A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Don’t fret about fidgeting

woman fidgeting in meeting

Playing with your pen and other forms of fidgeting reduce anxiety in a harmless way.

“Sit still!”

Can’t stop that annoying fidgeting habit your mom warned you about when you were a kid?

Not to worry.

“Fidgeting can be almost any repetitive movement you do unintentionally like drumming your fingers, twirling your hair, clicking your pen or tapping your foot,” said Dr. Carolyn Ostrander, a Marshfield Clinic family medicine physician.

Fidgeting usually isn’t bad or something you should try to stop, she said. In fact, it can be a productive way to relieve stress.

Fidgeting releases energy

Fidgeting releases suppressed energy. People fidget when they’re stressed, anxious or bored and sometimes when they’re trying to stay awake.

“Fidgeting is a good adaptation because you’re taking energy and putting it into an activity that’s not destructive,” Ostrander said. “It can keep a person’s anxiety under control so he can handle stressful activities like going to the doctor’s office or testifying in court.”

Contrary to what your parents or teachers may have suggested, fidgeting isn’t a sign you aren’t focused. In fact, the movement can help you think and concentrate.

“Fidgeting is often misinterpreted as not paying attention,” Ostrander said. “Maintain eye contact and give verbal cues to show you’re focused on the conversation.”

Make changes to minimize movement

You may not be able to stop fidgeting because it’s unintentional, but you can make changes to reduce the likelihood you’ll fidget.

  • Get adequate sleep and nutrition.
  • Work in a stimulating, well-lit environment.
  • Practice stress-management skills.

If your form of fidgeting is distracting or destructive, like tapping your pen loudly or nail biting, try to train yourself to practice a more subtle movement. Play with a ring or a loose rubber band on your wrist.

Fidgeting or a medical problem?

Fidgeting is usually a harmless response to stress or boredom, but occasionally it can signal a health problem.

Repetitive movement to relieve pain may be a sign of restless leg syndrome. Some people consider skin picking or hair pulling fidgeting, but those behaviors are actually recognized medical problems, Ostrander said. While fidgeting isn’t a sign of Parkinson’s disease, tremors and other involuntary movements may be caused by a neurological problem.

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