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Why Do We Fidget?

“Stop!” said anyone who noticed the toe tapping, pen clicking, hair twirling, nail biting, or gaze wandering. But what is your body and mind really trying to do? If you really think about it, it's pretty easy to rule out that your mind is thinking "another click of the pen is the most important thing you could be doing right now". Either way, to others it seems like you're distracted or off in another world and to you, it’s embarrassing that you can’t just sit still. You don’t want to come across as uninterested to people you’re trying to listen to.


So why do we fidget? And before you think “Oh well, this isn’t for me. I don’t fidget”, let's really take a look at what a fidget actually is. A “fidget”, or sensorimotor activity, is a motion, sight, sound, smell, or anything used to awaken the mind into a state of attention. Some people can pay attention to the professor if they are doodling on their notepad. Others love to have the T.V. on in the background while doing chores around the house. Whether you pace while talking on the phone, need to have a fan humming for you to fall asleep, or reach for the wonderful cup of coffee in the morning, it’s all fidgeting. Even a person can be another person’s “fidget”! Driving late at night with someone sitting with you in the car can help keep you awake. Having a workout partner can keep you motivated with the gym regimen more than tackling it solo. Look at us all fidgeting, fidgeting, and fidgeting some more.


In the boiled down and over simplified explanation, fidgeting is stimulation. It’s an attempt to bring your mind from underaroused to aroused because an aroused mind can focus and be more productive than a lethargic and unstimulated mind ever could. Would you rather go into surgery with the spritely and energetic doctor or the one who looks tired and bored? It’s because a stimulated brain locks in. It is attentive and interested. When was the last time someone had to remind you to pay attention to something that you thoroughly enjoyed? It usually doesn’t happen.


To be fair it should be stated that stimulating does not always mean something that’s important and important does not always mean that it’s stimulating. Ok….back to fidgeting….


Some of us need more stimulation than others. Some don’t even realize that a little stimulation can make a world of difference. While lots of people have learned to avoid the fidgets that are “socially unacceptable”, others wish they could stop their bad habits and traits that seem impossible to control. The trick to being able to control the habits is to understand the habits. Your brain just wants something to do so that it can be at attention, so give it something to do!


Finding the right fidget is not a formula, but more of a trial and error. There are things however that can help us look in the right direction. The trick is to find something that is slightly stimulating, but doesn’t take any concentration to perform. The fidget also can’t compete with the sense needed for focusing on the primary task at hand. Example: If you’re driving, probably not smart to also be reading. Sight competing with sight. If you need to be listening to your significant other, shouldn’t be listening to your headphones as well. Sound vs. sound. Yet it makes sense to be studying for an exam with music playing in the background as long as it’s familiar music that doesn’t pull your attention away with its novelty.


Picking at your nails while watching a show? Try things that keep your fingers busy. Can’t stop bouncing your leg at your desk? Try a balance ball instead of a stationary chair. Maybe having some sour candies can jolt your mind into attention while sitting in class. If we can understand the reasons why we fidget, we can work on redirecting them to something healthy instead of trying to extinguish them all together. We do better when we can have a healthy fidget. We can leverage the knowledge of how fidgeting works for our benefit.


So experiment. It might be easy, it might take some time, but the important thing is that you find your fidget that isn’t distracting to others and is healthy for you. I am very pro-fidget and hope to bring others to this point of view. I hope for people to develop understanding and patience for those who fidget because lots of good things can happen when you Free Your Fidget!

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