(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)
(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)

Why we fidget... and should you stop?

There can be benefits to all the foot-tapping and twiddling of thumbs. It can even help focus the mind. So how much is too much?
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:36 PM IST

Sports manager Siddharth Bhattacharya finds it difficult to remain still. If he is at work and there is a pen within sight, he’ll want to pick it up and fiddle with it even while doing something else on his laptop. Sometimes, without realising it, he’ll idly tap his feet on the floor or against a table leg.

Bhattacharya does not think of this as something to worry about. Neither do many others who, like him, have a habit of twiddling their thumbs, blinking too much, or making unconscious repetitive motions that most of us dismiss within the umbrella category of fidgeting. But why do we do fidget? And is there an upside?

A study conducted by the University of Missouri in 2016 suggests that mild fidgeting activities such as feet tapping or thumb twiddling can even reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fidgeting is also an innocuous way to focus or channel a wandering mind — the external manifestation of a mental engine humming along nicely.

“Fidgeting can become cause for concern if it interferes with your ability to focus on a task or disrupts your general well-being, say by hampering sleep patterns,” says Dr Sonal Anand, psychiatrist at Wockhardt hospital, Mumbai. “It can also be a symptom. Severe fidgeting can be indicative of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is usually found in children but can also show up in adults.”

Excessive fidgeters – those who can’t seem to concentrate without tapping their nails on a desk, or keep one foot shaking as they complete a written exam, for instance – stand to face fatigue more easily. “It can be one of the manifestations of anxiety too, particularly in older patients,” says consultant psychiatrist and therapist, Parul Tank.

So how does one tell the difference? If your mild fidgeting isn’t bothering you or anyone around you and if you can stop after a task is done, there is likely no cause for worry. If, however, your fidgeting tends to recur or intensify at a particular time of the day, if it is triggered or exacerbated by stress or you find you’re unable to function effectively without fidgeting, it might indicate an associated condition such as ADHD or anxiety.

Can’t keep still? Here are 5 things to try

Get organised. Make notes and lists, set deadlines. A routine can act as a guide and an organised routine is a calming mechanism. It will allow you to gain a sense of control over your day and help you focus.

Get some exercise. A worked-out body tends to be less coiled. Exercise also releases endorphins — also known as happiness hormones — that induce feelings of positivity and calm the mind. Outdoor exercise amid nature works best. Yoga and meditation are effective too.

Lay off the poisons. Alcohol and smoking have been shown to aggravate nervous fidgeting as well as fidgeting as a result of anxiety or ADHD.

Break the spiral. If you just can’t stop moving, take a break to walk around, use a stress ball or do a few minutes of simple stretches to break the pattern and bring your mind back into focus.

Find the cause. If all else fails, find out what your fidgeting is a symptom of and treat the condition at its root.

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