8 Tips to Stop a Nervous Habit: Complete Guide

8 Tips to Stop a Nervous Habit Complete Guide

We all have little habits we do when we get anxious or bored – clicking a pen, jiggling our leg, biting our nails. While these “nervous habits” can sometimes be harmless, they can also be disruptive and harmful in the long run. The good news is that with the right strategies, you can kick even your most stubborn habits for good.

Common Nervous Habits and Why We Do Them

Here are some of the most common nervous habits people develop:

Nail biting

Nail biting is an extremely common habit. One study found that 45% of teenagers bite their nails regularly. It may start in childhood as a way to self-soothe anxiety. The repetitive motion becomes an unconscious fidget.

Hair twirling or pulling

Running your hands through your hair or twisting it can start as a way to deal with boredom, tension, or distraction. But constant twisting and pulling can damage the hair. This habit can be tough to break since hair is so constantly accessible.

Skin picking

Picking at hangnails, acne, scabs or other areas of skin can happen absentmindedly, or as a way to “fix” perceived imperfections. While usually painless, it can lead to infection, scarring, and skin damage over time.

Thumb sucking

Children may suck their thumbs or fingers to self-soothe or out of habit. If continued past age 4, it may affect mouth development or alignment of teeth. While not dangerous, it can be a hard habit to break if it continues too long.

Lip or cheek biting

Chewing the inside of your mouth mindlessly when you’re concentrating is very common. But long-term, it can damage your lips or cheeks. Stopping this one takes lots of mindfulness.

Leg bouncing/fidgeting

Jiggling or bouncing your leg is a way some people release tension or nervous energy. It can become unconscious and very repetitive. While not harmful, it can annoy others and indicate anxiety.

Pen clicking

Clicking a pen in and out repetitively can be distracting. It may indicate boredom or anxiety. Like lip chewing, this one requires mindfulness to avoid the unconscious urge.

The common thread is these habits start small, often arise from boredom or anxiety, provide temporary relief, and eventually become unconscious compulsive behaviors. The key is addressing the underlying cause and putting thought between the urge and action.

Why It’s Worth Breaking These Habits

You may wonder – why bother trying to break seemingly harmless habits? Here are some compelling reasons:

Stop social embarrassment

Habits like constant pen clicking or leg shaking can be disruptive or annoying for others around you. Breaking these habits can make you more pleasant to be around.

Improve concentration

Unconscious habits like nail biting or face touching can be intensely distracting. Removing them helps you focus better on tasks.

Avoid health risks

Habits that involve touching your face or mouth a lot increase your risk of transferring illness and bacteria. Skin picking and nail biting also increase infection risk. Lip chewing can lead to mouth sores. Hair pulling damages your locks.

Increase self-confidence

Many “grooming” habits like skin picking arise from a desire to “fix” your appearance. But they just lead to more irritation. Removing the habit boosts your self-image.

Save money

Habits like nail biting can require costly dental work or ruined manicures to repair over time. Skin picking may need prescriptions to heal. Stopping the habit saves you money long term.

Feel more in control

Forming any new habit makes your brain feel powerful. Ditching an old unconscious habit especially increases your sense of self-mastery.

So don’t resign yourself to “just having fidgety habits.” You can gain confidence and concentration by addressing these habits now.

How Habits Form and How to Disrupt Them

To stop a difficult habit, it helps to understand why we form habits in the first place.

According to researchers, habits form via a three-step loop:

  1. Cue – This triggers your brain to initiate the habitual behavior. The cue is often a time of day, emotion, or preceding action. For example, feeling anxious (emotion) is often the cue for nail biting.
  2. Routine – This is the actual habitual behavior, like biting your nails or tapping a pen. It is typically done without thinking in response to the cue.
  3. Reward – Every habit provides a reward that reinforces the behavior. The reward is often a temporary stimulation or relief from the cue, like anxiety relief or oral fixation.

This cue-routine-reward loop eventually becomes automatic in our brain. Your brain can even do it subconsciously!

To stop a habit, you need to disrupt this loop, either by avoiding cues, altering routines, or finding alternate rewards. Let’s explore techniques to do that now.

8 Tips to Stop a Nervous Habit

If you’re looking to stop a nervous habit, try using some of these tips. With time and consistency, you can break the cycle for good.

