[1]Sitting in Espresso Royale, marketing and advertising senior, Jen Torrey, picks and scratches at the surface of her bright green laptop with her acrylic French-manicured nails. She then moves on to the table, scraping and brushing off the crumbs from her mutilated muffin.
“See! She’s doing it right now!” her friend, business senior, Kate Runyon exclaims from across the table.
Torrey was never aware of her “table mopping” habit until Runyon pointed it out. “She only does it when she’s talking or telling a story,” said Runyon.
A habit, according to the dictionary, is a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition. Something like Torrey’s table wiping routine can be classified as a nervous habit, which is something that can make one look nervous and doesn’t seem to serve any purpose.
A self-proclaimed “fidgiter,” Torrey also says she has bitten her nails for as long as she can remember. Her hairstylist mom is always on her case about it and Torrey said she tried giving up nail biting as a New Year’s resolution, but after six weeks and an especially nerve racking test, she found her nails back to their original short and uneven state. She decided to get fake nails put on because they are plastic, which makes them harder to bite.
Bounce, tap, bite, chew, twirl, crack. Nervous habits can include all of these nail-biting, leg-bouncing, face-picking, knuckle-cracking, hair-twirling and fidgeting activities you may see every day in your 10:20. Students at MSU seem to engage in these habits quite often. Just today in my English class of 25 people, I counted four people bouncing a leg, two chewing on pens, eight doodling and one twirling her hair. And that was only when I wasn’t paying attention to the thrilling discussion of the day.
“Most people probably do one of those kinds of things,” said Lisa Tang, a clinical psychology doctoral student. “It’s usually not a conscious decision to choose one over the other.”
Picture yourself sitting in class. It’s not one of your favorites, or even one of your top 10, and most of your classmates seem to take notes more often in drool than pen. You look down and notice that your leg seems to be detached from your body, bouncing in a silent rhythmic pattern. Your favorite pen is unrecognizable under the bite marks that disguise the tip. The very few notes that you have taken are surrounded by your name written in all shapes and sizes with stars and 3-D boxes in between the letters. And your knuckle-cracking is louder than the cracking of the microphone attached to the professor’s shirt.
Zaje Harrell, professor of psychology, says that some of these sorts of habits can cause a soothing feeling in people, as a way to regulate their anxiety. “We do know that in terms of human behavior in general, people do things to make themselves feel more relaxed and some of those habits are a part of regulating stimulation and anxiety,” said Harrell.
Back to English class. The kid next to me has now bounced his knee for the entire duration of the presentation—40 solid minutes of the same vigorous motion right in my peripheral view. I know it’s not making me relaxed. So how can it possibly be relaxing for him?
Tang said that some of these nervous habits in college classes could be more from boredom than anxiety. She says that she grades class assignments all the time that are cluttered with doodling and drawings but usually these sorts of habits aren’t seen as much in “adults.” “I used to doodle in class but now I don’t as much,” said Tang. “Usually, we self-select ourselves into situations where we won’t be as bored as we get older.”
The half-pot of coffee a day and continuous Redbull many students ingest probably doesn’t help with the “can’t-sit-still” mentality that my English class seems to have. Tang said that people suffering from anxiety are also usually told to cut back on caffeine or nicotine because these ingredients tend to exacerbate the problem. Minor cases of college life anxiety can also be revealed in the fidgety, Table Wiper Torrey personality.
“People can do a variety of things that change the way that they are experiencing the world in terms of their neurological and their subjective psychological functioning,” said Harrell. “It can be something like biting your nails or a person straightening the fringe on a rug before they walk into a room. These are different behaviors that create the same internal response of a person feeling a sense of relief and their body feeling more relaxed when they are done or when they are engaging in certain behaviors.”
[2]Each person’s body is different and certain emotions may lead to different behaviors. Advertising sophomore Kristen Turner said that not only does she crack her knuckles, back and neck, but she also continuously checks to make sure her car is locked and her room always has to be clean. Oh yeah, and she also gave up biting her nails for Lent.
