Study: Psychologists Placing Nail-Biting In ‘Obsessive Compulsive’ Category

By Benjamin Fearnow
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Psychiatrists are considering pushing nail-biting into a more sever category of diagnosis. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Psychiatrists are considering pushing nail-biting into a more sever category of diagnosis. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBS WASHINGTON) – New psychological testing places nail biting in the pathological grooming category of, “obsessive compulsive disorder.”

The American Psychiatric Association, in a new study published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is rethinking how “pathological groomers” – aka nail biters – should feel about themselves.

In testimony from an afflicted nail-biter, National Public Radio spells out some of the personal anxieties that one nail-biter felt during their 30 years of the habit.

“I can tell you the exact moment I became a nail biter. I was 6 years old, watching my mom get dressed for work,” Amy Standen told NPR. My reaction: How cool! How grown-up! I think I’ll try it.”

Recently, something happened that made me finally quit biting my nails. I’ll get to that in a bit. But I was feeling quite pleased with myself when I showed them to Carol Mathews, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco. “Your cuticles are pushed back. It’s not bad. Looks like you’re a recovered nail biter is what I’d say,” she pointed out.

Until recently, the DSM treated pathological grooming a bit like an afterthought and put it in a catch-all category called “not otherwise classified.” But the new DSM proposes to lump together pathological groomers and those with mental disorders like OCD. That includes people who wash their hands compulsively or have to line up their shoes a certain way.

The behaviors have much in common. In both cases, it’s taking a behavior that’s normal and healthy and putting it into overdrive, doing it to the point of being excessive. But in at least one way, OCD and pathological grooming are also very different.

But from her pathological grooming patients, Mathews hears a very different story: They enjoy it. “It’s rewarding. It feels good. When you get the right nail, it feels good. It’s kind of a funny sense of reward, but it’s a reward,” she told NPR.

There are some genetic mutations that seem to crop up in people with OCD and in people who groom pathologically. But just because you have the mutation doesn’t mean the behavior is inevitable.

“With OCD, it’s more likely you won’t, says Mathews. “As genetically determined as OCD is, the risk to a family member for someone who has OCD is only 20 percent. So it’s 80 percent chance of not getting it,” she says.

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