Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Nervous Habits

Nervous Habits. Stress Habits. Anxiety Habits. I have quite a few of them but some of them actually hurt. I tend to tear at my fingers. I push back my cuticles. I tear them off. I rip at my skin around my fingers. I never used to bite my nails, but on long car rides going home to see my family I find myself ripping my nails off too. Until I bleed. I can’t seem to stop either. It hurts. I know this isn’t good. Especially as it makes doing anything throughout the day hurt as well. Washing my hands, soap and lotion, sting. Bending my fingers at all, which if you’re even remotely functional as a person you’ll notice you do almost continuously throughout the day, my skin is tight and painful. This isn’t good. It hurts and I hate it.

When I’m incredibly stressed out it becomes kind of a compulsion.  I’m not sure why. And I’m not sure how to stop even though I know this isn’t helping me in any way. I just can’t stop myself.

At university I had a group of 6 friends in my major and we’d all study together. One of them wasn’t quite the high achiever I was. He would come in to class periodically, sit next to me, look at my hands (as I took notes with multiple pen colors), and blanch… “Oh crap, when’s the test?” I had such severe test anxiety I would destroy my fingers in the few days preceding any of our tests and consequently have band-aids on half my fingers. He’d see all the band-aids and know we had an exam. It was seriously ridiculous. It still is. It’s been getting worse lately.

I’m trying so hard to remain grounded and optimistic about this move, but I’m so incredibly stressed out.
A habit is an activity that is acquired, done frequently, done automatically, and difficult to stop. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines habit as: a) a thing done often and hence, usually, done easily; practice; custom; b) pattern of action that is acquired and has become so automatic that it is difficult to break.

“Sometimes, a nervous habit begins as a reaction to a physical injury or psychological trauma. When the behavior continues long after the original injury or trauma, takes on an unusual form and is performed in excess, it becomes a nervous habit. Often, a habit begins as a normal behavior that becomes more frequent or becomes altered in its form.”

I don’t even remember when these particular habits started. Cherry Pedrick, RN says, “Think back to the first time that you performed your particular habit. If you are like most of us, you don’t remember the first time. It probably started as one behavior among many behaviors in your daily life. It may have relieved anxiety, stress, or boredom. Most nervous habits do; that is their purpose. You did it that first time and it brought relief, so you did it the next time you faced a stressful situation.  It was incorporated into your behavior patterns and you forgot why you did it the first time.”

I think this is true for me as well. Especially in the way that it momentarily refocuses my attention on something other than the stressor at hand.

I find it concerning though because it also reminds me of my self-harming behavior that I’ve done so well to recover from. I’m not saying that nervous habits like nail biting or skin picking or whatever are on the level of self-harming behavior, but in myself I see a correlation. It’s a way to manage and reduce anxiety.  In myself the habit gets bigger the greater the stressor becomes. I recognize this so it’s important to find more constructive ways to redirect that focus. I don’t even realize I’m doing this half the time until I’m in the middle of it.

Clearly I’m a bit older now, but I’ve always had nervous habits. I sucked my thumb as a child. I know a lot of kids that did. Often the development of this kind of habit serves an important purpose, usually comfort. “We call them nervous habits but more commonly it's about being overtired, out of control, or trying to concentrate,'' says clinical psychologist Laura Gutermuth Foster, who researches developmental disorders at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. They’re responses developed to soothe where soothing is otherwise not found.

I guess it doesn’t surprise me that I still have these kinds of habits, but it’s interesting for me to note that I’ve always had them in some form or another. And in many instances my habits have become rituals which are a whole new level of compulsion.

It’s good to take note of these things. Especially if you feel the need to quit. I think this is a problem for me because I want to stop and I’m struggling to. I’ve quit other kinds of destructive habits before, so I’m sure I can do this too. This one keeps coming back though. By time I notice it though, I’m full swing in the middle of something that isn’t destructive enough for most to consider it “a problem”, but is uncomfortable enough that I don’t want to do it. And it’s never so bad as when I’m stressed out. Stress is unavoidable in life, so it looks like I need to work on managing mine a little better. Ugh.

