Attention hair twirlers, nail biters, leg twitchers, and skin scratchers. If you’ve ever wondered what’s behind your compulsive habits – and how to stop them for good – we’ve got the answers.
We sat down with, Dr. Robert London, founder of the short-term psychotherapy unit at NYU Langone School of Medicine, and a practicing physician and psychiatrist with over 30 years’ experience treating obsessive behaviours. What we learned is that, while nervous habits are personal and stem from the same basic roots: anxiety, stress or learned behaviours, there are some commonalities.
The word, from the good doc.
Why do I bite my nails (or pull my hair, twitch my legs, etc.)?
Stress and anxiety are common culprits, says Dr. London. Many nail-biters will amp up their nibbling during times of tension and uncertainty. But nervous habits can also be learned. “You could be watching a parent or person in your life who bites their nails,” and begin to unconsciously mirror their actions. “I think a lot of nail biting is done unwittingly,” he says.
Is it serious, Doctor?
“Whether [nervous habits] are an illness or not is really very, very vague,” says Dr. London. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists nail biting and other nervous habits as obsessive compulsive disorders, but that doesn’t mean everyone who bites their nails has OCD. It could be an issue of impulse control, or simply a nervous habit.
But even if it’s not serious, any habits that bring your fingers into your mouth should be curbed for your health’s sake. Hand washing is the number one defense against contagious illnesses, but it’s no good if you’re always touching your fingers to your lips before you can clean them, says Dr. London.
How do I stop?
You have to want it. “You can’t complete a treatment like this – where someone’s got to modify behaviour – unless they want to modify it, because they have to follow a routine,” says Dr. London. “Basically treatment is some form of relearning or behaviour modification to replace the nail biting – or the skin picking or the hair pulling – with some more constructive, acceptable behaviour.”
Can I do it alone?
If stress and anxiety are spurring your bad habits, there’s a lot you can do yourself to avoid them. Mindfulness, meditation, exercise and yoga are well-established stress-busters — even knitting has been known to help. It doesn’t matter which method you choose to increase the peace in your life, says Dr. London, so long as it works for you. But for long-term behaviour modification, he recommends seeing an expert.
Is this going to cost me years of expensive therapy?
No. It’s telling that Dr. London founded and ran the short-term psychotherapy unit at NYU Langone School of Medicine. One to two visits with a behaviour modification expert is all it should take to replace your bad habit with a more constructive behaviour, like stroking your face instead of biting your fingers, or touching your skin instead of scratching it. For effective results, Dr. London suggests looking for a specialist – a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric social worker or psychiatric nurse practitioner trained in behaviour modification, relearning theory or hypnosis.
Will I be rid of my habits for good?
Nothing’s perfect all the time, says Dr. London. One day you might need a refresher session with your chosen expert. But a little behaviour modification and a lot of stress reduction is enough to bust most nervous habits for good.