People who suffer from anxiety often try to hide it. Now matter how much turmoil is going on in their minds, they try their best to cover it up.
There are, however, plenty of telltale habits that an experienced eye knows are signs of anxiety and tension bubbling away under the surface.
There are many reasons why people develop habits like the ones mentioned below. They might be a way for them to self-soothe, or a trick they’ve discovered, whether consciously or unconsciously, that helps distract them from whatever’s causing them to feel anxious.
They might find a particular habit helps them to combat the inner fight or flight reflex that’s activated when we, as humans, feel tense or threatened.
If their body is telling them to flee, but they can’t realistically run away from a situation, or if they constantly feel the urge to fight or fly as a result of chronic anxiety, they’ll need to develop coping mechanisms in order to repress it, at least outwardly.
Here are a few of the habits that people who experience anxiety or tension may have that could give away their underlying nervous state.
1. Biting Your Nails
Although not everyone that bites their nails is doing so due to anxiety, it’s often associated with nervousness and is something that certain people will only do when they’re feeling particularly stressed.
This habit can usually be kicked, but some people will find it harder than others. As with any habit, different tricks for breaking it will work for different people.
The classic method is buying one of those products that you paint your nails with that tastes unpleasant. Just be sure not to eat with your fingers whilst you’ve got it on. I learned that the hard way!
You can also try to keep your nails looking nice by getting a manicure or just keeping them neat and short. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that once they look tidy, you’ll be less inclined to ruin them by chewing on them.
2. Senseless Scrolling
A modern-day nervous habit that huge numbers of us have developed is that of constantly checking our phones and scrolling through social media or other apps without actually registering what’s on the screen.
It gives us something to do with our eyes and our hands, whilst our brains are free to dwell on whatever is making us feel anxious.
This is a technique that a lot of people use, whether they realize it or not, when they feel awkward in a social situation or want to avoid eye contact with those around them.
Getting your phone out isn’t always an option, of course. For example, most people can’t whip their phones out when they’re in a professional environment, but they will take refuge in them whenever they’re able to.
Although technology has its downfalls, the good news is that there are also ways to monitor the time you spend on your phone. Try downloading one of the many tracking apps out there (Moment is a good one) that will show you how much time you spend scrolling and on which apps.
Hopefully, once you have the figures presented to you in black and white, you’ll be less tempted to take refuge in your phone.
3. Avoiding Eye Contact
This is one that other people often notice, but normally chalk up to a lack of confidence, rudeness, or disrespect rather than anxiety, especially in western cultures.
Eye contact can, however, be very intense and cause those who struggle with nerves to feel like the other person is seeing right through them.
If you struggle with eye contact, try fixing your eyes on another part of the face of the person you’re talking to, perhaps on their eyebrows or nose. They won’t be able to tell for sure whether or not you’re actually making eye contact, and you won’t have to lock gazes with them. Win-win.
You can also try deliberately practising maintaining eye contact with a close friend or family member so that, after a while, it doesn’t feel so foreign to you.
4. Checking The Time
If you catch yourself repeatedly checking your watch or glancing at the time on your phone more than you usually would, it may well be a sign of nervousness.
You check the time because you want to know how long it is before a certain event will start or how much more of it you’ve got to deal with before it’s over.
It might become such an automatic gesture when you’re nervous that you find yourself checking your watch or your phone screen without actually registering the time because your brain is too busy focusing on other things.
As obvious as it might sound, if you find that you’re checking the time so regularly that it’s getting in the way of your productivity, try leaving your watch at home.
If you need to know when something is going to start, set an alarm on your phone (or, even better on a real alarm clock), and then place it somewhere out of reach.
If you’re waiting for something to end, turn your phone off and put it away. A watched pot never boils.
5. Speaking Too Quickly
We’re all guilty of garbling our speech when we feel nervous. Although it might just be their way, if someone does so consistently, it might also be that they’re experiencing sustained anxiety.
This can result in people not understanding you, meaning you end up having to repeat yourself. It can be frustrating for them when this happens and is likely to turn your anxiety up another notch.
