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What Do Nail Biting & Hair Twirling Reveal?

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 6 Nov 2015 | comments*Discuss
Nail Biting Hair Twirling Playing With


I am currently writing my dissertation on the stigma surrounding nail biting and hair twirling, I was wondering if possible could you provide me with any information these aspects of body language reveal about the individual?

(Mrs Katie Rogers, 17 September 2008)


Nail biting and hair twirling are two quite explicit forms of body language. Both nail biting and hair twirling can be either conscious or subconscious body language gestures, each revealing some interesting aspects of the character, emotion and inner workings of the individual.

Nail Biting

Nail biting is a non-verbal gesture. In adults it is often a habit that is adopted and carried through from childhood and can become apparent in stressful situations throughout adulthood. To most people, nail biting is associated with nervousness and shyness and is an involuntary response to certain social situations. In many cases, it is an adaptor behaviour that channels nervous energy, inactivity or boredom and does not interfere with normal functioning, the only effect being cosmetic. In severe cases nail biting can become a repetitive behaviour that is intentionally performed. It can result in substantial physical damage.

So when we look deeper, in both adults and children, it has been suggested that severe nail biting is often referred to as a method of ‘self-beating’. This indicates that nail biting is a subconscious behaviour signifying increased anxiety and low self-esteem in the perpetrator. In fact, some have gone as far as to suggest that extensive, frequent nail biting in children can even serve as a cue indicating that child has suffered some level of abuse. However, it’s worth noting that this is not necessarily the view of all psychologists.

Playing With Hair

Playing, twirling, fiddling and hair pulling can be indicative with a number of emotions and behaviours. For instance, children that bite their nails and frequently pull or play with their hair may be nervous or have low self-esteem. Hair twirling may be a comforting action for a child who is tense and anxious, and may become habitual later in life in stressful situations. Routine and severe hair pulling (trichotillomania) can be a compulsive disorder that may be linked to genetics, anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. It is most commonly thought to be a stress-related condition.

However, fiddling with hair is also another non-verbal body language that can signify different things in different situations. For example, hair twirling can signify interest and desire. Women in particular are noted for hair twirling when talking to someone that they’re attracted to. It is regarded as flirtatious and preening behaviour, perhaps inviting or inciting the other party to touch their hair. But in other situations, as above, hair twirling can signify anxiety, incompetence, uncertainty or shyness. Why not find out more about how to read body language here?

