Nervous Habits: What You Should Know About Them

Nervous habits don't always receive the attention they deserve. As a matter of fact, they can significantly limit the lives of those who suffer from them. In this article, we tell you what they are and how to approach them.
Nervous Habits: What You Should Know About Them

Last update: 02 November, 2021

You probably know at least one person who bites their nails. You might even have resorted to this action yourself on occasions when you’ve been nervous. It’s a seemingly simple and pretty harmless action. A nervous habit. However, if we focus on the origin and possible long-term consequences of these kinds of actions, we see that they’re rather significant. Therefore, in this article, we tell you everything you need to know about nervous habits.

Although we don’t usually pay too much attention to them, nervous habits affect a significant percentage of the population. Their prevalence varies significantly, depending on the specific type of habit. For example, some of them are present in one to four percent of the population, while others reach rates of between 10 percent and 45 percent.

Nervous habits can occur both in children and young people as well as adults. However, how do they affect our day-to-day routines? Let’s take a look.

Nervous habits

Nervous habits can be defined as repetitive, impulsive, and functionless behaviors. In other words, they have no purpose and are carried out, most of the time, involuntarily. They can consist of verbal or motor repetitions, which are difficult to control for the sufferers and which can affect their performance in their day-to-day lives.

These nervous habits are rather similar to tics but are slightly different. In fact, nervous habits are usually simpler, have a shorter duration, and appear quite suddenly. Tics, on the other hand, are more complex and elaborate behaviors that last longer.

Man with nervous habits

Types of nervous habits

There are vocal or motor nervous habits. One example of a motor nervous habit is trichotillomania or hair-pulling. A vocal one might be echolalia, which involves the repetition of words that have been heard previously.

In addition to these, there are many other nervous habits. Picking the skin, scratching the ears, biting the nails or lips, rubbing the legs… there are many variations. There’s a tendency for them to be focused on the head and neck area, but they can affect any part of the body.

As a matter of fact, any repetitive, uncontrollable, and non-purposeful activity (it has no objective) is likely to constitute a nervous habit. Especially if it meets certain of the parameters we mention next.

How do they originate and why are they maintained?

Nervous habits have their origin in states of anxiety, restlessness, or activation. Faced with a state of nervousness, these repetitive behaviors give the sufferer a sense of calm, make them feel self-regulated and comfortable. Indeed, it’s only with these repetitive behaviors that they feel any sense of relief from their discomfort. Therefore, the urge to carry them out becomes irresistible.

However, the problem arises when this behavior is automated, hence it becomes a habit. At this point, the individual no longer needs to experience anxiety for them to carry out the behavior. In fact, it can arise simply in moments of boredom or distraction. Furthermore, it occupies more and more of the individual’s time.

When the habit becomes as ingrained as this, it’s likely that the individual often isn’t even aware that they’re carrying it out. For this reason, putting a stop to it is difficult.

Is there treatment?

Nervous habits can generate a series of unpleasant consequences both on a physical level (injuries, damage, or infections) and on a psychological level. Furthermore, people often become limited in their social activities due to feelings of shame that others might discover their habit.

For this reason, adequate treatment is important. Indeed, although sometimes these nervous habits are temporary, they generally tend to last over time.

Since nervous habits are closely related to anxiety, certain drugs or psychotherapies that help reduce anxiety can be beneficial. However, it’s the habit reversal technique that’s proven to be the most effective in this area. In fact, this therapy helps sufferers to be more aware of themselves and to identify the moments in which they commence the problem behavior.

Woman biting her lip

If you have nervous habits, seek help

Finally, it’s important to remember that nervous habits aren’t voluntary. They’re uncontrollable and become automated over time. They arise in response to states of restlessness and anxiety and can have serious repercussions on the health and well-being of the sufferer.

Therefore, if you identify with any of the above symptoms, don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance.

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  • Ladouceur, R. (1979). Habit reversal treatment: learning an incompatible response or increasing the subject’s awareness?. Behaviour Research and Therapy17(4), 313-316. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0005796779900032
  • Teng, E. J., Woods, D. W., Twohig, M. P., & Marcks, B. A. (2002). Body-focused repetitive behavior problems: Prevalence in a nonreferred population and differences in perceived somatic activity. Behavior Modification26(3), 340-360.