26 Mar 2024

Nervous Habits

There are many ways in which we can display our stress, frustration or discomfort when we are interacting with other people. We may feel we are handling a difficult situation with ease and aplomb, but all the time a jiggling leg is betraying our inner turmoil.

Fiddling and fidgeting can undermine the persona you are trying to project and can transmit your own feelings of discomfort to other people. How do you control your own nervous tics and what do you do if another person’s irritating habits are driving you mad? We’ve taken a look at three common problems:

Nail Biting

We refer to perilous situations as “nail-biting”, ie causing great anxiety and tension, so there is little doubt that a tendency to gnaw at your nails and cuticles communicates nervousness. This compulsive behaviour may well be a reaction to anxiety, stress or boredom, and the first step towards eliminating it is to identify situations in which nail biting occurs, focusing on the emotions that are prevalent at these times. Once you have identified which scenarios send you into nail biting overdrive, you might be able to modify these situations. Most importantly of all, you will be beginning to monitor your own behaviour and it is important, if you are really going to kick the habit, to be extremely self-conscious and self-aware about your behaviour.

If you are tending to bite your nails because of stress or negative emotions, you might find it helps to find other ways of occupying your hands – twirling your pencil, tapping your finger and thumb together, clasping your hands and rotating your thumbs etc. All these habits are much less intrusive and will not communicate the same level of anxiety to other people.

Another approach is to make the whole process uncomfortable. Keep your nails short (they will offer less temptation), or invest in a regular manicure, which will mean you are less willing to ruin something you have paid good money to maintain. There are various nail polishes available which have a bitter taste – a foul taste in your mouth may prove to be a powerful disincentive.

The important thing to remember is that nail biting is a highly visible nervous habit, which may also leave an unsightly aftermath of chewed and inflamed cuticles and ragged fingernails. Other people will be uncomfortably aware of your nail biting and this is particularly so in an era when many of us interact through video calls, which tend to magnify nervous habits and tics because they force people to focus, without other distractions, on your face.

If you have a friend, relation or partner who is a compulsive nail biter what should you do? Nagging someone about an unfortunate personal habit may well increase the negative feelings that propel the behaviour, so tread with care. Registering, as tactfully as possible, that there is a problem is a good starting point, and it is often easier to do this if you are talking about a third-party situation, rather than your own revulsion. So if, for example, a nail biter is preparing for an important job interview, it would be helpful to point out that you know they have a tendency to bite their nails when they’re nervous and it would be a good idea to find a way of controlling the compulsion. In this scenario, you are offering useful advice rather than airing your own frustration.

Hair Twirling

Fiddling with your hair, twirling it around your fingers, scrutinising split ends, stroking… these common habits are all self-soothing behaviour, a reaction to stress or boredom. In the case of hair twirling, there may also be an element of flirtation, of drawing the eye towards an attractive physical characteristic, or the habit might be revealing a sense of anxiety about your appearance. On the face of it, this is a relatively innocuous habit; but it can mutate into a compulsion and can eventually lead to damage to the hair and scalp, especially when fiddling with the hair turns into pulling it out.

As with nail biting, the solution is to identify the problem, and to be self-aware about the occasions when it takes over. Again, it is a highly visible nervous habit, especially in the era of video communication and other people may well find it both distracting and disturbing.

If you do identify yourself as a hair twirler, you should recognise that your habit is communicating feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem. These are not attributes that you want to convey to the rest of the world, especially in a job interview or at an important meeting. Women with long hair might take the simple precaution, in these situations, of tying their hair back or fixing it in a tight bun to avoid easy temptation.

Mentioning the habit to a hair twirling friend is awkward, but at least in this instance you can encase any criticism in a compliment, by saying something like “you’ve got really lovely hair, but if you keep touching it, it makes you look nervous”.

Leg Jiggling

Compulsive foot tapping or knee jiggling is a very prevalent nervous habit. It can communicate high levels of energy and restlessness, which many onlookers will interpret as impatience. Alternatively, it is yet another way of relieving stress and nervous anxiety.

Shuddering limbs may be concealed beneath a table or desk, apparently making this a less visible nervous habit, but this compulsive movement can be so fast and intense that it sets up vibrations, or is audible, and therefore communicates itself, irritatingly, to other people.

It has been theorised that when we are anxious, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol build up in the body. The body prepares itself to deal with the stress with a “fight or flight” response, which means it is flooded with excess energy, which is discharged through, amongst other things, leg jiggling.

This habit will not cause you long-term physical harm, but it is certainly a good idea to acknowledge it, and to try and assess what is setting your leg off. Calming yourself down through breathing exercises or other self-soothing behaviour, or even getting up from a sedentary position, walking around and discharging some of that excess energy will all help. A regular exercise regime is also an excellent way of controlling energy levels.

If someone’s leg bouncing is driving you mad, it’s probably a good idea to point it out. You can do so good natured and humorous way –“Did you know your leg is going up and down like a piston? My whole desk is shaking!”, rather than waiting until you feel like screaming at the offender.  Alternatively, you could directly, and compassionately, question them about their stress: “are you okay about that deadline? It’s just that I’ve noticed that your leg’s been jiggling all morning”, which is a good way of alerting them to the habit. A more oblique approach is to suggest that they do something physical – make you a cup of tea, take a lunch break, take out the dirty dishes etc – just as a way of breaking the cycle.

Ultimately, you may just have to leave the room, or move desks. As with all these nervous habits, stopping the behaviour is only possible when the person responsible is aware of their compulsion and conscious of the impact it is having on other people, and that can be a long journey.


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