Why We Fidget: It’s a Coping Mechanism, Not a Sign of Boredom
I constantly shake my leg, touch my face, pick at the skin on my fingers, tighten and relax my thigh muscles; I even rock myself to sleep to the chagrin of anybody sleeping next to me. Fidgeting has always been my constant companion, and more often than not, it’s the only way I know to manage anxiety when it hits. Fidgeting is seen as an annoyance by many, and those who engage in it are often snapped at, or told to stop. But it’s an involuntary movement, one studies show is a common biological phenomenon our bodies have developed to cope with stress, manage BMI, and help with maintaining attention.
For me, fidgeting is a coping mechanism. Called displacement behaviours, face touching, scratching and other ‘self-contact’ behaviors are linked to attempts to correct negative emotional states. In a study conducted with 42 men required to perform mental math out loud, scientists studied participants’ stress before the activity, recorded their displacement behaviors during it, and asked participants to answer questionnaires about their stress levels, post-activity. As predicted, researchers found those more stressed before the activity engaged in more fidgeting behavior — and then reported less stress during and after the task.
Fidgeting also helps with self-regulating our attention spans. Our bodies have a mechanism that incites involuntary movement if it senses our minds getting bored, or zoning out. While fidgeting often accompanies mind-wandering, it is also the solution to bring our minds back to the task at hand. To combat boredom, our bodies start fidgeting to get energy levels high enough to be able to concentrate again. For example, a study conducted with 40 participants required them to remember details from a mock telephone message. They were divided into two groups: those who doodled during the task, and those who didn’t. The first group remembered 29% more details than those in the group whose concentration was solely focused on the phone message. In children, aged 10 to 17, with ADHD, researchers found more attention and alertness to tasks at hand for those who engaged in intense spontaneous movements, or “excessive motoric activity,” a.k.a. fidgeting.
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“There is also something called the cognitive load hypothesis, suggesting that when we have to deal with complex thoughts or problems we offload some of the cognitive load into movement, thus freeing up resources to devote to the mental process,” Karen Pine, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, told HuffPost Healthy Living. Fidgeting helps the brain — during both boredom and overstimulation — either by re-engaging parts of the brain in movement so the rest of the mind can focus, or by distributing stress from a state of overload into movement, to free up space in the brain.
The most interesting evolutionary cause, and benefit, of fidgeting, lies not in the way it affects the brain, but in how it affects the body. Called “nonexercise activity thermogenesis,” fidgeting can help regulate body weight. In a study published in Science, scientists fed healthy volunteers an extra 1,000 calories every day for eight weeks, during which participants’ fidgeting increased. While different volunteers underwent different weight gains, those who fidgeted more put on less weight than those who fidgeted less. In another study, researchers found energy expenditure from fidgeting increased by 29% while sitting down, to 38% while standing, as opposed to energy expenditure from being still; this translates to the burning of 100 to 800 additional calories per day, depending on the frequency and intensity of fidgeting. Researchers also found a lower mortality risk among women who fidgeted more while sitting down, than those who did not engage in spontaneous bodily movements.
Aside from evolutionary causes for fidgeting that help regulate mental and physical health, scientists have found a genetic cause, too, tracing similar fidgeting tendencies in families and identical twins.
There is a social/interpersonal cost to fidgeting, however: due to notions of pre-existing anxiety, frustration, distraction, and stress amongst fidgeters, others find their company unpleasant, studies show. But keeping in mind the psychological and physical benefits of fidgeting, we should rethink our perceptions of those predisposed to fidgeting (yours truly, included), and let the leg shaking continue in peace.