Biting the hand that feeds myself
January 1, 2015 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I bite my hands when I am angry, upset, overstimulated or frightened, so hard and so often that I have (sometimes bloody) calluses on both hands. Why do I do this? How can I stop?

I don't do it on purpose, and am usually completely unaware that I'm doing it at all. I think I've been doing it since early childhood.

When I am in public, I can control it, but it takes up a lot of mental resources to do so.
posted by sleepy psychonaut to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is a self soothing mechanism that you learned to do at a very young age to help deal with stress or fear. One short term solution is to wear cotton or wool gloves for a while all day so that when you go to bite you have a barrier between your hands and your teeth that's safe to chew on. If you committed to using the gloves daily for 30 days you might be able to break the habit. If after the 30 day mark the subconscious compulsion to soothe yourself is still there, you're going to need to deal with this more directly and figure out how to treat your anxiety and find a non destructive self soothing mechanism with the help of a doctor and therapist. The good thing is that a resolution is totally possible! You will be the best person to decide where to start in terms of treatment (gloves first vs time to go to a doctor and treat the cause). :)

FWIW, I also self soothe destructively by biting my nails and picking at my skin and hair. Some of it is stuff I learned from my mom who learned it from her mother, and some of it is stuff I just developed over time to deal with very specific stressors. I now take Xanax to pull myself out of hyper obsessive spells where I'm doing terrible damage to my face or hands, and you'd never know I have the problem just by looking at me now.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:01 PM on January 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

Give yourself another stimulation to do with your hands whenever you catch yourself with the biting. Make it something easy (keep a rubber band around your wrist and start stretching and twisting it, maybe) just until the urge to bite happens.

Just being as mindful as you can be about when you're doing it, noting what's triggering it, and actively replacing it might be of help.
posted by xingcat at 2:03 PM on January 1, 2015

This sounds like a form of self-harm, which is a coping strategy that people sometimes develop when they are overwhelmed. There are lots of reasons why people might do it but the root is about suppressing intense emotions. Stopping usually involves developing alternative methods of emotional regulation and perhaps treating underlying issues. See here and elsewhere on the web. A lot of this is written about cutting, but I think it could apply to your situation too.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:05 PM on January 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Ugh, I keep writing answers and losing them. Anyway, I have Tourette Syndrome, and the feeling of performing an action compulsively without realizing I'm doing it is very familiar to me. This is a real neurological issue, not an issue of self control or a bad habit.

Read up on trichotillomania and dermatillomania. Does any of that seem familiar to you? I believe you ***may*** have the same underlying issues in the brain, but your body has picked a different way to act it out.

I apologize for the self-link, but I wrote an article about my Tourette Syndrome and how I trained my brain to stop compulsively performing my most harmful tics. I actually think the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Tics would be helpful for you. If you are interested in seeing a therapist, I would recommend you find someone with experience in treating OCD and/or who specializes in CBT; if you can find someone with specialized CBiT training, all the better.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:11 PM on January 1, 2015 [10 favorites]

Also: this is so, so, so, so common. So many people have issues with picking their skin and hide it because it's seen as shameful and unclean. You would never know I had Tourette's if we met casually, but it's a huge part of my life. You are not alone.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:12 PM on January 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

My husband does this. I use shea butter on the callouses at night, and during the day give him pencils and wooden spoons (seriously) to chew.
posted by Toddles at 3:14 PM on January 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you are picking badly enough to cause open sores then you might want to try anxiety medication to help you unlearn this bad habit.
posted by myselfasme at 3:29 PM on January 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can (sometimes) suppress my fidgeting/picking urges by focusing on sitting still as a goal in itself - an action, rather than an absence of other action, you know what I mean? I tell myself "you are an elegant grownup! you can do this sitting still thing! look, it's going great!" not "suppress urge to pick suppress urge to pick suppress urge to pick."
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:36 PM on January 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

You replace it with a safer outlet or deal with the anxiety and strong emotions directly by taking medication if you're having a huge overreaction to regular stress or changing your circumstances to reduce stressors. I have been helped by a low dose of Prozac and replacement activities like chewing a tether/toothbrush, getting someone I trust to brush my hair, and also recognizing a stressful event and giving myself separate relaxing time to recover instead of powering through like I used to do I'm not pushed to using harmful methods to manage my stress.

But be kind to yourself when you do bite. It doesn't make you weak or bad. It's being overwhelmed and dragging yourself to the surface through the most immediate way you know.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:22 PM on January 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What viggorlijah said above is true, biting does not mean you are weak or bad. Hell, almost all mammals have the hardwired urge to pick or groom or scratch at themselves.

There are therapeutic chew objects that are designed to be be bitten. Perhaps, as a first step, you could try one instead of your hand. And work on reducing your anxiety.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:07 PM on January 1, 2015

I'm also a lifelong nibbler. I do it when stressed, but more often, automatically and absentmindedly, e.g. when reading. I'm going to try the advice upthread and here; a number of people reported successfully managing biting or picking by having weekly manicures and regularly applying lotion to their hands.

The few times in my life I temporarily stopped biting altogether without any effort on my part coincided with beach vacations. So, I'm inclined to think better stress management would indeed help. (I guess it could also have had something to do with 12 straight hours of exposure to sunshine, swimming in salt water, and fresh air, but you can't just call that up any day, can you.) For me, chewing gum does help reduce the urge a bit. (I recommend Dentyne because it's easier on dental work than most other chewing gum. Something I found out the hard way.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:07 PM on January 1, 2015

I did this a couple years ago when my anxiety got really bad. Therapy helped a lot, not directly (I was embarrassed to tell my therapist I was biting my hands), but to bring down my overall anxiety to the point that it didn't bubble up that high.
posted by Jeanne at 7:41 PM on January 1, 2015

See a therapist. It may be neurological, as suggested above, but psychological motives are also very possible.

Mention to your therapist that you jokingly titled this AskMefi thread, "Biting the hand that feeds myself". Haha, yes, it's a joke - but it has meaning, or you wouldn't have said it.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:58 AM on January 2, 2015

Also, I'm typing this with badly-chewed fingernails, a lifelong habit that replaced sucking my thumb, which means I've been depending on oral feedback for self-comforting since birth. And I really think your hand-biting is not very different from my nail-biting. When I went on anxiety meds, I grew the first set of 10 fingernails I'd had since I quit sucking my thumb as a child.

It's a lifelong habit, and so I haven't kept them perfectly, but ... it was stunning to look down one day and realize I had 10 nails. I carry a picture of them in my phone. That's how important it is to me.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:03 AM on January 2, 2015

Response by poster: I wanted to provide an update in case this thread is ever of interest to anyone else.

Therapeutic chew objects for the win! I got a few of these cute necklaces ( I also started taking a supplement called NAC and my dermatologist prescribed a urea cream to dissolve the calluses.

My hands already look better.
posted by sleepy psychonaut at 4:49 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

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