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I'm a 16 year old female and I find it very difficult to concentrate during class because I'm always petting myself and running my fingers down strands of my hair. I stroke the top of my head until I find a looped knotted out of place or rough hair and then I pinch it and drag my fingers along its length. If I find that its very rough and short I will pull it out to examine it closer. I may or may not take a chunk of hair and put it against my lips/cheek and put pressure over them for a few seconds. I will continue this process for hours until my arms are very tired and my fingers almost feel raw from overstimulation. I first noticed myself doing this about a year ago and it's been getting worse ever since. I'm tired of looking weird and worrying that I'm distracting my peers as well as myself. I also have anxiety, ADD, and OCD. Please help me break this frustrating habit!
€milia - 6-Nov-15 @ 7:36 PM
So I'm 16 years old and all my life I've twirled my hair and pressed it up against my face and my parents would always tell me to stop but it seems as if I can't. Like this has become apart of my daily life because I do it every day.. I feel like it makes me feel better and I'm wondering how a habit like this could really make someone feel better..?? Like how does it work..?? Because it would be nice to know to explain it to the people I have in my class's because they think I'm weird. But I can't help it.
Adri - 26-Oct-15 @ 6:55 PM
I'm 27 and I've been twisting, playing, and making loosing knots since I was a child. My whole life I had short hair and I would still twist what I could. I finally have grown my hair out for the first time and I'm constantly messing with my hair one way or another. I can't stop sometimes I do it so much it gives me a headache and my arms are super tired! It's just so exhausting! I'm just glad I'm not the only one. Growing up I just felt like the wearing crazy girl at school.
Cassie - 26-Oct-15 @ 2:32 PM
Its annoying to watch people playingbwith their own hair
joey - 27-Sep-15 @ 1:48 AM
I am one of you that is experiencing this disorder since i was a little up to now, I tried to google it now while im at work coz I noticed that it's getting worst than I expect it. at first i thought it was some kind of mannerism but it's not. I knot my hair, pull and squeeze it to my lips of part of my cheeks that would result to headache. Now, i am seeing your sides that we have both problem. I don't want to drink medicines that mentioned above. When I was in college I stopped thumb suck, biting nails but now it seems twirling of my hair is the hardest part one to stop.
yce - 27-Jul-15 @ 6:57 AM
I twirl my hair constantly! I do it without realising, but what I have realised is that I do it more so in stressful situations. It comforts me in a way. Nail biting, I have never done.
Jen - 8-Jul-15 @ 9:26 PM
I work with a special ed boy who does something similar. He sucks on his arm when he is most high strung . He is a very nervous child. I observeda girl who rocks and stimulates herself when anxious. She has a mild form of autism bc she flaps her hands in the air also when she is stressed and excited, right before a event. I also watch on woman who stimulates her lips with her hair when she is stressed, tired or insecure. I feel what you all describe is something that comforts and reduces stress for yourselves. have you noticed it takes place more when you are experiencing a lot of stress? I believe it is how the body deals with a neurotransmitter shortage. Perhaps a walk or exercise will help, build up serotonin shortage.
d light - 11-Jun-15 @ 10:54 PM
I'm 22 and I can't stop twisting and knoting my hair line on each side. I dont know how to stop. Anybody know what the secret is? Its getting bad.
Caden - 19-May-15 @ 4:11 AM
I'm a 16 year old boy and I have always twirled my hair as long as I remember except is twirl it and the i like to scratch the hair and then let it go. I don't know what causes me to do this it kinda meses with my hair so would be nice to know why i do it =D.
Noah - 7-Apr-15 @ 4:24 AM
I have twiddled my hair since I can remember. I now find myself a 28 year old and in the exact same situation. I cannot pin point what the trigger is for this and am at a loss as to why I do it. It hasn't really occurred to me that it isn't normal until recently. I tend to twiddle into plaits and then play with it before releasing and repeating for hours on end. I find myself in phases, 1 week on 1 week off dependent on my mood/state of mind I guess. Anyone have any suggestions as to why we twiddle the s**t out of our hair?!?!
uktwiddler - 31-Mar-15 @ 10:37 PM
I have been twirling my hair for as long as I can remember.Like many I even resorted to getting my hair cut very short in an effort to break the habit, but as soon as my hair grew out I started again.I also rub my hair against the side of my face and my lips.I find I do this more when I am concentrating on something than any other time.I have also noticed that I don't do it specifically when stressed and I rarely feeling particularly nervous when engaging in this behavior.Most of the time I do it without even realizing it.Since it is not particularly harmful, I have just ignored that habit.
KatieBug - 28-Dec-14 @ 12:50 PM
