Hypnotherapy is a short-term, goal-oriented treatment that takes a practical approach to problem-solving. Hypnotherapy has been shown to be effective in treating many anxiety related behavioral issues such as nail biting and hair pulling. A typical course of treatment will include five to ten sessions with clients attending 60-minute sessions weekly.
It relies on the premise that the mind is made up of conscious and subconscious parts and these parts work together to navigate day to day life. Sometimes the conscious and subconscious minds are in conflict resulting in problem states and behaviors. Through the hypnotic process, these conflicts can be resolved making it easier to achieve the desired change.
What is Hypnotherapy?
Hypnosis, or hypnotic trance, is a state of physical and mental relaxation where the critical faculty is bypassed and a person becomes open to accepting positive suggestions for change. Although some people appear to be resistant to hypnosis,1 even they can benefit from the process by simply following the suggestions of the therapist as best they can.
Physical and Mental Relaxation
The first step in achieving a hypnotic trance is to relax both physically and mentally. This is accomplished by moving through a progressive attention through each part of the body. The therapist will guide the person with relaxing suggestions and imagery to help release and let go of tension. Once the body is relaxed, mental relaxation is more easily achieved giving rise to feelings of ease and peacefulness.
Bypassing the Critical Faculty
The critical faculty is that aspect of mind which analyzes, evaluates, and helps to make decisions. Even though it serves a very useful function, it is sometimes not enough to create lasting change. In the case of someone who bites their nails, they may consciously decide they are going to stop the habit but find themselves struggling to do so. This is because deeply ingrained habits and motivations are stored in a deeper part of the mind called the subconscious.
In the trance state, the critical faculty can be bypassed once the person is sufficiently relaxed and focused. This allows the person to connect directly with the subconscious mind and work with the powerful beliefs and motivations there. In the above example, the person may discover their compulsion is based on a deep need for love and safety. The therapist can then help the person find new, healthy solutions to meeting those needs.
Who Can Hypnotherapy Help With Nail Biting?
Nail biting, or onychophagia, can be a temporary, relatively nondestructive behavior. However, it can also develop into a severe, long-term problem for some people.2 In that case, the disorder is characterized by chronic, seemingly uncontrollable nail biting that is destructive to fingernails and the surrounding tissue.
Some of the symptoms of onychophagia include:
- Feelings of distress, unease or tension prior to biting
- Feelings of relief or even pleasure during and after biting
- Shame, guilt, and embarrassment related to the visible physical damage to skin and nails caused by biting
- Tissue damage to fingers, nails, and cuticles
- Dental problems, abscesses, and infections
- In some cases, nail biting may lead to complicated family and social relationships
People who experience mild to severe onychophagia can benefit from hypnotherapy to manage, control, and even eliminate the urge to bite their nails.
How Can Hypnotherapy Help Someone With Nail Biting?
It is natural for people to experience some kind of stress and anxiety from time to time. However, when these uncomfortable feelings result in body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) such as nail biting, hair pulling, or skin picking a person’s quality of life can be adversely affected.
With its emphasis on physical and mental relaxation, hypnotherapy can be a highly effective treatment for various BFRBs.
Hypnotherapeutic techniques for working with these behaviors include:
In order to achieve sufficient relaxation to enter the hypnotic trance state, the therapist will guide a person through a progressive attention to each part of the body. Through mindfulness, focused awareness, and soothing suggestions, a person is able to release tension and stress. Once physical relaxation is achieved, mental relaxation comes more easily. Through this process, symptoms of stress and anxiety that can trigger the nail biting behavior are often greatly reduced.
Pattern Interruption Techniques
Oftentimes nail biting and other BFRBs are triggered by specific feelings or situations. By becoming aware and mindful of these triggers a person can apply what are known as pattern interruption techniques. When a trigger is noticed, the person can begin a physical action such as tapping their hand or wrist while repeating a positive statement such as “I am feeling anxious and I can choose to do something other than biting my nails.”
Anchoring Resource States
In the dreamlike state of hypnosis a person imagines themselves in a situation that triggers nail biting. With the guidance of the therapist they are then instructed to imagine a new resource state such as feeling calm or at ease. Once that state is achieved, the therapist will then ask the person to “anchor” the feeling by choosing a physical gesture such as making a gentle fist or rubbing their finger and thumb together. When the anchor is engaged in the future, the person is able to remember and experience the resource state and avoid the unwanted behavior.
In addition to all of these techniques, many hypnotherapists will suggest various self-management tools to deal with the nail biting urge as it may come up in the future. These can include instructions for self-hypnosis, deep breathing exercises, and self-guided relaxation meditations.
It should be noted that some conditions may benefit from the support of other treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, hypnosis as a complementary treatment has been shown to increase the chances for successful outcomes in behavior change.
Example of Hypnosis for Nail Biting
A typical course of hypnosis treatment for nail biting will include an initial assessment, several hypnosis sessions, and some kind of follow-up and support. During the initial assessment a person may be asked about their past and current experience of chronic nail biting. As this can be connected with another medical and mental health issue, a therapist will likely ask about any past or current treatments so they can coordinate with other providers as needed.
Some other areas that may be explored before treatment begins include,
- Identifying what triggers episodes of nail biting.
- Clearly noting all the physical and emotional symptoms that accompany the urge to bite one’s nails. These can include mental images, inner dialog, looping thoughts, and physical sensations.
- Clarifying the person’s desired outcome from the treatment. For example, feeling relaxed, at peace, and at ease during situations that used to trigger the unwanted behavior.
Using all this information, the person will then work with the therapist to create hypnotic suggestions and a plan of treatment that will best support behavioral change.