1. Identify Your Triggers

The first step is identifying what triggers your nervous habit. Is it certain people, situations, emotions, or times of day? For example, many people bite their nails while watching TV. Others twirl their hair when they’re anxious.

Once you know your triggers, you can be more aware of when you’re likely to engage in the habit. You can also try to avoid or alter those triggers. For instance, keep your hands busy with a stress ball while watching TV. Or, listen to calming music if conversations make you fidgety.

Knowing your triggers helps you stay conscious of your habit and catch it early.

2. Find a Replacement Behavior

Rather than try to stop a habit cold turkey, it’s easier to replace it with another, healthier behavior. Come up with a list of potential replacements you can do instead. Ideas might include:

  • Nail biting – Keep nails trimmed short or get regular manicures. Fidget with a rubber band or stress ball. Paint nails with a bitter polish.
  • Hair twirling – Braid hair or wear it up. Keep hands busy.
  • Pen clicking – Doodle instead. Snap a rubber band on wrist.
  • Leg bouncing – Tap heel gently. Do knee lifts instead. Squeeze a stress ball between knees.

Choose a replacement that works for you in the moment. Having an alternate behavior makes it easier to redirect the habit.

3. Be Accountable

It’s hard to break habits alone. Tell friends and family about your intention to stop this behavior. Ask them to gently point it out when they notice you engaging in the habit. But make sure they know you don’t want scolding – just friendly reminders.

You can also use a habit tracking app to record each time you do the behavior. Seeing it in writing can motivate you. Another option is to wear a physical reminder, like a rubber band to snap instead of biting nails. Having others hold you accountable helps reinforce your new habits.

4. Address Underlying Stress or Anxiety

For many people, nervous habits are a way of dealing with stress or anxiety. Nail biting, pen clicking, foot tapping – these behaviors provide temporary relief. But they don’t address the root cause.

Consider if anxiety or worry is triggering your habit. Things like meditation, exercise, therapy, or medication could help manage that stress. Taking productive steps to handle anxiety means you’ll be less likely to turn to unhealthy habits.

5. Get Plenty of Exercise

Exercise isn’t just good for physical health – it can also help minimize anxiety and nervous behaviors. Physical activity naturally reduces stress and releases endorphins to improve your mood.

Aim for 30-60 minutes of exercise per day, at least several days per week. This could include walking, cycling, swimming, strength training, or sports you enjoy. Moving your body regularly gives a healthy outlet for nervous energy.

6. Keep Hands and Mind Busy

Idle hands make it easier to engage in fidgety habits. Keep your hands occupied with activities like arts and crafts, doodling, household chores, yardwork, or kneading a stress ball. Having a distracting activity can help break the habit cycle.

It also helps to keep your overall mind engaged. Boredom or monotony can trigger unconscious nail biting or pen tapping as you zone out. Stay focused on work, conversations, or hobbies you enjoy. A busy mind has less urge to drift into nervous habits.

7. Practice Relaxation Techniques

Learning relaxation skills can help control anxiety and body tension tied to habits. Try useful techniques like:

  • Deep breathing – Inhale slowly through nose, exhale through mouth. Repeat 5-10 times.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – Tense and relax muscle groups one at a time.
  • Visualization – Picture a peaceful setting like a beach or forest.
  • Meditation – Sit quietly focusing on breath and clearing mind.
  • Yoga – Combine breathing, stretches, and meditation.

Use these techniques during stressful times when you’d normally bite nails or similar habits. Relaxation makes your body less jittery and nervous.

8. Be Patient with Yourself

Breaking any habit requires patience and dedication. You’re bound to slip up sometimes. Instead of getting frustrated, be kind to yourself and get back on track. Celebrate small successes like having fewer episodes per day.

Keep working to increase your awareness of the habit over time. The more conscious you become of it, the easier it is to stop. Breaking a long-term habit takes time, so stick with it.

With the right strategies and support, you can successfully stop nervous behaviors for good.

