Nail-biting breakthrough could help put an end to repetitive habits

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A new approach was shown to help 53% of participants in a six-week study aimed at easing body-focused repetitive behaviors such as nail-biting, hair-plucking and skin-picking.

The habit replacement strategy involves touching skin gently, such as by lightly rubbing fingertips together or rubbing the palm or back of the arm, at least twice a day, according to research published Wednesday in JAMA Dermatology.

The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors reports about 5% of the global population has these mannerisms, which can lead to scabs, scars and bald spots.

Some 268 people — who had trichotillomania, a condition where people react to stress by pulling out hair, or by chronic nail- or cheek-biting habits — participated in the study.

'Habit replacement,' helped 53% of participants in the study.
The habit replacement strategy aims to ease body-focused repetitive behaviors such as nail-biting, hair-plucking and skin-picking.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

They were split into two random groups. One was tasked with habit replacement while the other was told they were waitlisted for treatment. This latter group was trained on habit replacement at the end of the study.

Around 80% said they were satisfied with the training for the self-help intervention, while 86% would recommend it to others.

“The rule is just to touch your body lightly,” lead study author Steffen Moritz, head of the clinical neuropsychology working group at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany, told NBC News. “If you’re under stress, you might perform the movements faster, but not with more self-applied pressure.”

Person showing both hands with bitten nails.
Around 80% of participants in a six-week study said they were satisfied with the self-help intervention, while 86% would recommend it to others.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Study authors noted more research is needed, but they hope the approach could join tried-and-true techniques for body-focused repetitive behaviors, such as decoupling — which involves starting to perform a habit, but changing it up at the last minute.

For example, nail-biters are told to put their fingers toward their mouth before redirecting them to their ear, nose or another point away from their mouth.

“I would say one-third to half of the patients with BFRB benefit from decoupling, but the rest do not,” Moritz said. “And so the idea was to find another technique that is perhaps more suitable for these nonresponders.”

Hands rubbings together.
The research shows that the light-touching technique helped 53% of participants.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Habit reversal therapy, meanwhile, requires reducing the cues that lead to the problematic behavior and developing a competing response.

“So, they might involve, for example, clenching your fists really tight when you have an urge to pull your hair or pick your skin. It might be sitting on your hands,” Natasha Bailen, a clinical psychologist at the Center for OCD and Related Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, explained to NBC News.

Medications like antidepressants may help some sufferers, although none have been specifically approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat these conditions.

This article was originally published on New York Post: Lifestyle

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