Next are the actual hypnosis sessions. The number of sessions needed will vary from person to person. Some people experience satisfying results after one or two sessions while others benefit from a longer program of treatment.
During the first session, the therapist will induce the hypnotic trance, guiding the person into a state of deep relaxation and focused awareness. In addition to the strategies mentioned above a therapist can then employ various techniques to relieve the symptoms as well as address the underlying causes of nail biting.
Post Hypnotic Suggestions
While in hypnosis, a person is more amenable to accepting and implementing positive suggestions. These are most effective when delivered in the present tense. For example, “Whenever I feel the urge to bite my nails, I remember to breathe and relax.” The key to post hypnotic suggestions is that they are both believable and offer desirable alternative responses to the behavior.
Normally, a person experiences a problem state feeling they are at the mercy of whatever has triggered it. Future pacing is a technique that effectively teaches a person how to imagine and expect more desirable outcomes. While in trance, a person will imagine themselves in a situation where they are likely to bite their nails. They will then be instructed to imagine themselves feeling safe, at ease, and in control of themselves. They may then imagine successfully resisting the urge to bite their nails and feel all the positive feelings associated with that success.
Often, unwanted behaviors have their source in traumatic memories of past events.3 In hypnosis, it is possible to revisit those memories with better resources. For example, a person who is anxious or phobic around dogs may remember they were bitten by a dog when they were a child. In the trance state, they can re-experience the event with the full knowledge that they survived, that they are now more capable of protecting themselves as adults, and that not all dogs are a threat.
Is Hypnotherapy Effective for Nail Biting?
Although there has not been a great deal of research on the effectiveness of hypnosis specifically for nail biting, there is evidence to support that it can be used to treat a variety of behavioral issues.
A case study in 1981 showed that a 26-year-old woman with an 18-year history of severe trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling) eliminated the self-destructive urge to pull out the hair on her scalp by the adjunctive use of hypnosis during psychotherapy. Hypnotherapeutic suggestions enhancing control of the “irresistible urge” to pull out her hair are detailed in the study.4
A study of three chronic nail biters showed that hypnotherapy was effective in both the short and long term. Hypnotic and behavioral procedures included standard induction and deepening techniques, motivation enhancement, time-projection, self-reinforcement, aversion-relief, coping self-instructions, and posthypnotic suggestion.5
In 2003, three pediatric cases of trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling) were treated with direct hypnotic suggestion with exclusive emphasis on sensitizing and alerting the patients to impending scalp hair pulling behaviors. This provided an effective treatment that extinguished the scalp hair pulling in seven visits or less. These cases received follow-up at intervals up to 6 months and no evidence of relapse was found.6
A 2017 study of alternative treatments for excoriation (skin picking) found that hypnosis, when used as a channel for other types of interventions, such as psychotherapy, can help counteract the stress that triggers the picking behaviors in some patients.7
How to Find a Hypnotherapist
As hypnotherapy becomes more popular and accepted, the consumer has more choices available to them than ever before. There are important steps to consider when looking for a hypnotherapist, including:
Learn More About Hypnosis
A little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to making decisions about your health and well-being. Become more knowledgeable about hypnosis by reading articles and books, watching YouTube videos, and listening to podcasts. See some of the resources at the end of this article for more information.
Check Potential Therapist’s Credentials
The requirements for practicing hypnosis vary from state to state and country to country. Check the credentials of any prospective therapist and make sure they are qualified to practice in your state or region. Credentials can include degrees in other fields, or the types of hypnosis training your prospective therapist has received.
Schedule Multiple Consultations
Many hypnotherapists offer free initial consultations. Schedule several of these to personally meet a number of different therapists and compare their services. You can also “get the feel” of the person through your conversation. Ask yourself, do you feel comfortable sharing your issues with them, do they seem to have empathy for you, and do you feel like you have good rapport with them.
Interview Prospective Therapists
Since you are about to hire a person to perform a valuable service, treat your initial consultation like a job interview. Ask them about their experience with helping people with anxiety. What kind of success have they had with your particular issue? Do they offer any additional support before and after your sessions? What kinds of clients and issues do they most want to work with?
At-Home Hypnosis for Nail Biting
Many of the techniques and principles of hypnosis can be applied at home. If you are looking to treat a serious mental health condition, be sure to seek the advice of a professional mental health provider before trying these yourself. Besides helping to alleviate nail biting urges and symptoms, these techniques can also yield secondary benefits in other areas of life.
One of the requirements for entering into hypnosis is cultivating a state of focused awareness. Mindfulness techniques can be practiced at home to develop a more fine-tuned awareness of the body and emotions. Over time it can result in a heightened ability to recognize the symptoms and triggers of onychophagia as soon as they come up. It then becomes possible to manage the symptoms before they intensify.
Most hypnotherapists incorporate some kind of progressive body relaxation into a hypnosis session. This mindfulness technique is easy to learn and use at home. Simply find a quiet space, close your eyes, and bring your attention to each part of the body from the top of the head down to the feet. Spend some time noticing where there is tension or stress and do your best to let go and relax.
The mechanics of a self-hypnosis session are not that difficult to learn. The basic components include establishing physical and mental relaxation, maintaining focused awareness, and temporarily bypassing the critical faculty.
For Further Reading
The following are helpful additional resources for anyone interested in hypnosis for nail biting:
- A video of a self-hypnosis session.
- The American Hypnosis Association has been in existence since 1968 and maintains a searchable directory of hypnotherapists and hypnotists.
- The American Academy of Dermatology Association has a guide with tips to cope with and stop nail biting.
- Nationwide Children’s offers a helpful guide on how to get your child to stop nail biting.