A collage of writer Rebecca Fearn and one of her nail art designs featuring polka dots

“How nail art helped me to manage my OCD during the pandemic”

Posted by for Beauty

Welcome to Beauty Feels, a series exploring the different ways in which beauty routines and rituals can provide emotional support and aid journeys of self-discovery. 

The pandemic has been hard, particularly for those with mental health illnesses. Here, beauty journalist Rebecca Fearn explains how nail art helped her manage her OCD.

I was diagnosed with OCD and generalised anxiety disorder 11 years ago. For me, the OCD manifests itself through intrusive, anxious thoughts – called obsessions – followed by monotonous checking rituals, known as compulsions.

They include worries about everyday things, like not turning the taps off which will lead to a flood in my flat. Or a concern that I’ve left my hair straighteners on and it’ll cause a fire. I know those worries might sound familiar to some people, but for me, there’s a constant need to seek reassurance or carry out repetitive checks which is exhausting. The act of engaging in these so-called checking rituals helps stop the worries in the short time, but long term it exacerbates things and it can turn into a nasty cycle.

That’s where the problem really lies, and it’s why I’ve found the last year and multiple lockdowns really tough. I predominantly treat – and manage – my symptoms with ongoing therapy and medication, but when the usual things I took solace in, like seeing friends or going to spin or pole dancing classes, were no longer an option, I had to find another way to keep myself occupied.

Having always loved a fresh manicure, getting my nails done was something I was really missing when the world began to shut down. So, while some people were baking banana bread or taking up cross-stitch, I started painting my nails.

Rebecca's silver nail art, featuring lightning bolts and rainbows
Rebecca started practising nail art during lockdown.

It started on a day when I was feeling particularly stressed — Boris Johnson was doing yet another one of his briefings – and while I was scrolling through Instagram for the 100th time, I saw something that caught my eye. One of my favourite London-based salons, Shoreditch Nails, were offering at-home nail art courses, which included a dotting tool, a cuticle stick and some false nails to practice on, plus a link to watch step-by-step videos created by the salon’s nail technicians.

A couple of days later, my kit arrived and I started playing around straight away. I wanted to use it as a real self-care moment, something I hadn’t really done until now. So I made myself a cup of earl grey, put Practical Magic (my favourite movie) on and laid out everything I needed on a table in front of me.

I immediately became captivated trying all the different designs, and after making the most of the course and other YouTube tutorials I found, I ordered a UV lamp, lots of gel nail polishes, and more tools to help my new hobby along.

Ironically, I’m still not very good at painting my nails – my right hand always looks like its been done by a toddler – but for me, it’s not really about the end result; it’s about the process. I find nail art comforting and familiar, something that I can turn to when I’m bored and lonely, or feeling particularly anxious, or when I need a distraction from everything happening outside of the walls of my flat. It demands an intricacy that I need pure concentration for, plus it’s a healthy way to help me channel my need for order. When I’m focused on nothing except keeping a steady hand and drawing shapes onto my nails, there’s no room for the intrusive worries that often invade my brain.

Writer Rebecca Fearn with nail art
Rebecca bought an at-home nail art course from Shoreditch Nails.

It was only when I was chatting to nail technicians I know and admire that I discovered I’m not the only one who finds it to be a form of emotional support, particularly during hard times. “My team and I find painting nails and doing nail art really therapeutic,” explains Tina Michael, founder of Shoreditch Nails. “It’s quite similar to painting on canvas or doing crafts; it’s a way to switch your mind off and focus on something else for a few hours.”

Marissa Marsh, an artist at Still in east London, says that like me, she turned to nails while she was doing her GCSEs, which was a stressful time in her life and one that she pinpoints as a time when her passion for nail art really began.

Rebecca's polka dot nail art
A polka dot nail design Rebecca did in lockdown.

As well as serving as a distraction, nail artists agree that perfecting a new design helps improves their overall mental health. “If I watch a tutorial and try to master the skill myself, I feel a sense of achievement when I get it right, which boosts my morale,” says Suzi Rezler, founder of press-on nail company Naillery, which launched during lockdown. “The same goes for creating my own designs, where an idea goes from a concept in my head to a physical piece of art,”

I’m now the one my friends come to for their own nail art ideas, and my Instagram has, in part, become dedicated to showing off my creations, however questionable the final results might be. And while I know therapy and medication are the key to managing my OCD and anxiety, nail art has become a comforting coping mechanism that serves as a way to distract me while also making me feel creatively challenged when I’m struggling, and for that I’m incredibly thankful for stumbling across that Shoreditch Nails Instagram post during the height of lockdown.  

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Images: Rebecca Fearn

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