how to regulate it. The last time I had a job interview, I was shaking, sweating, and on the verge of tears. I KNEW it was crazy. I was prepared for the interview. I just can’t make myself calm down. If I have a long shift the next day, I will panic for hours the day before wondering how I will ever make it through the day. Social interactions that involve me being judged/rated/scrutinized (even in a positive way) make me especially nervous, and I especially fear confrontational situations.

Those are just a few examples, but occasionally I feel like the anxiety “builds up” .. every 1-1.5 months I kind of have a “breakdown”. I’m getting better at managing them, because I can feel it coming.. like I just have a generalized feeling (for days) of outright fear and panic, despite no apparent causes. During these phases I can get stuck in these cycles of horrible thoughts, things I shouldn’t need to worry about, like what will happen after I die, and if my husband will be there when I die, or my husband hating me, or other bad things which I know aren’t true but I can’t convince myself otherwise.
I also get in a state where I can’t, like, pick something to do. I’ll have several things, work on this craft project, watch a movie, surf the web, do laundry, but I can’t pick anything. I’ll waste hours fumbling around doing something I’m not interested in while I try to decide on something I am. By then I’ve wasted so much time I get frustrated. It’s like I spend so much time trying to decide what the best use of my time is that I end up throwing it all away.

I also have an insane fear/stress of being in darkness alone? Like I can’t walk through a darkened room, I have to go into the next room/hallway and turn on the next light before turning off the room I’m in so I’m not stuck in an unlighted area. I’m afraid of ghosts/aliens/supernatural beings.. I know they aren’t real but I can’t cope with not doing it. Before I started living with my husband, I’d do this, but now that he’s started working at night and I sleep by myself it’s happening again.. I can’t sleep unless I’m totally surrounded by items/pillows/etc.. it’s like they keep me safe somehow. I also need several layers of blankets. If I don’t I literally can not sleep, I know this sounds stupid/childish, I THINK it while I do these things but I can’t not do them. When my husband is there I don’t need the other things!

These are things I’ve been living with for a long time, so it’s not an emergency, but I’m looking for advice to help cope with my stress and self-inflicted wounds. I don’t have health insurance, while I’d love to see a therapist I don’t know how to find one that’s affordable. I do plan on seeking help when a health plan is available to me but until then any advice is appreciated. I also apologize, I know a lot of these things sound crazy and I feel a little silly typing them, but I just really want some help. I’ve been watching shows and reading about OCD (which some say skin picking is linked to) but I just don’t feel like my issues are that severe? I mean besides the skin picking, I don’t repeat any of these actions over and over again?
-Confused? Anxious?

A: What a hard way to live. Everything on your list is related to anxiety in one way or another. Even the nail biting is a common way that some kids learn to do to manage their anxious feelings. Surrounding yourself with pillows is quite literally a way you have to cushion yourself in a world that you find anxiety-provoking and scary.

Usually this kind of pervasive anxiety is a result of three things: a temperament that is higher strung and more sensitive than most; insufficient coping skills, and experiences you’ve had in your life that tell you you absolutely do have legitimate things to worry about. You can’t change your temperament but you can learn many more ways to help yourself calm down and live more comforably.

Ideally, you should find a therapist to help you learn the coping skills you lack. But if that support isn’t available to you, you can work on yourself with some well-chosen self help books and a support system on line. I recommend “Feeling Good” by David Burns as a solid place to start.

Please stop scolding yourself for being who you are and start working on making life more manageable. Since your husband is an important support for you, perhaps the two of you can work on the exercises in the book together.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Sep 2010

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2010). Anxiety and nail-biting. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 24, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/09/10/anxiety-and-nail-biting/