Tailored Approaches to Stop Specific Habits

While the general tips are useful for any habit, you may need to tailor your approach for specific behaviors. Here are effective techniques for some of the most common habits people want to curb:

Stop biting your nails

  1. Try bitter polish or bandages to make nails unpleasant to bite
  2. Keep nails trimmed short to remove temptation
  3. Fidget with putty or kneadable erasers instead
  4. Reward yourself for days with no biting
  5. Consider professional help for chronic nail biting

Stop pulling or twirling your hair

  1. Wear gloves or bandages on your hands to limit access to hair
  2. Style hair tightly to reduce pulling or stroking
  3. Keep hands busy with textured tangles or clay
  4. Use hair accessories like clips or headbands
  5. See a counselor if it arises from anxiety

Stop picking your skin

  1. Eliminate magnifying mirrors that intensify “flaws”
  2. Keep hands busy with squeezy stress balls
  3. Hide problem areas with bandages or clothing
  4. Reduce overall stress and anxiety
  5. See a dermatologist if chronic and severe

Stop sucking your thumb or fingers

  1. Try bitter polish to deter the habit
  2. Reward yourself for nights without sucking
  3. Wear gloves or bandages to limit temptation
  4. Ask for help from parents, teachers, dentist
  5. If anxiety-based, try counseling

Stop lip or cheek chewing

  1. Keep mouth busy with gum, lollipops, toothpicks
  2. Put reminders to stop on your desk or computer
  3. Apply ointment, lip balm or cold packs to problem areas
  4. Reduce overall stress and anxiety
  5. See a doctor if soreness or bleeding develops

Stop restless leg bouncing or fidgeting

  1. Do seated stretches and massage to relax muscles
  2. Take regular movement breaks to release energy
  3. Sit still for 3 minutes, then reward yourself
  4. Try meditation and calming hobbies before bedtime
  5. See a doctor if pain or numbness accompanies it

Stop clicking pens compulsively

  1. Switch to pens without clickers or that click quietly
  2. Keep hands occupied with a fidget spinner or molding clay
  3. Make it a rule not to click pens in quiet settings
  4. Set up reminders on your phone or computer
  5. Ask others to point out pen clicking to raise awareness

The key is finding a tailored plan that works for your specific habit, lifestyle and motivation level. Don’t give up if one approach fails – experiment until you disrupt the habit loop for good.

When to Consider Therapy for Habits

While most minor habits can be broken with self-discipline and these strategies above, some cases benefit from professional support:

  • Habits that significantly disrupt work, school or relationships
  • Habits that cause physical injury like skin wounds or calluses
  • Habits you have failed to stop after serious repeated attempts
  • Habits driven by underlying mental health conditions like anxiety, OCD or ADHD
  • Habits that provoke serious shame, isolation or depression

Seeking counseling or therapy can unearth root causes driving the habit, like trauma, genetics or clinical disorders. Therapists have extensive training in habit reversal training and cognitive-behavioral techniques.

Medications may also be appropriate if the habit stems from a diagnosed psychiatric or neurological condition. Talk to your doctor.

Don’t be afraid to admit you need help stopping a habit. Everyone struggles with behaviors they find tough to tame on their own. There’s no shame in enlisting extra support from professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to break a habit?

It usually takes 3-6 weeks of consistent effort to fully break a minor to moderate habit. Long-standing habits ingrained since childhood or those tied to mental illness can take 2-3 months of dedicated work. Don’t get discouraged in the early weeks if you are still slipping up – stick with your plan.

Can I stop multiple habits at once?

It’s best to focus on one habit at a time. All of your mental willpower goes towards breaking that habit loop. Once it’s fully broken after a few weeks, you can start working on the next one. Overwhelming yourself trying to stop several habits at once usually leads to failure.

Why do I go back to the habit after stopping for a while?

Old habits have a strong pull even after you think you’ve conquered them. Stressful events can trigger your brain to fall back on old routines. Just resume your habit-breaking steps again as if starting over – reinforce the new non-habit behavior. Don’t let slip-ups discourage you.

Are habits a sign of mental illness?

Not necessarily. Many habitual behaviors are just learned coping mechanisms to stress. But certain conditions like OCD or body dysmorphic disorder can manifest in habits like compulsive hand washing, skin picking or hair pulling. This is where therapy helps address the root cause. Don’t hesitate to seek help.

Can medicines help stop habits?

Prescription medications or supplements are not usually appropriate for ordinary minor habits. But for habits with an anxiety, OCD or ADHD component, medications may be helpful alongside counseling to reduce the urges driving the habits. Talk to both a therapist and medical doctor.

The bottom line – you are not powerless against even strong, long-term habits. With the right mix of mindfulness, motivation and behavioral strategies tailored to your personality and habit, you can break the cycle for good. Celebrate each victory along the way. Your brain and body will thank you.

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