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Two life-changing anxiety hacks.
Recently, I published a list of 12 hidden signs of anxious behaviors.
Many readers reached out to me to confess their primary go-to ones. Many more were curious about what they could do about them.
It’s important to note that, in that piece, I said this:
“Let me explain these a bit further. These behaviors are not, ‘I do this sometimes.’ These are obsessive, compulsory behaviors. Like, knowing that if you scratch, squeeze, or scrub a blemish on your face that it will leave a scar but not being able to stop yourself from doing it.
Many people who exhibit these behaviors experience a release of sorts, as in, they feel calmer after they have popped their knuckles for the fourth time that hour.”
The behaviors I listed are:
>> Eyelash pulling
>> Tapping of fingers and feet
>> Incessant joint popping
>> Scratching or picking scabs
>> Biting inside of lips of the mouth, sometimes until they are raw
>> Self-soothing behaviors, like bilateral stimulation such as rocking, swaying, or swinging back and forth
>> Running hands over a textured surface repeatedly
>> Repeating any pattern of motion (such as clicking of a pen)
>> Repeatedly scrolling through the internet (social media)
>> Face picking
>> Nose picking
>> Obsessive hair touching (like running your fingers through your hair or scratching at your scalp)
Two other common ones are nail-biting and lip picking. Sometimes, these manifest as addictions, too (like smoking). Often, these behaviors are involuntary and subconscious.
As I write this, I am chewing on the inside of my lip. Gross, I know, but nonetheless true. This is not my primary go-to, though.
As one commenter said, I am a rocker. A leg and foot shaker, relying heavily on the soothing sensation of moving my feet or legs rhythmically for comfort, especially at bedtime. It used to drive my husband crazy. My mother would say that I have always been a restless sleeper.
I have a vivid memory in which I was at my beloved childhood babysitter, Ms. Mae’s house. She was elderly, and her husband was disabled. We watched “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” on PBS in the afternoon, and I sometimes called my grandparents from her avocado-green rotary phone. She was leery of visitors.
When there was a knock at the door that she wasn’t expecting, she would usher me to the tiny back bedroom of her home, where we would sit quietly. She’d lean against the headboard, gently rocking the bed with her legs, and I would be nestled at the foot. As an adult, this seems so absurd to me, but I am certain she did this out of repeated years of living in fear. Sweet as they were, she and her husband were easy targets for crime.
I always assumed I picked up this habit from imitating her.
I am no expert, but after a year of intensive trauma therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), here’s what I’ve learned:
Anxious behaviors are a result of our nervous system seeking to be soothed.
There is much to be said about reparenting work and why that works here, but the two primary things that worked best for me: a weighted blanket and urge surfing.
I spent a decade in traditional talk therapy. I was a therapy quitter too. I would start with gusto—entering each new office filled with such hope. Only to feel invalidated, patronized, and shut down a few sessions in with all the talk of breathing techniques and how we cannot control others’ behaviors and just think happy thoughts instead.
To be clear, I did all the pink, fluffy, cloud crap. I journaled, exercised, meditated, developed a self-care routine. And still, I would lie awake at night with racing thoughts, fall asleep from the exhaustion of second-guessing everything I’d ever done in my life and the shame from that while simultaneously rocking my legs back and forth. It made me feel like I was a failure on every level. I failed at the coping techniques, and I failed at therapy too.
Last year, I found an Instagram account for complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and trauma. From there, I found a trauma therapist, and my life changed forever. The first session, over Zoom, I knew I was in the right place. She taught me about how my nervous system worked, triggers, and how trauma is stored in our bodies then presents as anxiety-riddled behaviors. She gave me two of the best coping mechanisms at the beginning that I still use a year later.
Yes, the weighted blanket trend is absolutely worth the price, especially if you struggle with any of these named behaviors. The weight of the blanket provides a soothing sensation to your overactive autonomous nervous system. The compression allows your ANS (autonomic nervous system) to quiet because it is directed to focus inwardly instead of outwardly.
The second: urge surfing. If it sounds kinda new-agey, it’s because it is (sort of). The boiled down concept is that the urge to click a pen over and over functions like a wave. The build-up of the wave is the trigger, the rise of the wave is the urge or craving part, and the fall of the wave is the release from the passing of the compulsion. Urge surfing works because it forces you to sit in the wave and identify what is happening.
I started journaling when these urges came up. I wrote down what was happening, the time of day, and how I felt. A week or so later, I had a pattern established and a blueprint for how and what I could change when these urges came up. Over time, the urges either lessened or gave me the awareness to recognize what was triggering and how to handle it, instead of subconsciously chewing the inside of my lip so much.
Look, these aren’t cure-all solutions or anything, but they are viable options to explore if you really struggle with an inability to stop any of these compulsions.
By the way, I no longer need my weighted blanket to stop my nighttime rocking either.
Over time, my brain’s pathways reformed and signaled to my nervous system that I was safe at bedtime.
I’d love to hear if you try either of these and how they work out for you.