During a documentary we watched last week, the filmmakers interviewed one of the Alabama senators. As he spoke, I noticed something which was likely imperceptible to the average viewer. Every few seconds, he would shrug or twitch his shoulders. It’s possible it was just nerves from being on camera (especially when the subject matter is “fake news”). More likely, I recognized that behavior because it is something I have done my entire life.
As a kid, I bit my nails. This is probably one of the most common nervous habits and one with countless methods for breaking it. I tried the bitter nail polish, which worked for a while. I tried sitting on my hands in class. It took just one case of pinworms to stop it for good. I am no germaphobe, but knowing parasites could live under my fingernails worked wonders to keep them out of my mouth.
It was in my teenage years that the shrugging began. My mother would put her hands gently on my shoulders and remind me to relax. At first we thought it was related to the newly daily routine of bra-wearing. My strap was constantly falling down, only I think it was the shrugging which led to that and not the other way around. The millions of women protesting bras during the pandemic, however, help illuminate how restrictive they can feel.
I will never forget seeing a Christmas photo where I was tugging at the middle of my bra, captured there on film forever. Much like the aversion tactic of pinworms, this behavior subsided, only to be replaced by something new.
We moved to a new city my senior year in high school, and with that move came plenty of new stress-related experiences. I had my very first migraine on the first day of school, losing my vision for what felt like an eternity, stars clouding my eyes. Shortly after, the blinking began.
I didn’t know what to think at first. My eyes felt constantly irritated and I thought it was just the heavy ragweed in our new city or the irritation of my contacts after a long day. The blinking seemed to come with a pattern - I rolled my eyes hard to the left and then shut them tightly.
Friends at my new after-school job asked if my eyes were bothering me. Not knowing the source of the problem, all I could do was say “yes”. I think I knew at the time that it was a compulsive behavior and not environmental influence, but I certainly wasn’t sure how to process that.
Years went by and I got used to serving up excuses and standard responses:
“Yes, my allergies are bothering me”, “Oh, my eyes are so dry today”, “no, I don’t need to borrow your re-wetting drops”
As embarrassing as it was for me, multiple trips to the eye doctor, the neurologist, and even a neuro-ophthalmologist revealed nothing.The last doctor, an expert in her field and professor at University of Houston, had me film my excessive blinking. She ran a battery of tests and finally sent me for a contrast MRI. There were no clear answers, and we finally chalked it up to habit, exacerbated in the fall by allergies. I felt defeated.
As my career progressed and my stress levels skyrocketed, a new habit came along: finger “flicking”. I found myself rubbing my pinkie and ring finger together as I gripped my mouse. Eventually this led to inflammation and I had to wear a carpal tunnel glove for a few months. Once again, I understood the severity of the symptom but not the root cause.
When both behaviors cropped up significantly during the pandemic, I began to do some research. The term “stimming” is most commonly associated with autism, but according to Healthline, it is any repetitive, self-stimulating behavior: knuckle cracking, finger drumming, foot tapping. The types of behavior that often land on someone else’s “pet peeve” list. For me, they are frustrating only because they come with physical repercussions - at their worst, they cause headaches and muscle aches.
With the advent of fidget spinners and their wild popularity several years ago, I know I am not alone in finding ways to physically relieve stress and anxiety. While my body didn’t agree with kickboxing, it was one of the most surefire ways to let out the adrenaline and cortisol the body generates during bouts with anxiety. I’m grateful today that I can employ methods like meditation and yoga to calm my body and my mind (although admittedly they don’t work as well as a punching bag).
It is likely I will live with these nervous habits forever. I used to ask my husband to point out when I’m excessively blinking. It only served to make me more self conscious about it. The most welcome relief comes when I live in acceptance and pause for a few minutes to center and calm myself. I can recognize its onset and take action - breathwork, meditation, relaxation - instead of sweeping it under the rug.
I recognize it in others too, but much like waiting until a woman is practically crowning to ask if she is pregnant, the kindest thing I can do is keep my mouth shut. The bravest thing I can do is share my struggle.
"Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do." -Brene Brown