Change an Unwanted Habit

Change an Unwanted Habit

Force of Habit

What’s behind repeated behaviours like hair-twirling or leg-bouncing? And is it necessary to do anything about them?

Everyone has physical mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, whether t’s bouncing their leg, cracking knuckles, or twirling their hair. In fact, many are oblivious to the fact until it’s pointed out or they’re caught unaware on video. But why do people do these things? And are they habits that need to be changed or not?

Unconscious habits often develop from seeking short-term pleasure to relieve tension or pain, such as biting nails to relieve stress. The subconscious then anchors that response to the feeling.

In the same way that somebody might scream every time they see a spider, a person might start tugging their hair every time they feel anxious. People can find comfort in these behaviours and use them as a way to avoid a painful feeling. 

If you decide that you would like to change a habit, what’s the best way to start? Simply giving the hands something else to do – like squeezing a stress ball – might be enough for some people. For those looking for further support, habit reversal training could be helpful or an alternative approach could be hypnotherapy.

If your habit is causing harm or distress, you might consider changing a personal mannerism. If not, consider it just another layer of human diversity that makes you unique.


Tips for those who would like to change an unwanted habit:

Become aware of your triggers. When do you engage in the unwanted behaviour? Is it in a situation (for example, during work meetings or when watching television) or when experiencing a certain emotion (maybe stress, anxiety, or loneliness)? What can you do to help the underlying cause?

Relax your body and mind. Common triggers for unwanted habits are nerves, stress, and anxiety. Try to make regular time for relaxation, yoga, meditation, hobbies, and exercise.

Breathe. When you experience the urge to engage in an unwanted habit, try taking deep breaths for a moment or two. This switches your focus and relaxes the mind. The delay might be enough for the desire to pass.

Put up obstacles. Making it more difficult to access your nails, fingers, or hair creates a delay between your trigger and habitual response, allowing more opportunity to change the behaviour. Wear gloves if appropriate, tie hair up, or remove jewellery.

Visualise. Actively picture growing your hair or nails, or having healthy skin. It might help to get your hair cut regularly or your nails manicured.

Meet the body’s needs for stimulation differently. Replace the unwanted habit with another, less harmful, action. Try squeezing a small stress ball or using a fidget toy.

Seek support. If you’re worried a habit has become harmful or uncontrollable, seek help from your GP or a mental health professional. Therapies can be successful in treating these behaviours and the underlying causes.