Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States. Approximately %18.6 of the population suffers. But only a fraction of those people seeks treatment.
The way people cope with anxiety disorders varies. Some try to manage with healthy coping mechanisms like committing to a fitness habit or meditating. Others resort to more detrimental behavior like abusing alcohol or drugs.
In between these two extremes are things like nervous habits.
Nervous habits are defined as gestures, movements, or actions that we usually do when we’re nervous, but not only in those circumstances. Most of us have them, but they can become problematic.
If you’re struggling to overcome nervous habits, there are some things you can do to change your behavior and manage anxiety and stress in healthier ways.
Types of Nervous Habits
There is a wide range of behaviors that could be classified as nervous habits. Here are some of the most common:
- Biting your nails
- Cracking your knuckles
- Cracking your neck
- Chewing pencils or gum
- Pulling or plucking hair
- Twirling your hair
- Skin picking
- Skin scratching
- Grinding teeth
- Licking your lips excessively
- Biting your lips
- Biting the inside of your cheeks
- Thumb sucking
Some of these examples like hair twirling are relatively mild, but most of these habits can become so problematic that the behavior becomes disordered.
Before your nervous habit gets out of control, there are some things you can do to break your nervous habits and replace them with healthier coping mechanisms.
5 Tips for How to Stop Nervous Habits
1. Keep a Notebook to Identify Your Habits and Patterns
We are our habits. They make up the majority of our everyday lives and most of what we do is based on what we have done before in a previous situation.
Keeping a notebook to write down your habits and patterns is one way to take control of your life and make better decisions without having to overthink things. You can also use it to identify when you need to change your routine or behavior.
We often engage in nervous habits without even realizing it. Using your journal to record the types of habits you express when under pressure and the circumstances surrounding them will enable you to get a full picture of the problem.
For example, if you are diligent about keeping a journal you will start to see predictable patterns. Do you start scratching your arm whenever there is a meeting at work? Maybe after school, there is a lot of chaos in your home and you catch yourself pulling at your hair around dinner time.
Understanding the triggers for your habits is the first step in consciously replacing the negative behaviors with healthier options. Journaling is one tool to help you start.
2. Develop an Action Plan to Address the Problem
Once you’ve established your primary triggers, you can start creating a plan for tackling your nervous habits. Keep in mind, the plan must address the root cause of the problem.
Create an outline that determines:
- The main habits you’d like to change
- Common triggers that initiate these habits
- Healthier substitutions
- A plan for incorporating these substitutions in a variety of circumstances
For example, let’s say that you’re a nail-biter. You realize that you bite your nails when you’re bored, speaking to a new person, interacting with your manager at work, and when dealing with an important project.
Your action plan should thoughtfully examine each situation and identify a healthier habit swap.
For example, if you find yourself waiting for an appointment, have something you can do with your hands like playing a game on your phone, playing with a fidget spinner, or some silly putty.
If there is a meeting scheduled, maybe you can do a quick breathing exercise beforehand. The night before you can cut your nails short and even use bitter nail polish to deter you from biting your nails during the meeting.
Invest time into your plan and you’ll get the most out of it.
3. Manage Your Brain, Not Just Your Nervous Habit
There are also things you can do to manage your anxiety and stress levels that will help you beat your nervous habit. Deep breathing exercises are a great example.
There are a lot of benefits to deep breathing. It can help calm your nerves and put you in a better mood. It can also improve circulation and reduce any physical tension you may have accumulated over the course of your day. Breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system which relaxes and calms your entire body. Even five minutes of deep, mindful breathing can help your body reset.
Exercise is another important activity for stress management. It doesn’t even have to be rigorous. Walking and gentle stretching can have big benefits. When you move your body, you are improving brain health, lowering stress levels, and giving yourself an endorphin boost.
4. Practice Techniques That Help You Calm Down
When you are feeling a bit stressed out, do something that calms you down at the moment. This is related to #3 in many ways.
This might be doing yoga, meditating, going for a walk, or having a cup of tea. The key is to find what works for you and do it every day. Alternatively, there are also some calming activities like coloring or another craft hobby that might work. The idea is to give your brain and body something to do besides focus on what is bothering you.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also an effective technique that has been found to help people deal with stress and anxiety disorders in the long term. CBT helps people identify what causes their anxiety and how they can change the way they think about it to reduce their anxiety levels over time.
5. Get Support from Friends and Family
Family and friends can be great resources whenever you’re trying to make a big change in your life. Get them on your team!
If your nervous habits are second nature, you might not even realize when you’re doing them. Letting your friends and family know that you’re trying to stop a certain behavior helps you because it gives you another layer of awareness.
You might not realize you’re biting your nails at the moment, but a friend can bring it to your attention and you can then stop and employ whatever replacement habit you’ve chosen.
Friends and family are also great cheerleaders and can help you celebrate your wins along the way.
Bottom Line on How to Stop Nervous Habits
Nervous habits are not something to take lightly. While many are harmless, it is easy for these quirks to become something more nefarious. If you’ve got a nervous habit you want to get control over, there are things you can do to break free.
Once you recognize that you have a nervous habit that has the potential to become disordered or compulsive, it’s time to commit and step into action. And don’t be afraid to get help if you’re struggling to kick the habit on your own. You got this!