Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Overcoming Nervous Habits

If you're human, you probably have a nervous habit---a very normal coping mechanism that once distracted you or calmed you down when you were feeling bored or anxious. It worked so well that the next time you were uncomfortable, you did it again, and soon it became a habit. The following are a few examples. You'll notice that some of these habits are harmless (except that they betray your nervousness), while others can develop into more serious issues.

  • finger tapping/toe tapping
  • gum chewing
  • hair twirling
  • rattling keys in pocket
  • rushed speech
  • fidgety fingers
  • pencil drumming
  • touching face or hair
  • cracking knuckles
  • nail biting
  • skin picking
  • teeth grinding
  • comfort eating
  • smoking
  • drinking

If you're reading this, chances are you or someone you care about has concerns about a nervous habit that has gotten out of control. What started out as a simple distraction or act of self-soothing has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps it has become a source of embarrassment, or is limiting your success. Maybe it has even developed into an addiction or obsessive/compulsive behavior.

What to do

Advice on the subject of nervous habits abounds, and I first started thinking seriously about my favorite annoying habit (which shall go unnamed), when a friend mentioned a technique by Tony Robbins, whereby we identify the habit, the trigger, and the reward gained by engaging in the behavior. I'm paraphrasing, but the point is to change the reward from something that we don't want to something we do want (like from nail biting to massaging a tense muscle). My friend reported that this shift in focus had really helped her begin changing her nervous habit.

There's no doubt in my mind that this would work nicely on newer habits or habits that weren't highly charged and/or dysfunctional. But, being the psychology snob that I am, I wondered if this would really work on deep, long-standing habits, or if, when things got tense, we'd revert back to our roots. (Like when my New Jersey-born husband gets excited watching a foot ball game and yells, "Catch the bawwwwl!!") 

So I spent a week experimenting with this method. I identified the habit I wanted to change, noticed what the triggers were (anxiety, frustration, annoyance, boredom, depression), and came up with a good, appropriate substitute reward. This was a fantastic exercise because it showed me clearly what was going on, from start to finish, and helped me trace the roots of the behavior.

Unfortunately, the nervous habit was so ingrained and automatic, that the new reward didn't stand a chance. It was as if I was asking myself to breathe water instead of breathing air. Oh dear...

Fortunately, however, the overall experiment was a success, because it made me realize the depth of my sensitivity, and how important it is for me to find better ways of nurturing myself and preventing emotional overwhelm. I went online and found a number a good resources for dealing with my specific annoying nervous habit (which shall remain unnamed).

This week, I encourage you to try the above exercise, and see what happens. You'll either begin to transform a nervous habit, or gain new insight into what it's all about. Please also check the internet for resources to help you with your specific issue.