Do you have any nervous habits?


  1. Nervous habits for me are probably not eating or just cleaning CONSTANTLY! I'm also a picker. I'd like to ask though, do you recall how you stopped sucking your thumb. I'm torn for things to make my 8 year old stop!?!? :)

  2. First, thank you for this great blog. I has helped me understand what my ex-girlfriend may have been dealing with before she suddenly dumped me and started the silent treatment with me just over a year ago.

    My ex-gf always had very nice, French manicured nails. I never thought anything of it, until I met her family at the lake. She had removed the fake acrylic nails that weekend... and her fingers were literally in her mouth for two straight days. It was like Ms. Pacman going after fingernails instead of pellets!

    It dawned upon me that it's really tough to chew on your nails when they're made from plastic!

  3. Be thankful you don't smoke! I could go through a pack in a couple of hours, back in the day. After I quit i had to do something with my hands, so I started 'shredding' paper, especially beermats. Now I don't drink either, so that habit has been shelved.

    I always picked my nails/skin/cuticles too. It's free for all on my toes, but I try not to slaughter my fingers any more. Too damn painful plus, I really admire long, beautiful nails. I wish I had them, but I don't... I have soft, weak nail that flake and chip. One little nic and the whole nail tip rips off anyways.

    Oh well. At least I cracked the smoking habit!

  4. My anxious nervous habit and its is automatic is biting the skin on the inside of my lips and cheeks ... the more anxious or nervous or bored i become the more I do it... Ive had a good spell but these last few months i have become so anxious and i cant put my finger on what is causing it , if anything .... but to the point i am now getting sleep terrors

  5. Having just stumbled upon this, I find it very relateable. It really sucks. I also have BPD. My habits involved tensing my muscles, first on one side, then the other for whatever area. Also, I tense & pull back my thumbs, which is actually starting to seriously damage my joints. I squeeze my eyes shut repeatedly, too. It's terrible how self conscious these tics make me feel. They were much better for a while, but have recently gotten worse again. I have no idea how to break them!

  6. I pick at my head CONSTANTLY I'll pick until I get scabs and then I will pick at the scabs. Sometimes my whole head is just a scab it seems like. And its embarrasing because I will find myself doing it when I'm around people and I don't even realize it and when I do realize I'll stop only to be back at it 3 minutes later. I kinda just zone out and its a huge stress relief but It also damages my hair and I get paranoid when my boyfriend is playing with my hair cause I don't want him to feel the scabs.

  7. o man that's so cool, not that yall pick your shit, that I am not as weird as thought. the main article just made me feel better because it was like I wrote it. I would bite at my fingers from the bottom of my palm/wrist all the way to the fingernails. my hands look so gross and no amount of time at a nail salon could even begin to make it look better. I went to one as a joke one time to see what they would say, she was like "yea... uhmm. maybe you should rub some vitamin e lotion on your hands for afew months and come back" i bite around my nails so much that my cuticles and quicks of my nails hurt so bad I cant even bend my fingers. and I know that while im picking/biting in particular areas that im gonna pay for it later. but I don't care because if I don't get that piece of skin off RIGHT NOW im gonna go crazy. its just there taunting me. I try not to pay attention but my other fingers are constantly rubbing over that area reminding me "yo dude you gots to get this piece of skin NOW" my dash board on long trips is riddled with pieces of skin that ive bit/spit. I know its gross. my fingers also look like a poster for the arthritic foundation from popping them since I was shitting green. but when ppl ask about my unsightly hands I just say. them there are working man hands. I get tired of biting..? no problem. take out the fingernail clippers and that there is hours of fun picking at my hands and fingers. talk about pain the next day. I try to keep them hid. but its hard to forget were they are.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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