Meaning, Causes, Ways to Control It

Jennifer E. Engen

Fidgeting is a common habit that most of us have experienced at some point or another. It refers to the small movements we make with our hands and feet without thinking about it. This could include tapping your foot, drumming your fingers, tapping a pencil, and so on.

Fidgeting is believed to be a physical reaction to stress or concentration. In fact, fidgeting may allow your brain to concentrate on a difficult task longer. It may also be a response to a stressful situation, such as speaking in front of a crowd.

It can also be a symptom of a chronic health problem like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or restless legs syndrome (RLS). Fidgeting is sometimes associated with fidget spinners, small, handheld toys that are designed to give the user an opportunity to fidget. There are now several popular fidget toys on the market, but they have not been proven to improve concentration or focus. 

This article will discuss the known causes of fidgeting, as well as tips for controlling those small physical movements. 

10’000 Hours


Fidgeting Is a Physical Reaction 

Fidgeting often happens without your realizing it. Research shows that fidgeting is a physical reaction to stress or concentration. 

Impact of Stress and Anxiety 

Stress and anxiety can lead to increased fidgeting behaviors. A 2017 study of individuals with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa found that an increased amount of fidgeting was associated with greater levels of anxiety and depression.

Fidgeting is a common physical response to stress. It may even be a tool for sustaining your focus as stress increases. The more time you spend concentrating on a project, the more you will start to fidget.

Research shows that sustaining focus over a long period of time increases stress in the brain. For example, it is difficult to maintain your focus for an entire three-hour lecture. Fidgeting may reveal how much discomfort you are experiencing while trying to stay engaged with a task. It may also be a sign that it’s time to take a break and come back to it. 

Movement Characteristics of Fidgeting 

There are several different ways to fidget. Common signs of fidgeting include:

  • Tapping your feet
  • Drumming your fingers
  • Tapping a pencil
  • Shifting in your seat
  • Blinking your eyes
  • Adjusting your position
  • Crossing and uncrossing your legs 

Causes of Fidgeting 

Fidgeting has been linked to stress and anxiety. It may also be caused by an underlying health condition. 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

The hyperactivity symptoms of ADHD, a common chronic condition often diagnosed in children that produces symptoms of hyperactivity, difficulty paying attention, and being impulsive, can cause excessive movements and difficulty sitting still. Children and adults with ADHD commonly fidget throughout the day. Other symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Squirming while seated
  • Difficulty finishing a quiet task
  • Excessive talking
  • Interrupting others 

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

RLS, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a chronic neurological condition that produces a strong desire to move the legs and feet. Symptoms usually happen at night when you are trying to sleep or during other times when you must stay still, such as during a long car ride. Walking or moving the legs usually relieves the discomfort, but it often comes back once you stop moving. 

If you have noticed that your fidgeting usually involves only your legs and happens at nighttime, talk with your healthcare provider and ask about restless leg syndrome. 

Mild fidgeting is common and usually occurs as a reaction to needing to concentrate. As long as it does not interfere with your life, no treatment is needed. Severe fidgeting that feels outside your control may be a sign of a more serious health problem that needs to be addressed.

How to Stop Fidgeting 

Because fidgeting is often a subconscious habit, it may not be possible to completely eliminate it from your life. However, there are steps that you can take to reduce your fidgeting. This is especially important if it has begun to affect your ability to work or live your life. First, work with your healthcare provider to determine if there is a cause. Treating an underlying condition like ADHD or RLS could improve your fidgeting behaviors. 

Retraining Your Focus 

It may be more realistic to harness your fidgeting, rather than stopping it. This refers to purposely engaging in physical activity during times of stress or concentration to reduce involuntary fidgeting. 

For example, writing notes by hand during a lecture may be more beneficial than typing them for keeping your hands busy. Plus, a 2014 study found that writing by hand helps us to process and retain information better than by typing it. 

Standing desks don’t affect fidgeting but may improve concentration among schoolchildren. 

Benefits of Fidgeting 

It’s also important to note that not all fidgeting is negative, and these behaviors may have some health benefits. Fidgeting may even reverse some of the negative health outcomes of sitting. Sitting for long periods of time is known to decrease blood flow to the legs, leading to an increased risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) and hardening of the blood vessel walls (atherosclerosis).

A 2016 study found that fidgeting with your legs and feet while sitting increases the blood flow to the legs and improves blood vessel functioning. 

Fidgeting may also lead to improved information retention. A 2015 study found that when children with ADHD were allowed to fidget and squirm during a learning task, their retention rates improved. 

Fidget Spinners

Fidget spinner toys have been marketed as a helpful tool for learning. Unfortunately, the use of fidget spinners has been found to negatively affect attentiveness in children. Fidget spinners can be distracting and make concentration more difficult. 

Should You Be Worried?

For most people, occasional fidgeting is normal and does not require intervention. It’s time to see a healthcare provider when fidgeting has begun to interfere with your life, such as your ability to perform your job or participate in school.

It’s important to remember that frequent fidgeting does not necessarily mean that you have a health problem. Lifestyle factors such as skipping meals or not getting enough sleep can result in increased stress and fidgeting symptoms.

Children may fidget in school if the learning materials are too advanced or not challenging enough. If you are concerned by you or your child’s fidgeting behaviors, talk with your healthcare provider.  

Summary

Fidgeting refers to the small movements we make with our hands and feet without realizing it. Most people experience fidgeting from time to time. Common signs include tapping your foot, drumming your fingers, or shifting in your seat. Fidgeting may be a physical reaction to stress or concentration. It could also be caused by an underlying health condition like ADHD or restless legs syndrome. 

A Word From Verywell 

If you tend to fidget, you may find the habit frustrating. Because others may interpret your fidgeting as a lack of attention, you may have experienced negative outcomes because of it. Remember that people who fidget tend to retain more new information than those who do not. Fidgeting may have health benefits as well. If you are concerned about your level of fidgeting, talk with your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does fidgeting mean something is wrong with me?

    No, fidgeting does not always mean that there is something wrong. Research shows that fidgeting can be a physical reaction to stress or concentration. If you are concerned that your fidgeting behaviors feel out of control, talk with your healthcare provider. 

  • Should you tell employers/teachers about your ADHD fidgeting?

    You are not legally required to disclose your ADHD diagnosis to your employer. If you are concerned that your fidgeting behaviors may lead your manager or coworkers to assume that you are not paying attention at work, then you may want to consider talking with them about it. 

  • Does fidgeting mean someone isn’t listening?

    No, fidgeting does not mean that someone is not listening to you. Studies show that fidgeting may even improve the retention of new information. 

  • Can anxiety cause fidgeting?

    Yes, anxiety can lead to physical symptoms like fidgeting. Fidgeting has been positively associated with anxiety. This means that the higher your anxiety level, the more you may fidget in response. 

https://www.verywellhealth.com/why-am-i-fidgeting-5211372

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