How to break a nervous habit

A nervous habit is unconsciously performed and is compulsive. It can begin at any age, but is most common in the teenage years. Nail biting, skin picking, foot tapping and knuckle cracking are some common body-focused nervous habits. For many people, nervous habits are hard to break, but you can do it – it just requires practice and patience.

Don’t worry 

This tip is number one for a reason. Just because you have identified a nervous habit, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Psychologists can identify that some severe habits in some people can be an indicator of some deeper unresolved issue. However, for most of us, our nervous habits are neurological responses to stress, absent-mindedness or even boredom. There’s even some evidence suggesting that body-focused behaviours are genetically based.

Do you really want to stop? 

It seems like a silly question, but before you try to break a habit, it’s vital to ask yourself why you want to stop and if you’re really ready. Habits are easy to pick up and hard to break because they are gratifying. Ask yourself why now is the right time to stop your habit. Identify a solid reason for stopping and it will give you something real to work towards.

Start catching yourself in the act 

Changing your nervous behaviour begins with being mindful. Habits are unconscious and automatic. To break a hair-pulling habit, for example, try to catch yourself just as your hand comes up to your head. Habits are often performed as an emotional response to stimulus. If you manage to catch yourself before or during the act, ask yourself what emotions you’re feeling. You can then begin to understand the root of your habit.

Mind over matter 

Realise that even though you may get the urge to bite your nail, pick the scab or crack your knuckles, you could just as easily not. Rather than telling yourself “I have to pick that scab”, put distance between yourself and the action by saying “I have an urge to pick that scab”. Just because the compulsion occurs to you, you don’t have to indulge it.

Replace the habit

Psychologists call this a ‘competing behaviour’. Whenever the urge to perform your habit arises, have a diverting action ready. For instance, you can keep a smooth stone in your pocket to hold when you’re distracted, or carry a nail file to use on your nails instead of biting them. Whatever you choose, ensure it is harmless and unlikely to just become an unhealthy replacement habit.

Enlist help 

If you live with someone, enlist their help as a ‘compassionate spotter’. This person can help you notice when you perform your habit and gently remind you to stop. A simple, “lip-biting, darling” or “nails, [name]’ can really help.

Practice makes perfect

I must stop biting my nails right now.

I’m now practicing to stop biting my nails.

Which seems more achievable to you? Changing your mindset is vital to success. If you constantly berate yourself for yet again performing your habit, you’ll become frustrated and probably give up.  Give yourself the space to falter. Change doesn’t happen overnight – it happens through practice and patience. Try giving yourself a leeway of faltering 100 times before your habit starts to change. Tallying up the number of times you catch yourself and stop will feel more like a mental exercise rather than counting your failures.

Tell us about yourself: Did you have any nervous body-focused habits? How did you break them?

Read more at Quick and Dirty Tips.


Amelia Theodorakis
Amelia Theodorakis
A writer and communications specialist with eight years’ in startups, SMEs, not-for-profits and corporates. Interests and expertise in gender studies, history, finance, banking, human interest, literature and poetry.
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