If you have anxiety, then you already know the symptoms can be tough to ignore. You might feel your armpits sweating as you step onto public transportation, or experience a pounding in your chest as you walk down the street. But other times, habits caused by anxiety can show up in small ways that may not be so obvious.
It can be easy to brush these habits off as small quirks. But if they're ongoing or excessive — or start to hold you back in life — it may be a good idea to look for an underlying cause. "Anxiety symptoms can 'whisper' at us, nudging us to notice and pay attention, but not always clearly identifying themselves as anxiety," Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. "Ticks and odd behaviors, like skin packing, nail biting, and hair twirling, are often things people do to calm and occupy themselves when they get uncomfortable."
Without even realizing it, you might doing these things to alleviate the discomfort cause by anxiety. There is good news, however, in that treating the anxiety — with the help of healthy lifestyle changes, a therapist, or even medication — can rid your body of stress and worry, and spare you from getting caught up in potentially unhealthy habits, such as the ones listed below.
Creating Multiple To-Do Lists
Being super organized sounds like a positive trait. And in many ways, it is. But if you're in the habit of creating lengthy to-do lists, organizing your desk multiple times a day, and tidying your surroundings at home, it may be your way tamping down anxious feelings.
"[Anxiety] can make you feel out of control and some people cope by being hyper-organized," Dr. Odessky says. So check in with yourself and see where the urge to organize might be coming from. If you don't feel distressed by it, it's likely not a problem. But if you clean and plan — and can't rest until you do — it may be a good idea to speak with a professional.
Not Being Able To Sleep Through The Night
If you suffer from anxiety, you might find that you have trouble sleeping, staying asleep, or that you always wake up early. It's easy to brush it off, since pretty much everyone complains of being tired. And yet, since it's often a sign of anxiety, an inability to sleep isn't something you should ignore.
"Anxiety can keep us up at night, literally, and also wake us up from sleep preventing us from being able to go back to sleep," Dr. Clark says. If you aren't getting a solid seven to nine hours of sleep a night, let your doctor know.
Having Weird Dreams
Speaking of sleep, have you ever noticed that, once you do get to sleep, you have super weird dreams? If so, anxiety may be to blame.
"Dreaming about weird, strange things that leave you uncomfortable can be a sign of anxiety you are experiencing, but may not be fully aware of," Dr. Clark says. "Our dreams are believed to help us process information, and things we worry about are often top of mind for needing our attention, even if we don’t have time. Dreams allow us to process conflict and anxiety without using precious waking attention to do so."
Using "Fear Language"
The next time you're having a conversation, take note of the words and phrases you say the most. If you use what Dr. Clark refers to as "fear language," it may be a sign of underlying anxiety.
"For example, 'I’m worried that…' [or] 'I’m concerned that…' [or] 'I’m afraid that,'" Dr. Clark says. "All these phrases, as colloquial as they may feel, signal anxiety that we may not always be aware of."
Changing Your Clothes Multiple Times
If you always changes clothes before leaving for work, it may be a sign of more than just disliking your outfit. "Changing your clothes multiple times before leaving the house might be a sign of anxiety," therapist Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, tells Bustle. "Sometimes anxiety shows up as physical discomfort. The anxiety can make fabric feel irritating, or waistlines feel too tight or loose, or just an overall sense of discomfort in the outfit."
Not Being Able To Sit Still
If you've noticed that you can't sit still to save your life — maybe you tap your foot, squirm in your chair, etc. — it may be a sign of anxiety. "Diffuse, whispering anxiety can cause a level of restlessness and tension that can be hard to identify," Dr. Clark says. "Boredom and restlessness are states of tension and low-grade anxiety."
Picking At Your Skin
Everyone squeezes the occasional pimple. But cleaning your skin, and excessively picking at it, are two very different things. As Cush says, "If you find it hard to stop picking at your skin you might have anxiety." This is another self-soothing quirk that many people employ in order to alleviate their stress, but it's far from a healthy coping mechanism.
Biting Your Nails
Nail biting is such a common habit, that many people think nothing of it. But if you have anxiety, it very well may be your go-to way of coping of feelings of unease.
"People tend to bite their nails from a young age when they feel nervous, overwhelmed, or anxious," Katie Ziskind, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. It can follow you into adulthood, where you find yourself gnawing on your nails in stressful work meetings, or whenever anxiety becomes overwhelming.
Not Making Eye Contact
Knowing how much eye contact to make in any given situation can be tough, but add in a layer of anxiety, and it can be darn near impossible.
"Someone who is nervous might dart their eyes around the room, scanning for threats, and trying to gather information about the experience," Amanda Ruiz, a licensed professional counselor, tells Bustle. "Someone not making, and maintaining, eye contact is possibly feeling anxious."
If this has always been a habit of yours, you may want to be checked for anxiety, so that you can feel more at ease in social situations.
Getting Bored Easily
Anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate and really be in the moment, so if you've always had trouble connecting with others, this may explain why.
"If someone is anxious, they might be so wrapped up in their own thoughts and worries that they cannot concentrate on what someone is saying, and cannot engage with others in a meaningful way," Ruiz says. "This might come across as cold, disinterested, or that your 'head is in the clouds,' but it could be that [you] just can't turn off [your] own thoughts to listen to what another person is saying."
Knowing how and when to apologize is obviously a good and admirable trait. But it is possible to go overboard — especially if you have anxiety.
As psychotherapist Janika Joyner, LCSW, tells Bustle, many sufferers "feel guilty for things that are not in their control and have a habit of taking things personally, which results in them feeling the need to say 'sorry' for almost anything."
Forgetting Important Details
Anxiety can make it easy to forget important details, such as when meetings start or what time your train leaves. It can also make you more likely to misplace important items, like your phone or wallet.
"When a person's mind is cluttered with hundreds and thousands of thoughts about what could go wrong, there is little room to focus on the present and what needs to be accomplished," Joyner says.
Going To The Bathroom A Lot
While there are multiple health issues that can explain frequent trips to the bathroom, anxiety may very well be one of them. Many people with anxiety report "that they constantly have to use the restroom or even get diarrhea as a result of excessive worrying and/or stressing," Joyner says. If this is you, it may be time to speak with a doctor.
Double Checking Everything
Since anxiety can make you feel out of control, you might find yourself going to great lengths to regain that control by being very structured and obsessive throughout the day.
"If you have a habit of triple checking your schedule or if you are not able to go to bed at night unless the same four tasks are completed, this can be a sign of anxiety," therapist Katie Leikam, LCSW, LISW-CP, BC-TMH tells Bustle. "If these signs of anxiety are prohibiting or interfering with your daily life, they are worth looking into for treatment."
Which really is the major takeaway here. It's not necessarily a sign of anxiety if you occasionally play with your hair, or if you enjoy creating to-do lists. But if you do these things as a way of easing anxiety, or even if the act of doing them creates anxiety, it may be a sign. By reaching out to a therapist, you can figure out if you do, in fact, have anxiety. And then get the treatment you need.