The news of the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of people on edge. And for some of us, that anxiety can lead to some nervous habits.
I have one, and it’s not something I should be doing right now.
I was driving home from work a couple of weeks ago — back when commuting was still a thing — and I heard yet another radio story on a point that had seemingly been echoing everywhere: “Don't touch your face.”
As listened, I realized — I was biting my nails. That’s not unusual for me. I’ve been doing it without thinking for most of my life. But I realized that with a spreading pandemic, that bad habit could be dangerous.
Dr. Elie Murray, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, agrees. Murray said said the virus needs to get in the lining of my mouth, nose or eyes to infect me.
“And so anything you do to kind of help the virus get from the outside world into those moist parts of your face is going to increase your risk of catching the virus,” she said.
A lot of people are taking this risk. Researchers from Cornell University estimated that up to 30 percent of people have what’s scientifically called onychophagia.
My habit’s pretty tame, and my nails look OK. I consider it an “oral manicure.” But with the novel coronavirus out there, I don’t want to do it anymore.
Psychologist Nancy Keuthen of Mass General Hospital and Harvard Medical School recommended I keep my nails trimmed. She also said I should make a fist with my hand and hold it tight whenever I feel the urge to bite.
“Hold it for 60 seconds,” she said. “Over time, you then associate this behavior to the triggers instead of the behavior that we're defining as dysfunctional.”
Dr. Laurie Craigen — associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine who also has a private practice in psychiatry —said this is a major issue for some of her clients.
“It's caused severe infections," she said. "It interferes with some of their relationships because sometimes their hands are so raw and so painful and they can't stop.”
I realized recently that when I’m away from work for a bit, my nails grow longer. Apparently my job is making me bite my nails.
“Sometimes anxiety doesn't necessarily manifest into a place where we say, ‘I am anxious,’” Craigen said. “Sometimes it really manifests in a physical way.”
Craigen used to be a nail-biter herself and a pretty serious one, she said.
“It was really interfering with my career,” she said. “You can't be sitting in front of someone, in close proximity, fiddling with your hands and fingers and having blood run down your hands. It's a lot of shame and embarrassment with that as a mental health provider.”
What Craigen did to stop — and what she helps her clients with — is something called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. She said we often try to distract ourselves from unpleasant emotions by doing something like biting our nails. What we need to do instead is embrace those feelings.
“Right, and so when you sit in an experience and move towards that emotion rather than move away from it, that emotion will pass because every emotion passes like a wave,” she said.
A lot of this is happening subconsciously. And hypnotherapist Arthur Schwartz said there’s a good way to attack it on that level.
“In a hypnotic state, it's easier to get at that subconscious place where you can begin to change your behavior,” he said.
Schwartz said people could use the novel coronavirus as a tool to quit nail-biting. When you start doing it, visualize in your mind the electron microscope image of the virus that's being used in the media.
“And if you understand that when you get hypnotized, that motivation will be extremely helpful for you to successfully quit nail-biting.”
But, good luck getting an appointment with a hypnotist these days, since most offices are shut down because of the pandemic.
I realized, to really stop this, my conscious mind also needs to become aware I’m doing it. So I tried applying a clear a nail polish that has a really bitter taste.
Like everyone, I really don’t want to get this virus. And hopefully now I can at least reduce my risk by avoiding a habit that’s literally leaving a bad taste in my mouth.