@Trey. Yes I know many people who twist their hair while watching tv etc. I do it myself as does my sister. I also plait it and undo it over and again! The way I see it is that it stops me 'snacking' on unhealthy food so it can't be doing much harm :)
teresa - 24-Nov-14 @ 10:30 AM
Been twisting my hair longer than I can remember, I'm 48 now.Recently married a nurse with 3 master degrees and she keeps telling me that twisting my hair is a compulsive disorder/problem. I do it when I'm watching t.v. Behind closed doors.It relaxes and fells good! so has there been any medical advice/articles that have put twisting hair into a positive condition?Would love to have her see that stuck in one of her medical journals! My son started twisting his hair right after his birth and I still catch him 10 years later twisting his hair while watching t.v..
Trey - 21-Nov-14 @ 6:15 AM
@compulsive? Wow, you have described my hair twisting process with every detail except for the mouth part, even when my hair was long enough I didn't have the urge. I have five or six spots on my head that I regularly go to town on and the goal is always that little puffy ball you describe. I let it go, just as you say, sometimes only to grab it immediately and repeat.It's crazy to think of what percentage of people do this same exact thing (I bet the % isn't a big number but constitutes a large number of people).The only thing, to date, that has helped me has been practicing mindfulness. I started to see that most of the time when I was biting my nails and/or twisting my hair, my mind was racing all over the place, never thinking in the moment but of things in the past or things to come. When I could stop myself from doing this I became a much less anxious person. It takes some dedication though and more importantly, meditation. Some people see that word and cringe, but it truly helps. At first, I was challenging myself to be thoughtless for five minutes and quickly realized I couldn't make it five seconds. Now, five minutes is flying by and I'm determined to help myself stop both of these habits altogether. It's working
Lerlips - 4-Nov-14 @ 8:58 AM
@compulsive. You should mention this when you are being treated for your other issues. If you would like it to stop, then there will be help available for you to do that too. Good luck.
BodyLanguageExpert - 27-Oct-14 @ 10:45 AM
I've never actually stopped to look into this until now, but i would consider myself a compulsive finger picker and hair "twirler". Im 24 years old and have been doing both since i can remember, the finger picking can hurt, especially as the air gets colder and my fingers get drier, the bleed alot. But ive never thought my hair twirling was a problem, but concerned me with what underlying things I may have mentally. And its not even that I just twirl my hair, i twist it into loops, and press the loops against my fingers and lips. I can do this for a very very long time. I also loop and twist my hair to the root and then squeeze it like a soft ball and left it go. Ive been diagnosed with ptsd, depression, anxiety and adhd. Im not really sure what to think of these habits, but it makes me feel "different"
compulsive? - 24-Oct-14 @ 2:32 AM
@DeeAnonymous. Yes and I think once you're in the habit it's hard to break it too.
brasher - 8-Oct-14 @ 10:16 AM
When I was much younger I used to eat the skin around my fingers nails to the point of beeding, I realized much later this was just as much as nail biting and self-hurt. Every little skin which is pealed oit or crust i feel the need to take it out. I do touch my hair and face constantly i guesss this is a sign of insecurity too.
Dee Anonymous - 7-Oct-14 @ 8:12 PM
I was definitely physically and mentally abused as a small kid right up til ...well recently as in only a few years ago - I finally "woke" up and decided I don't need to accept being a punching bag or a dump zone for others. I bit my nails as a little one and twiddled my hair constantly. Now I don't bite my nails and only twiddle when in situations I find anxiety ridden, I have a very pragmatic side and was able to discern where my anxieties came from and talked myself thru them into no longer biting nails and occasional hair twiddling. I developed a way of quietly deep breathing to slow everything down and always ensure I get my alone time to refocus and relax my mind by meditating, even if it is only a few minutes per day. I find a way. Although it has taken me years to get here, I'm glad I persevered.
Tatum - 30-Sep-13 @ 7:19 PM
i have the same problem, please help me, I hate biting my nailsand hair twirling. im not sure why i do it
jen23 - 14-Dec-12 @ 6:48 AM
Hello! In response of the hair twirling you could try putting your hair up (with no loose strands). As for the fingernails i can't really help :/ you could try dipping your nails in something like lemon juice(?)
Just somebody - 22-Nov-12 @ 4:27 PM
I am 18 years old, i bite my nails till theres practically nothing left. Also, i have a big bald spot on the right side of my head towards the neck area due to hair twirling. Please give me some advice and some causes an symptoms of these horrible problems i hate them. -extreme nail biter/hair twirler :/
Chance - 18-May-12 @ 10:57 PM
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