She has broken a few pen caps at work.
My colleague, 24-year old Zainab Wahab, explains that she has always been a tad fidgety. “Even when I was small, I wouldn’t stand still. My parents used to keep saying to stop fidgeting,” she recalls. It began with biting her nails in childhood, much to her parents chagrin. “It began as a bad childhood habit, I think. My parents were concerned at first, because they thought that I was a nervous child,” she says. They tried getting her out of the habit, by even putting chillies on her nails once. That wasn’t too successful.
As she grew older, she left the habit behind of biting her nails, and adopted other mannerisms, which included accidentally breaking her own stationery.
It might be a way of relieving stress, she muses. It’s also a distraction. “I do like playing with my pens, when I get an idea. Sometimes, I break the pen cap when I am stressed too,” she says. “I don’t think I am very good at dealing with my stress generally,” says Wahab, candidly. Often, she isn’t aware of what she’s doing with the pens. “I know it’s wrong, when I catch myself biting nails or breaking pens, but I just don’t stop,” she says.
Fiddling with stationary is just one part of the fidgets for Wahab; she reveals that she often finds herself shaking her foot, or kicking under the table. “That happens, when my mind is somewhere else, many a times.”
‘Functioning on autopilot’
While Wahab finds relief in her stationery, others have different methods of fidgeting. Some play with their hair incessantly, others tap their foot and kick out by mistake, or constantly bite their finger nails. It’s a sub-conscious habit usually. It refers to the small habits we make with our hands and feet, without us noticing. It’s like functioning on autopilot, explains Shweta Misra, clinical psychologist, from Aspris Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. She describes it as a self-regulation mechanism that helps a person boost attention levels depending on what is required. It can either calm them, or energise them.
Fidgeting is like functioning on autopilot. It's a self-regulation mechanism that helps a person boost attention levels depending on what is required. It can either calm them, or energise them.
People resort to these habits out of boredom, as well. It’s a form of temporary relief from restlessness or tension, by engaging in repetitive motions or tactile sensations. “Boredom fidgeting typically occurs to redirect our attention and give our brain something to focus on,” explains Misra.
Fidgeting, a method of coping with anxiety
Anxiety doesn’t just stay at a psychological level; it can have a rather iron grip over our physiological responses. It can trigger those sensations and physiological changes, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension and restlessness. Fidgeting is the body’s method of coping with this anxiety. When they engage in these repetitive moments, people release tension and cope with their emotional state, explains Gary Pheiffer, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai. “They fidget because they’re uncomfortable, stressed, or anxious about a situation,” he explains.
When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and we find ourselves in a fight or flight response. The body releases the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. This generates a feeling of tension and restlessness in the body.
When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and we find ourselves in a fight or flight response, explains Melissa Alves, a clinical psychologist from the German Neuroscience Center. The body releases the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. This generates a feeling of tension and restlessness in the body.
As a result, fidgeting becomes a coping mechanism. ”Fidgeting allows us to release energy and distract our attention through small actions such as fidgeting, hair twirling, nail-biting for example. This shows the connection between our mind and body and the importance to address the root cause of stress as fidgeting offers only a temporary relief and distraction,” she says.
When people engage in these repetitive moments, they release tension and cope with their emotional state. They fidget because they’re uncomfortable, stressed, or anxious about a situation.
It serves as an outlet for excess energy and can provide a temporary distraction from the uncomfortable sensations associated with anxiety, adds Pheiffer. And so, the behavioural manifestations could lead to finger-drumming, bouncing your legs, or just constantly clicking your pen at work.
Why are people not aware of fidgeting?
In this heightened state of arousal, people are often not able to control their movements. Their attention is directed towards managing their anxiety, says Pheiffer. Staying focused for a long period aggravates stress, and this elicits a physical response in the form of fidgeting.
However, on the other hand, anxiety may affect people to the extent that they become unaware of its presence, owing to the automatic and unconscious nature of anxious thoughts and behaviours. This lack of awareness can perpetuate a cycle of anxiety, making it difficult for individuals to identify and address the underlying causes, he adds. This unawareness can lead to chronic stress, impaired functioning, and reduced quality of life.
A parent’s perspective
Dubai-based mum and PR professional Meenakshi Menon was rather worried about her 11-year-old daughter’s fidgeting habits. “My daughter struggles with anxiety and this manifests itself in fidgeting, like constantly moving in the seat, and shaking her leg, kicking out. When she was younger, her fidgeting used to annoy her classmates, and even the teacher,” explains Menon. As a result, she now has a fidget toy, which has been enormously beneficial for her, especially during school tests.
Menon doesn’t believe that fidgeting is usually harmful, but it can become an issue of social embarrassment for the person. While school teachers are far more aware now, this was not the case during her school days. She remembers how her rather restless classmates were branded as disobedient and naughty. “They used to be punished and humiliated. As an adult, I realise that they needed support. It is heartbreaking to think of how much they struggled,” says Menon.
How can we take cognisance of this?
The harmfulness of fidgeting depends on the context and the person’s ability to manage their anxiety effectively. If it becomes a reason for distress and interferes with daily functioning, one should seek guidance from mental health professionals, who can provide support. In many cases, fidgeting can also be a symptom of chronic health problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or restless legs syndrome (RLS).
RLS, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a chronic neurological condition that produces a strong desire to move the legs and feet.
People can practice mindfulness and self-awareness techniques that are helpful for someone, dealing with anxiety and stress. “By consciously observing their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in the present moment, people can better understand their fidgeting patterns and triggers, explains Pheiffer.
People can follow stress reduction techniques such as meditation and breathwork, along with alternative coping strategies like exercise or fidget toys. These offer healthier outlets for nervous energy. “Fidgeting itself is not inherently harmful. For some, it can be a helpful coping mechanism,” he says. You need to take note when excessive and disrupting fidgeting begins to overwhelm your life. At this point, you need to seek wellness experts.
Clinical psychologist Shweta Misra offers some tips to help with anxious fidgeting:
• Meditation: Meditation trains the mind to ignore impulses and enables a person to stay calmer and focused during periods of anxiety or stress.
• Follow breathing excercises
• Seeking social support: Discussing feelings rather than bottling them up reduces the stress responsible for fidgety behaviours.
• Notice your feelings: Be aware of changes in your moods and thoughts and take note of anything that makes you feel good or bad.
• Take time for yourself, even if it’s only half an hour each. Go somewhere quiet and relaxing, go for a walk, or do something you enjoy.