How to Stop Nervous Habits


Ben Ahrens, HHP


Published on

June 05, 2024


Updated on

June 05, 2024

Medically Reviewed by

Ben Ahrens, HHP


Whether you bite your fingernails, scroll social media endlessly, or can’t stop tapping your foot up and down, I’m going to let you in on the little secret: your nervous habits are not necessarily a bad thing. Nervous habits (also referred to as quirks or compulsions) are usually some sort of unconscious coping mechanism; this is your body’s way of soothing you in uncomfortable moments because it wants you to be happy and at ease. Habits often occur when your nervous system is dysregulated and needs help returning to homeostasis.

In this article, we will discuss where nervous habits stem from, some examples of the most common nervous habits, how long it takes to break a nervous habit, and some techniques we recommend.

At re-origin, we help people redirect their focus and behaviors away from unhelpful thoughts and behaviors (whether they be physical, mental, or emotional) and create new neural pathways that support a healthier lifestyle. If you are interested in learning more about our program, contact us today.

The Consequences of Nervous Habits

While your habits may be serving a fundamental purpose, they may also be impacting your overall mental and physical health. For instance, scrolling social media while anxious may create a negative feedback loop, thus producing more anxiety and reinforcing the habit. Nail biting can bring pathogens into your body, creating illness and impacting your immune system. And procrastinating can cause undue stress or missing deadlines at work.

The upside? Your brain can learn to change these habits to activities that better serve your mental and physical health in the long run!

Why do I have so many nervous habits?

Those who may be more susceptible to nervous habits include, but are not limited to:

***Having nervous habits does not automatically qualify you with a diagnosis of the above things, nor does it necessarily point to previous trauma. For more insight on a mental health condition diagnosis, please seek a mental health professional.

How Nervous Habits Form

Habits form in a three-part process. First, you experience a trigger. This trigger flips your brain into autopilot and relays to your subconscious mind that it is time to engage in an activity as a response to the trigger. If the trigger is an uncomfortable one, you may choose a self-soothing activity, like twirling your hair around your finger or cracking your knuckles. These activities are referred to as the routine.

The third step is considered the reward. Every time you feel discomfort and you choose to open Instagram, you are rewarded with Dopamine, the feel-good hormone. This production of Dopamine in your brain tells you that the habit is a positive one because it distracts you and makes you feel good in the face of discomfort. Thus perpetuating the automatic desire to choose such a habit in future moments of discomfort.

Examples of Nervous Habits

Some of the most common nervous habits include, but are not limited to:

  • Fingernail biting
  • Snacking when not hungry
  • Hair pulling (also known as trichotillomania) or hair twirling
  • Scrolling the internet
  • Procrastinating
  • Knuckle cracking
  • Thumb sucking
  • Skin picking
  • Excessive smoking, drinking, or drug use
  • Foot tapping

How long does it take to break bad habits?

Whether the habit you often engage in is physical or mental/emotional, the way to stop it is the same. Our brains are plastic, which means they have the ability to change throughout our lifetime. Pretty cool, huh? Even cooler, we can use our conscious mind to shift unconscious thoughts and behaviors!

It can take up to 60 days to fully break a bad habit, with the average amount of time anywhere from 30-60 days, depending on how much effort and intention you put in. So, if you have been frustrated with yourself for performing a habit for years on end, you can take that sigh of relief now. We are going to show you how to break it.

How can I break a nervous habit?

Neuroplasticity Exercises and Brain Retraining

1. Identify the Trigger

What is usually happening when you choose to engage in your habit? Are you stressed with work, bored at home, or feeling exhausted and shut down? Identifying your trigger can bring awareness to your automatic behaviors. Once you have awareness, you have a choice!

2. Create a positive affirmation/visualization

Now that you have identified the trigger, decide how you would rather feel when the trigger occurs. Maybe you’d like to feel at ease, engaged, or energized? Once you’ve decided the feeling you are trying to create, write a positive affirmation that reinforces that feeling.

Something like:

  • “My brain is feeling stressed, but I consciously know that I can choose ease in this moment,”
  • “My brain is feeling out of it, but I choose to re-engage right now,” or
  • “My brain is telling me I am tired, but I know I have energy and vitality within me.”

You can then create a positive visualization that promotes that feeling. Perhaps you are at the beach, building something by hand or participating in your favorite sport. Doing this not only produces feel-good hormones in your brain but also creates a positive association with whatever you may be doing at the time of discomfort. Over time of doing this, you will no longer feel such discomfort; thus, you no longer need to participate in the self-soothing habit.

3. Replace bad habits with new, healthy habits

Because you’ve actively created this space within your mind to choose to feel a new way, you also have the opportunity to choose to act in a new way. So, instead of choosing to pick up your phone and scroll, maybe you choose to squeeze your stress ball, get up and grab a drink of water, pet your dog, or go for a walk. With time and repetition, you will not only have kicked an old habit but created a new, healthy one. Now that’s a win-win!

It can be helpful to practice this activity throughout your day, not just in moments when you notice yourself participating in your habit. Doing so will break the old pattern much more effectively and have you consciously turning to your affirmation, visualization, and new habit faster. Try practicing this actively three times per day over the next week, and see what happens!

4. Let go of perfectionism

Remember, breaking a habit takes time, so if you catch yourself engaging in it, give yourself grace! Once you have identified you are participating in the nervous habit, whether you’ve been doing it for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, stop there and run through your habit-breaking activity. Go easy on yourself in the beginning, and celebrate yourself for each step forward you take!

Other Ways to Break Nervous Habits

  • Practice Mindfulness: In moments you find yourself performing a nervous habit, take a deep breath and focus all of your attention on something positive, whether it be a positive emotion or something outside of you that brings you joy. This breaks the cycle of the habit and puts your brain in a feel-good state, thus making it more likely you might choose mindfulness in the future.
  • Seek Someone To Talk To: Reaching out to a friend or loved one when feeling drawn to perform a nervous habit can help break the cycle.
  • Journaling: Pausing to explore your feelings in moments you feel drawn to nervous habits can help you identify triggers and learn more about yourself in stressful moments. This is a great tool and a new, healthy habit you can choose over a nervous habit.
  • Prioritize Sleep: Getting eight hours of sleep per night reduces stress and inflammation and promotes good mental health. Your brain is more likely to struggle with choosing nervous habits if you are not prioritizing sleep.
  • Reduce Social Media Consumption: Consuming social media can put your brain in auto-pilot mode, making it much easier for you to choose to partake in nervous habits.

eNeuroplasticity exercises, in combination with other self-care activities, can be incredibly helpful for breaking nervous habits. Remember, your brain is incredibly malleable and able to change at any age. So, even in moments of stress or discomfort, you can choose new behaviors that support your mental and physical health!

Stop Nervous Habits With Help From re-origin

If you are interested in learning more about stopping your nervous habits, re-origin can help! We offer neuroplasticity exercises and brain retraining to help people redirect their focus and behaviors away from unhelpful thoughts and habits (whether they be physical, mental, or emotional) and create new neural pathways that support a healthier lifestyle.




Ben Ahrens, HHP