Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/17/2022
Got a fidget or other activity that you always find yourself doing when you’re nervous? You may be in possession of what some call an anxiety habit.
Some people might call them ticks, some people might have confused anxious behaviors with signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but regardless of what you call these behaviors, anxiety habits can range from negligibly mild to so severe they affect our quality of life.
From constantly refreshing your social media or checking your phone, to checking locks and security systems endlessly throughout the day, an anxiety habit might seem harmless, or consume your entire day depending on its severity and whether it’s compulsive
Sound complicated? It can be. Anxious habits can be mistaken for a lot of other behaviors, and we’ll talk about how to distinguish one from another in a moment.
First, however, we have to talk about what anxious behaviors look like. If you’ve been told you have an anxious habit, if you’ve noticed an anxious habit is beginning to get worse or if you’re just trying to learn more about why some people have anxious habits, the first step has to be understanding the basics.
Let’s break this down. Anxiety is a mental state with a somewhat complicated set of parameters. If you’ve felt anxious before, you know that you can experience fear, irritability, worry and other feelings at the same time.
Usually, they’re related to something uncertain or looming in the future.
Maybe you’re about to have a stressful meeting with your boss and worry that it might go poorly. Maybe your check engine light came on and you’re wondering how much it’s going to cost you. It can be anything.
Here’s where the idea of anxiety habits come in.
Anxiety habits are essentially behaviors that we do because our anxiety levels have spiked, and our anxious feelings are in need of soothing.
Anyone who remembers getting scared of monsters under the bed probably understands this concept already, because a great example is checking under your bed with a flashlight. You’re worried there’s a monster, you check for monsters.
If you start doing this every night out of fear, not a feeling of curiosity, it could be considered an anxiety habit. And if it becomes something you do every hour, or do continuously while you should be sleeping, then it’s considered disordered behavior.
Most anxiety habit loops don’t happen because of monsters. In fact, they may only have a distant relationship to anxiety if they’re based in an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
OCD behaviors — compulsion — are often the result of someone being stuck in a sort of compulsive loop associated with an obsessive thought.
Essentially, with OCD, you get an idea stuck in your head — something like, “everything around me is covered in germs” — and so you begin to wash your hands after you touch any surface.
Quickly, a good habit like washing your hands can become unhealthy, as it consumes too much of your day.
The obsessive thought that brought you there — everything is dirty — can cause you anxiety, and your brain performs this hand-washing ritual mostly out of a desire to temporarily relieve the discomfort or anxiety associated with the feeling of being “unclean.”
Obsessive thoughts and OCD behaviors can take on many forms.
A person with OCD might potentially cause harm to others or become paranoid that they’ll be harmed, but the key trait of anxiety habits and OCD habits is that they don’t make logical sense to a rationally thinking person.
Eventually, that habit spirals out of control — someone who brushes their teeth after every meal might expand their OCD to brush after every glass of water, or every 30 minutes, in which case your well-meaning desire to have clean teeth has essentially become a danger to your mental, physical and dental health — all at the same time.
Getting rid of bad habits without causing a panic attack is no simple matter for people with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and other mental health issues. When an uncertain outcome has you fidgeting and losing your sense of control, those feelings of anxiety can spike.
Suddenly, your fidgeting with a piece of paper has led you to a handful of scraps,and the mental behaviors that brought you to shred it haven’t done anything to reduce your feeling of nervousness.
Is there hope to break free?
Patients with anxiety disorders can break out of anxious habit loops without an anxiety attack with some practice, but the rule of thumb tends to be that the more ingrained or intense the habit, the harder it’s going to be to break without help.
Let’s look at another example: trichotillomania. Wait, come back — we promise it’s a real word.
Trichotillomania is just a fancy name for compulsive hair pulling. It often starts with someone nervously fiddling with a strain of hair, but can morph into literally pulling hair out of your own head over time. Experts believe that OCD and anxiety can play into this disorder.
It’s very treatable, but those treatments may require time, practice and help. Let’s look at a bigger picture of anxious habit management, and how it might look to you.
Managing anxious habits or their more serious OCD cousins is going to require time and practice, but what you’re practicing and how you spend that time is key to success.
Most often, therapy is important in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a form of therapy where you begin to learn how to spot the triggering thoughts that make you do your habit, and learn to react differently.
If your habit is eating when you’re anxious, that may mean finding an alternative behavior to replace the snack drawer.
If it’s checking that the door’s locked eight times before leaving home, it may require a deeper understanding of why that behavior is giving your temporary anxiety relief.
You may need to unlearn the belief that eight checks makes a lock eight times as safe.
Generally speaking, anxiety might also be treated by other means as well — dropping your coffee and alcohol intake, getting better sleep and talking to a healthcare professional about the benefits of antidepressants for anxiety (they’re the most popular medication for anxiety disorders) could help you manage your habits better going forward.
And that’s why the first step, regardless of how you treat your condition, needs to be a conversation with a healthcare provider.
If your anxiety habits are starting to feel out of control, your next step should be to talk to a healthcare professional or mental health professional about your symptoms.
OCD and other behaviors associated with mental illness can become unmanageable without assistance, and on the other side of things, the fastest way to get rid of an anxious habit is to get support.
If you’re wondering where to go for that support, we can help. Our online therapy platform, mental health guides and further learning resources about anxiety are all great places to get the help you want.
When it comes to your mental health, waiting is one habit you can’t afford to take on.