Nervous Habits
Where do they come from?

By Cherry Pedrick, RN
Reprinted from, July 17, 2001, Revised

A habit is an activity that is acquired, done frequently, done automatically, and difficult to stop. I didn’t make it up. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines habit as “a) a thing done often and hence, usually, done easily; practice; custom; b) pattern of action that is acquired and has become so automatic that it is difficult to break.”

This gives us hints about what causes habits, particularly what are sometimes called “nervous habits.” These are persistent and automatic behaviors that serve no apparent social function; rattling keys or coins in a pocket, nail biting, skin picking, toe tapping, pencil drumming, knee bouncing. The list is endless, and I would guess that just about everyone has a habit like this. For me, can be a nervous habit. For most, these habits are innocuous. But for some of us, they can cause quite a few problems, both for us and for the people around us. If nothing else, they can make us look nervous when we want to appear calm and composed.

Sometimes, a nervous habit begins as a reaction to a physical injury or psychological trauma. When the behavior continues long after the original injury or trauma, takes on an unusual form and is performed in excess, it becomes a nervous habit. Often, a habit begins as a normal behavior that becomes more frequent or becomes altered in its form.

Unacceptable behaviors are frequently inhibited by inconvenience and by personal and social awareness of its peculiarity. But often, we aren’t too aware of the behavior and it blends in with normal movements, becoming almost automatic. A nervous habit is formed. Lack of awareness builds a habit. Awareness of a habit can help us escape it.

Think back to the first time that you performed your particular habit. If you are like most of us, you don’t remember the first time. It probably started as one behavior among many behaviors in your daily life. It may have relieved anxiety, stress, or boredom. Most nervous habits do; that is their purpose. You did it that first time and it brought relief, so you did it the next time you faced a stressful situation.  It was incorporated into your behavior patterns and you forgot why you did it the first time.

But why your particular habit? Why do some people rattle their keys and others bite their nails? Who knows! It’s probably usually an accident. The behavior served the initial purpose, so you repeated it again. Genetic and environmental influences also play a part in habit development. You may have seen a family member handle stress with a particular habitual behavior and tried it yourself.

So why do you rattle your keys when no one you know does it? Perhaps your mother bit her nails and your father tapped his fingers on the table. You learned that a habit can relieve stress or boredom and came up with your own self-soothing behavior. I saw my parents handle stress and anxiety by drinking alcohol. But not me! I vowed never to become an alcoholic.  But in recent years, I’ve begun to realize that I handle stress, boredom and anxiety by feeding myself comfort foods. During high stress times, when good nutrition is most important, I was giving my body the opposite of what it needed; high fat, high sugar foods with little nutritional value. Deserts instead of alcohol or cigarettes. Recognizing this has helped me improve my diet and even lose some pounds in the process.

So who’s to blame? Our parents? Genetics or environment? I don’t think so. We may not have made conscious decisions to develop our habits, but we do have a choice to continue them. These questions will help you define your habits:


Be sure to check out The Habit Change Workbook:
How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones