“Hey, can you stop bouncing your leg?”
“No, I can’t.”
“But I’m trying to focus.”
For those of us with anxiety, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), these “annoying” behaviors can be kind of uncontrollable. They can comfort us when we’re feeling stressed out, but sometimes, they annoy us, too.
Yeah, I wish I didn’t ruin my $50 manicure every time I got a little nervous, and yeah, I think it’s gross when my cuticles bleed, too. I hate ruining pens because I can’t stop clicking them, and I hate kicking the desk in front of me when I bounce my leg. However, these are things my brain tells me I need to do. Forcing myself to sit still keeps me from focusing and increases my anxiety.
These behaviors are sometimes called “stims.” If you’re on the autism spectrum, you know exactly what I mean when I use this word. “Stimming” or self-stimulatory behavior is repetitive actions that help neurodivergents calm themselves down or relieve anxiety. Hand-flapping, rocking back and forth and scratching are common examples of these behaviors.
Neurotypicals stim, too. Touching a really soft shirt, watching slime videos, sucking on a piece of hard candy, these actions can all be considered stimming behaviors. The difference between this stimming and the stimming done by neurodivergents, however, is that I can’t just stop.
These behaviors aren’t always pleasant. Most of my stims would be considered self-harm. Biting my nails down to the cuticles, picking at my skin, pulling out my eyebrows, all of these attempts to relax hurt me more than they help me.
Even as I’m typing this, I have to take breaks to pick at my skin. It’s impossible to ignore how raggedy my fingers get during exam week. In high school, when my mental health was at its worst, I’d often have to leave class to wash blood off my hands in the bathroom. My fingers have started bleeding on stage while I’m performing. I even had to wear gloves for a week just to keep from scarring my face.
The behaviors I use to eliminate my anxiety often leave me feeling worse than before. Because of the other ways I stim, I’m grateful when my anxious behaviors manifest as foot-tapping or pen-clicking.
So, no, I won’t quit bouncing my leg, tapping my feet or clicking my pen. To you, this may be annoying, but to me, this is progress.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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