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Anxiety and Stress Disorders

Lip Biting

04/04/2008

Question:

I have a nervous habit of biting the inside of my lips... sometimes to the point where they bleed and I can`t bite anymore off. It is the worst when I play sports. I play softball for my college and was wondering if it would be a good idea to use a mouth guard to stop biting them so much.

Answer:

I cannot answer for you whether you should wear a mouth guard to stop biting your lip -- you and your health care providers will need to make that decision.

Many nervous habits are just that, habits, and with some work on your part they can be changed.  When "nervous habits" become so pervasive that they affect your ability to live your life or do what you want to do, then it may be that you have an obsessive - compulsive disorder.

I am repeating below an answer I gave previously about nervous habits:

What you are describing could be a "nervous habit" or it could be a "compulsion."  It is impossible to tell with a brief internet description.  I recommend that you talk to your primary care physician or a mental health professional to better help you figure out what is going on.

Nervous habits are common, repetitive actions we do to help us in stressful situations or when we are feeling some mild anxiety.  The actions of nail biting, hair twirling, skin picking, etc. focus our sub-conscious attention on the activity and allow us to get through the stress or anxiety.  The actions then become habits because we do them again and again because they were successful - we made it through the anxiety by biting our nails, so we continue to do so.  Nervous habits often begin in childhood, and may continue into adulthood unless we find more successful ways to deal with stress and anxiety such as talking with friends and family, exercise, meditation, prayer, etc.  Occasionally "nervous habits" continue just as habits because we have done them so often.  They no longer serve a purpose to decrease anxiety, but we do them because we have done them for so long.

Compulsions are different, and are part of a more serious anxiety disorder called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person almost feels driven to do.  They are aimed at preventing or reducing distress (or preventing some dreaded event) but they are either not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to prevent, or they are clearly excessive.  For example, if someone feels driven to wash their hands ten times in a row each time they wash in order to kill germs, the excessive hand washing will not realistically decrease germs, but a person with OCD will feel anxious or upset if they don't do the handwashing 10 times. 

People with compulsions eventually recognize that the behavior is excessive or unrealistic, but they feel powerless to stop the behavior because their level of distress is so high if they don't do the compulsion.  Eventually, these compulsive behaviors interfere with a person's life -- they either take so much time or cause physical, work or social problems.

When a person finds it impossible to stop a behavior that has negative consequences for them, it is a good idea to get some professional help.   Luckily, treatments today can really help people with these problems.

For more information:

Go to the Anxiety and Stress Disorders health topic, where you can:

Response by:

Nancy   Elder, MD Nancy Elder, MD
Associate Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati