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How do you stop nervous habits?

Updated: Oct 13

Do you have a nervous habit that you're trying hard to break?


Do you bite your nails or pick at the cuticles?


Are you constantly fidgeting or tapping your foot?


Do you grind your teeth or bite your lips?


Your nervous habit may have developed further into emotional eating or smoking.



Nervous habits originate from a primitive part of your brain designed for survival. If you did something once when you were nervous, that made you feel better for a short period of time, then you program yourself that that works. Almost like creating a file or template in your brain that you will refer to next time you get the same trigger to feel nervous.


It is a way of trying to keep in control, just like a survival response. It makes you feel safe. 


The problem is that it doesn't work for long. And rationally you know it doesn't make sense.  Either the habit gets worse and intensifies and you need 'more of it' to make you feel better, or you find a new habit to replace it. 


You need to regain intelligent control. When you are in the primitive part of your brain it makes total sense to have that habit.


But look at the habit rationally and objectively, when you are feeling calm and away from the situation - does it help? Does it make a difference? You kind of need to clean up your files in your brain. You need to accept that it is a habit that does not serve you so well so it has to stop. If you can understand that then you can break that habit.


However, the primitive brain is fuelled by excess stress in all it's forms so reducing generalised stress and anxiety is key. Limiting your exposure to general stress, limiting negative thoughts, and sleeping well all help to reduce the irrational response.


So what can you do to break your nervous bad habit?


Here are some tips to help you:


  • Rationalise your habits only when you are feeling calm and relaxed, have a think - do they really serve you? 


  • If possible limit the triggers to the bad habit.


  • It's easier to create good habits rather than override bad ones - try and focus on that instead.


  • Make your good habits easy to achieve, If you want to drink water instead of skin picking for example then make sure you always have a bottle of water with you, especially if you are going into the situation where you will be triggered. 


  • Habits are created through emotion - you've created a habit through negative emotion - try and create good habits using positive emotion instead. They are just as powerful. 


  • Focus on what you would like to happen instead - focus on a positive outcome. Be solution-focused rather than problem-focused and reframe your language/self-talk. Eg; If I asked you to NOT think about a green bus, what are you thinking about - a green bus right? Well, it's the same for any habit. Don't think that I am NOT going to pull at my hair, think that I am going to smile and wave instead - funny example but do you get what I mean. That is how the mind works - it's just neuroscience. 

I hope that helps. If you have a nervous habit with underlying anxiety and stress then I hope these tips will help you. If you need further advice just drop me a message - I'd be happy to advise you.


Gin Lalli gin@ginlalli.com

Gin Lalli is a Solution Focused Therapist specialising in anxiety, depression, stress and sleep. She is based in Edinburgh, Scotland




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