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Hey, Matt:

I have this really gross habit of biting not only my fingernails but the skin around them. I've been doing this since I was a little kid and have been told it's a "nervous habit." But I'm not really a nervous person. I just enjoy doing it. Why am I doing this? Is it common? I know bout that stuff parents put on kids' fingers to get them to stop, but it'll never work with me. I'll just get used to the taste.

-- Chewy, the net

By now you're in a pretty exclusive club, Chewy. Surveys say only about 5% of adults bite their nails. Virtually all of them started as little tads; 28 to 33% of kids bite their nails at some time. Adolescents 44%. And 20% to 30% of young adults. You may not be "nervous," but from what's known about the activity, it likely started as a tension-reducer and now has mutated into a full-blown habit. It may serve no calming purpose now, but it did at one time. (Although nail-biting certainly calms you down when you have the uncontrollable urge to bite your nails.) It's an activity like lip chewing or knuckle cracking, or hair twisting. They're sometimes called "control patterns" because they can stop or reduce the tension caused by bad feelings. Do you come from a family of nail-biters? It can be a learned habit.

As for getting rid of it, how about willpower? You may bite your nails unconsciously, so try to catch yourself before you do and stop the habit pattern. Substitute a good habit for that bad habit (toothpick, gum, something mouth satisfying). Carry nail clippers and a file to keep your nails neat. And, hey, I'll bet anything there's a 12-step Nail Biters Anonymous out there somewhere.

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