Many people think of nail-biting as a nervous habit, but the driving force may not be anxiety. Mounting evidence shows that people who compulsively bite their nails, pick their skin or pull their hair are often perfectionists, and their actions may help soothe boredom, irritation and dissatisfaction.
The study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, points to perfectionism — a trait that can be more damaging than many people realise — as an underlying cause.
“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviours may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform the task at a ‘normal’ pace,” Dr Kieron O’Connor, professor of psychiatry at the university and the study’s lead author, said in a press release Tuesday. “They are, therefore, prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom.”
In the study, the researchers worked with 48 participants, half of whom regularly engaged in these types of behaviours. The other participants, who didn’t participate in these behaviours, acted as a control group. The participants were asked questions about the extent to which they experienced emotions like boredom, anger, guilt, irritability and anxiety. Then, each participant was exposed to situations designed to provoke particular feelings (including relaxation, stress, frustration and boredom). In the boredom scenario, for instance, the subject was left alone in a room for six minutes.
Participants with a history of fidgety, body-focused behaviours reported higher urges to engage in those behaviours when they were feeling stressed and frustrated. But they didn’t report feeling those urges while they were relaxing.
“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviours may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform tasks at a ‘normal’ pace,” author and professor Kieron O’Connor from the University of Montreal told The Daily Mail. “They are, therefore, prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals.”
“They also experience greater levels of boredom,” O’Connor added.
The perfectionist beliefs of a person are related to how organised a person typically is. “Although these behaviours can induce important distress, they also seem to satisfy an urge and deliver some form of reward,” O’Connor told The Daily Mail.
The findings could help therapists treat patients who suffer from disorders; studies have shown that these types of perfectionist beliefs and behaviours can be eased with cognitive-behaviour therapy. If patients can learn to think and act differently when tension builds, they may be able to stop the urge before it starts.