A good way of slowing your speech down is to focus on your breathing. Make sure you’re taking breaths between sentences.
If you’re giving a presentation or speaking in public, don’t bury your head in the sand; be sure to practice beforehand with a focus on keeping the speed of your speech down and taking regular breaths.
Nervous energy coursing around your body can set your feet tapping, but it can be interpreted by others as a sign that you’re feeling irritated or impatient. Other people can find it a bit annoying as I’m sure you can appreciate.
If you find yourself constantly tapping your feet, then try consciously planting both of your feet on the ground when you sit down.
Do occasional, deliberate exercises like circling your ankles or raising your heels off the ground, and then firmly plant your feet again. This will keep your legs feeling exercised and prevent a build up of nervous energy.
7. Touching Your Face
This is another habit that those experiencing severe anxiety and tension can develop without even being aware that they’re doing it.
It might seem like they’ve got something to hide in the eyes of others, or that they aren’t being entirely truthful.
It’s also not great in terms of hygiene as your hands are often not particularly clean. For some people, touching their face a lot can cause outbreaks of spots, which then makes the problem worse and turns it into a bit of a vicious cycle.
If part of the reason you’re touching your face is because you’re concerned about the way you look, then focusing on the outbreak you could spark off might be a good way for you to break the habit.
If this sounds like you, try to keep your hands busy by holding something like a pen or a stress ball.
A good tip for those who don’t mind wearing makeup is to wear it more often, as having gone through the process of applying products to your face, you’ll be less tempted to touch it and ruin the effect.
8. Fingers That Fidget
Do you tap your fingers on the table? Play with your watch? Play with random bits of paper? This is a habit that can distract others around you and make them think you’re unfocused or bored, when it is, in fact, rooted in your anxiety.
Don’t make things difficult for yourself. Avoid temptation by keeping your desk clear of things you could find yourself playing with. Consider keeping a stress ball on your desk for when you need to release a bit of energy and just can’t keep your hands still.
9. Sipping Your Drink
Social situations are when many of us can feel most ill at ease. Whether you’re out with a group of work mates at the end of the day, out for a drink with a group of friends at the weekend, or on a date, you might try to suppress the anxiety you feel by continually sipping your drink.
This is a tactic lots of us use when there are lulls in the conversation as it gives us an excuse to stay quiet for a moment. One of the most common physical effects of anxiety is a dry mouth, so taking a sip of our drink also relieves that.
In the long run, it means that we’ll have an excuse to get up to get another drink, which gives a few minutes respite from the situation that’s making us feel on edge.
Logically, this means we often drink faster than we should and, when the drink is alcoholic, we end up feeling its effects more than we’d planned.
Whilst kicking this habit is easier said than done, and it’s more about making changes to your mindset, try placing your drink down on a table between sips rather than constantly cradling it in your hands.
10. Stretching It Out
When we’re anxious, our muscles become tense; it’s yet another physical consequence of our natural fight or flight response.
Even if we’re not aware that it’s caused by our anxiety, we will, often subconsciously, start stretching out our arms and rolling our shoulders to loosen them up.
A good way of dealing with this is to set aside five minutes when you realize you’re feeling anxious to have a proper, thorough stretch.
This is even better when you pair it with breathing exercises. If you do these stretches deliberately and consciously, they’ll normally be more effective at helping you ease the tension than if you do them absent-mindedly.
What’s Behind The Behavior?
If you’ve developed a few nervous habits that are having a negative effect on you, make sure that, as well as trying to deal with the habits themselves, you’re tackling the roots of the problem.
Anxiety can be debilitating and isn’t something you should take lightly.
There are all kinds of things you can try to ease your anxiety, and you’re probably all-too familiar with them, from meditation and breathing exercises to affirmations and even eating or avoiding certain foods or stimulants.
If you’re struggling to deal with it on your own, however, don’t hesitate to turn to a professional for help. Your mental health should always be a top priority.
Katie splits her time between writing and translation. She writes about travel and self-care and never stays in one place for too long. She’s currently based in beautiful Cornwall, England, after long stints in Brazil and Mexico. She spends her free time trail running, exploring and devouring vegan food.