Could your nervous habit be something more?
We all have habits that drive the people around us crazy, like clicking a pen endlessly or popping chewing gum. For some people, it’s a natural instinct to bite their nails or chew on their lips when bored or nervous. But some “nervous tics” that may seem like just an annoyance are actually the symptoms of an inhibiting behavioral disorder, according to researchers.
“For many people, nervous habits are usually behaviors that have been developed to provide the benefit of some minor reduction in anxiety,” says Dr. Kevin Krippner, an Advocate Medical Group psychologist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill. “They become behaviors which the person no longer recognizes are occurring — ‘unconscious’ or automatic behaviors that are hard to change.”
Most of these habits are not detrimental, he says, but knowing the reasons behind the behavior and realizing that they are occurring are the first steps to changing them if one desires.
Some habits, however, are more detrimental to our health.
Nervous habits, or “tics,” are commonly confused with body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), which include “any repetitive self-grooming behavior that involves biting, pulling, picking, or scraping one’s own hair, skin, or nails, resulting in damage to the body,” according to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. They include, but are not limited to:
- Hair-pulling: noticeable bald patches from pulling out hair from the scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows or other parts of the body.
- Skin-picking: skin discoloration, scarring and even severe tissue damage and disfigurement from frequent touching, rubbing, scratching, picking at or digging into the skin.
- Nail biting: bleeding, soreness and infection from biting nails past the nail bed and chewing on cuticles.
- Lip or cheek biting: ulcerations, sores and infections from repeatedly biting the skin of one’s own lips or inside of cheeks.
BFRBs commonly arise in late childhood or early teens and may affect one in 20 people, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
Individuals may engage in BFRBs when bored, stressed or excited as a means of relaxation or pleasure, the AAMFT notes, and the time spent on these actions can take away from work and family time, sometimes resulting in isolation, shame and depression. Family members and spouses may see BFRBs simply as bad habits, but often become more concerned when the sufferer’s appearance changes or they notice emotional issues.
One family case study found generational links in the presence of body-focused repetitive behavior disorder. The study also discovered that BFRBs are more common in women, are expressed early in life, can occur over four generations and can arise without the existence of other psychiatric disorders.
Most people have some type of nervous tic, but when it feels out of control, limits their life, affects their relationships or damages them physically, sufferers need to find support, the AAMFT advises.
“Once the awareness of the habit increases, it can be a challenge to stop the behavior,” says Dr. Krippner. “But it can be accomplished by substituting a different behavior that is not problematic.” For example, to stop biting one’s nails, a person should try to keep hands away from the face, and holding something like a pencil may help, he says.
“Sometimes professional help is needed if the problems caused by the habit are becoming too great, or if you need assistance in figuring out the root cause of behavior,” Dr. Krippner adds.
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