“Hopefully, I will stop biting them for good after Lent. But then again, I give it up every year,” Turner said with a laugh.
The habit itself can turn into something automatic, unconscious and almost like an addiction. Torrey said she isn’t even aware that she’s biting her nails until she looks down and they are all gone. My own friends even made up a drinking game one night where everyone drank every time I touched my hair. They were drunk in 15 minutes.
So Torrey wipes off crumbs excessively and the batteries on the automatic key lock for Turner’s car die every week; minor behaviors that don’t really do more than annoy their friends. When does a nervous habit go too far?
A recent 2005 movie called Thumbsucker tells the story of a 17–year-old boy who deals with his senior year troubles through one of these soothing habits. No, he doesn’t chew his pens, tap his foot or crack his knuckles. He sucks his thumb. Seeing a grown boy participate in an activity usually reserved for the part of the population still in diapers looks pathetic and abnormal.
Dr. James Claiborn, author of The Habit Change Workbook says that ideas of what is socially acceptable in terms of habits are somewhat arbitrary. “To some extent, behaviors associated with less mature individuals are seen as less acceptable based on the discrepancy between the developmental level of the individual and what is seen as developmentally appropriate.” He said in the case of thumb sucking, the action of sucking is important for infants in order to get nourishment. “This may lead to sucking thumbs partly because they are available and it may in some way be soothing. The self soothing effect is usually central to maintaining the behavior.” Turner said she sucked her thumb when she was a child but stopped around first grade because it became embarrassing. “It’s kind of related to sucking on a bottle,” she said about the experience.
In Thumbsucker, as a way to cure the high school boy’s habit, he is hypnotized and later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Tang said that one of the problems in today’s society is that people have a tendency to over-diagnose themselves. She said just because a child may have a fidgeting problem, doesn’t automatically mean that he or she has ADHD. “When you feel the problem is out of control and harming you or other people, then it’s more important to stop it,” said Tang.
[3]In disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder or trichotillomania (a disorder where a person pulls out his or her hair resulting in noticeable hair loss), obsessive and uncontrollable actions and thoughts take over a person’s mind. In this case, the person should seek professional help.
We all have quirks. Remember when you were little and you used to hold your breath in front of a cemetery? How about kissing the roof of your car when you went through a yellow light? Many of us learn superstitions like these from someone else. The same can be true of nervous habits. Turner said she most often cracks her back when she sees someone else doing it. And her dad picks at his nails, possibly one of the reasons both she and her brother are nail-biters. Tang said it could also be a matter of personality or some other characteristic like gender. “Men are less likely to twirl their hair,” she said. “This comes largely from social rules.”
Problem is, if my friends continue to play the “drink every time Erin touches her hair” game and if Turner breaks Lent, we could have some very intoxicated seniors and one broken promise to God. Our little insignificant habits may annoy ourselves or those around us. Torrey said she notices foot-tapping often in class and it really bothers her. And I don’t think I retained any information during my colleague’s 40-minute knee-bouncing marathon.
“The ‘purpose’ of behaviors is best understood in terms of what reinforces a behavior. If we understand this then we can make changes,” said Claiborn. Harrell agrees and says you have to be aware of the cues in the environment that trigger the behavior. “If you know that every time your child has to go to school, they start sucking their thumb or biting their nails, then you can try to address alternative behaviors when they experience those emotions,” she said. “Or be mindful of the fact that you are doing the activity and try to change; come up with a strategy to change it.”
The strategies that Torrey and Turner are using seem to be helping them with their nail-biting woes. Turner says she can actually see the whites of her nails and Torrey says that instead of biting her fake nails, she just puts them close to her mouth, one step closer to leaving them alone all together. As for their other habits, Torrey may never stop wiping tables and Turner may lock her car 10 times before she believes it’s actually locked, but the bus boy at Espresso Royale will have less to clean and Turner’s car won’t ever be stolen. So maybe it’s okay to have a couple quirks. After all, our individual differences are what make us unique.
Now, if I could just get that kid to stop bouncing his knee…

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