Bleeding in Books

I just started reading The Girl on the Train (2015) by Paula Hawkins. Immediately, I noticed a line that made me wonder, as it does in any other book.


Every time I read about somebody biting themselves or clenching their fists hard enough to make themselves bleed, I am skeptical. I mean, I understand that the human body bleeds, and that people can bite through lips or rip open hands, but I don’t understand how this is done in sheer anxiety or upset.

I bit my lower lip so hard it bled one time. I was about three years old, and I don’t remember it, but apparently I tripped and fell hard enough into a dense object that I needed stitches. I still have the scar.

Recently, my daughter bit her bottom lip with her two front teeth hard enough to draw blood. Lots of blood. We were at my dad’s house in Missouri, and while he was gone taking my grandma to her doctor’s appointment, little Daphne fell while playing with the dog and while I was in the shower. I emerged from the shower to the sound of my little sister Afton saying, with great concern and urgency in her voice, “Emily! Emily?” I came out half dressed to find my daughter covered in blood. All over her face. In her mouth. Dripping down her sweater. We rushed her to a local clinic, where they checked her out and found that she had almost bitten all the way through her lower lip, but not quite. We got her cleaned up and calmed down, and she was finally able to tell us that she had tripped over the dog while playing “house” with it in the upstairs bathroom. It hadn’t bitten her, and she certainly hadn’t bitten herself over emotional concern while thinking about the mysteries of life. She hadn’t bitten through her lip in fear or anxiety, or when closing her eyes and counting to ten.

And yet, I read about characters in novels constantly feeling so much anguish that they accidentally make themselves bleed with teeth and nails. Is this a possibility? Are such descriptions meant to evoke a familiar response from me? Can something like this really, truly happen? I guess it could, if one is scared enough or has not groomed one’s fingernails in quite some time.

What are your thoughts on this? Is this a viable way for a character to experience anxiety or stress in a novel? I’m not convinced.