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4 signs your nervous habit could be a serious disorder

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Your nervous habit might not be as harmless as you think. Here’s how to know when it’s time to see a doctor.
Written by Hallie Levine
Updated on August 26, 2022

Nail biting, cracking knuckles, chewing pens. Nervous habits such as these are very common, especially in childhood. They’re usually harmless and don’t affect our quality of life.

“These can be normal reactions to stress. They’re things you don’t do that often,” explains chartered psychologist Raffaello Antonino. He’s a senior lecturer in counseling psychology at London Metropolitan University and clinical director of Therapy Central in London.

But for some of us, these habits aren’t occasional. And they can get worse or evolve over time. When you’ve been doing something for so long, it can be hard to stop.

There are 2 questions you can ask yourself. “Are these nervous habits taking up a large amount of time and taking me away from other things? And are these nervous habits harming my physical health because I do them so often?” says Kevin Coleman. He’s a marriage and family therapist in Columbia, South Carolina.

“These questions get to [the core] of what a disorder could be, as opposed to an insignificant habit,” Coleman says.

If the answer to either question is yes, there’s a chance your nervous habit could be something more than just a harmless tic. If so, there are plenty of treatment options out there, including medications. (Don’t forget to download your free prescription discount card to save up to 80% at the pharmacy.)

But first, you need to know the warning signs to watch out for.

You have trouble concentrating

It’s normal to have trouble focusing sometimes. But take note if your thoughts are always racing or you’re constantly fidgeting. These could be symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. You may have frequent feelings of worry or dread, often without a clear cause.

“A tip-off is the frequency,” Antonino says. “Have the habits become a sort of everyday routine? Are they taking up most of your time? If so, that’s a sign that you need to seek help.”

Other symptoms may include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Irritability
  • Headaches, muscle aches or stomachaches
  • Insomnia

Your habit interferes with your daily life

Has lining up your pencils before a big test turned into an obsession with order? Are you often distracted by upsetting intrusive thoughts? These may be symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD have uncontrollable, recurring thoughts or behaviors. And they feel an urge to repeat them over and over again.

Other symptoms of OCD include:

  • Extreme fear of germs
  • Taboo thoughts involving sex, religion or violence
  • The urge to hurt yourself or others
  • The need to have things symmetrical or in perfect order
  • Compulsive cleaning
  • Ordering and arranging things in a certain way
  • Constant grooming or handwashing
  • Repeatedly checking things (like whether the door is locked)
  • Compulsive counting

Your nervous habit is causing you physical pain

Sure, some of us bite our nails or pop an occasional pimple when we’re stressed. But is your nail biting so intense that it creates bleeding wounds? Is picking your skin resulting in infections? That’s a sign that something more serious is going on, Antonino says.

“A red flag is the inability to stop at will,” he says. “Some people bite their nails without really being aware of it. Once they are aware, it’s not too hard for them to stop the nervous actions. But other people feel as though they’re unable to stop. In this case, their nervous actions are really compulsions.”

This is called body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB). It’s a term for a group of related disorders that includes hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting.

The illness occurs in at least 5% of the population. And the behaviors can’t just be dismissed as habits or tics. They are part of a complex disorder that can cause physical harm in the end.

Treatment for BFRB is usually cognitive behavioral therapy. It helps people identify problematic behaviors and teaches them ways to stop. There aren’t medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat BFRB. But certain medications that are used to treat depression and anxiety may help.

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You can’t control tic-like behaviors

When you’re feeling nervous, you might blink repeatedly or clear your throat. But if these behaviors persist or get significantly worse, you may have what’s known as a tic disorder.

This illness has been around for centuries. But doctors noticed a surge in tic disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have a tic that seems to be getting worse, a mental health professional can give you an evaluation. And your doctor can work with you to reduce triggers.

Your doctor might also suggest an antidepressant to treat the disorder. (Before you head to the pharmacy, download the Optum Perks mobile app to compare medication prices.)

What’s most important is that you can get help with these behaviors. Talk honestly with your doctor. Together you’ll find the right treatment for your situation.

Additional sources
Anxiety disorders overview: National Institute of Mental Health
OCD overview: National Institute of Mental Health
Body-focused repetitive behaviors overview: The TLC Foundation
Report on increase in tic-like behavior: Tourette Association of America (2021). “Rising incidence of functional tic-like behaviors”