Help me replace my bad habit with a good or at least neutral one
October 11, 2010 2:34 PM   Subscribe

Help me choose and develop a new OCD habit/tic that doesn't involve self-mutilation.

I was a nail/cuticle biter from as young as I can remember until I was 19 and got a job assembling electronics. That finally got me to stop because I didn't want to get lead poisoning and thus was really, really motivated to stop putting my fingers in my mouth.

But when I stopped biting my nails, I immediately began twirling my hair. Over the past 13 years the twirling habit progressed to mindlessly running my fingers through my hair all the time, to doing it more roughly, to ripping/breaking the strands and fussing with the split ends and other damage, and then recently I've been so stressed that I started tearing hairs all the way out of my scalp. :(

Having read up on trichotillomania I knew that I'd end up with bald spots soon if I didn't do something drastic to stop myself, so yesterday I went to the salon and got a super-short pixie cut. Now my hair is too short for me to get a good grip on and thus I can no longer mindlessly pull at it.

(It really is mindless, so "just stop doing it" wasn't a solution -- half the time I didn't even realize that I was doing it and I'd even do it in my sleep. Since I did it more when I was stressed, having someone else point it out and try to stop me was counterproductive because that would stress me out even more and thus increase the compulsion to do it.)

I know myself and my weaknesses well enough to realize that I will inevitably develop a new OCD habit to burn off my nervous energy and occupy my hands. I'm hoping that this time it can be something less self-destructive. I really don't want to return to nail biting, or become a skin picker, etc.

So, ideas? Anyone out there have a mindless self-stimming/soothing OCD habit that doesn't hurt you and doesn't annoy the crap out of everyone around you?

It's only been 26 hours since I got my haircut and I've already noticed a definite uptick in absent-minded lip chewing and skin/scalp scratching. So, I need to take deliberate action ASAP before I end up stuck with a new mindless habit that's bloody and gross.

posted by Jacqueline to Health & Fitness (45 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
One of my kids has OCD and all I can tell you is that as soon as he went on an SSRI, those habits completely stopped.
posted by dzaz at 2:38 PM on October 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a similar hair twirling/pulling/fussing nervous tic that I've kept calm during work by wearing a rolling ring (sometimes also called a trinity band or Russian wedding ring). Currently I have a really chunky one on my thumb that is just a tiny bit too small so it takes a lot of effort for me to roll it back and forth on my finger. This is a Very Good Thing as it keeps me adequately distracted without dropping it on my desk all the time.
posted by joan_holloway at 2:39 PM on October 11, 2010

I have a set of magnets I often play with absentmindedly. I hadn't even realized this was a thing I do, until I saw your question. The clicking noise/action is... satisfying.
posted by danny the boy at 2:40 PM on October 11, 2010

As long as I can remember I've been jamming my thumbnail into the farthest inside joint of my middle finger. Nobody can really see me do this and the only ill effect is a callus on each finger that no one's ever spotted without my pointing it out.

I have no idea if it's possible to teach yourself to do that, but as far as tics go I heartily recommend it.

I also spin pens, which impresses children and annoys everyone else.
posted by theodolite at 2:43 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I (literally) twiddle my thumbs. It can be done silently if you don't actually have your thumb touching. If you need one hand to be doing something else, your non-dominent hand can be be used thus: your thumb counts each finger in one direction and then the other. Depending on the ambient noise level and the speed of your count, people may hear a little whisper, or tiny thud. For a change, insert your thumb between each finger. Avoid (so should I) using your thumb to flick of a fingernail as it is surprisingly loud, alerts others to your habit, and longterm makes the nail wonky.

(For extra secrecy, I twiddle my big toe and the one beside it - no noticeable callouses yet.)
posted by b33j at 2:46 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @dzaz: I've been on Celexa for six months, and while it's helped tremendously with my depression, it didn't damper the hair pulling one bit. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 2:46 PM on October 11, 2010

Aww, no bueno. :( I have certain OCD habits too (trichotillomania in particular) but you know what really helped me?


Become a compulsive knitter. It's so satisfying and so productive and it gets my hands off my skin and my hair like nobody's business. :)

ALSO: I'm not usually one to throw in a vote for meds, but if you start getting to a point where you're truly causing irreversible damage/scarring to yourself, maybe getting a few consults for an SSRI wouldn't hurt. But start knitting first. ;)
posted by patronuscharms at 2:48 PM on October 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

Magnets, you want the little ballbearing ones you can build cubes and patterns with and count compulsively. Playing cards, learn to one-hand cut, shuffle, etc. A spinner ring, on your thumb, spinning it with your first finger. Learn Korean finger counting and do counts, primes, whatever. Breath and touch your thumbtip to each fingertip in turn for each breath.
posted by Iteki at 2:49 PM on October 11, 2010

Take up doodling or just scribble on a notepad.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 2:49 PM on October 11, 2010

Learn to roll a coin across your knuckles?
posted by muddgirl at 2:50 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had to stop biting my nails because it caused my front tooth to chip. I now pick at them with my fingers instead. I've found that I can keep my nails even shorter this way without as high a risk of painful descent into the quick.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:54 PM on October 11, 2010

Get yourself a ball bearing - not the little ball itself, but the ring-within-a-ring-filled-with-little-balls thing. ENDLESSLY good for stimming.

Clicking your teeth back and forth is good, although it can lead to jaw soreness.


Roll your tongue into shapes.

Get body jewelry, wait for it to FULLY HEAL, then diddle it (difficulty: waiting for it to heal so you don't infect the shit out of it).
posted by julthumbscrew at 2:56 PM on October 11, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, I should have noted that my new habit needs to be something I can do simultaneously with other activities like working on the computer or reading. The hair-pulling, scratching, etc. almost always happens while I'm focused on something else (that's why it's so mindless and uncontrollable).

My right hand, in particular, is the naughty one. If it's not directly occupied by the primary activity, then it seems to like to use my distraction as an opportunity to get into its own mischief. Seriously, it feels like the thing has a mind of its own sometimes. Whereas my left hand tends to behave unless my stress levels are REALLY high.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:03 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have OCD. Multiple SSRIs failed. So, individual mileage it does for all drugs.

I overgroom/overclean, so sometimes I redirect it by cleaning tiny picky projects that don't really need to be cleaned as much as I clean them. I polish my shoes and do other little clothing maintenance projects. Sometimes I refold all of my socks. I don't really have a preference for folded socks, but it keeps my hands busy. Or reorganize my jewelry and earrings. I just do this while watching TV at night or otherwise having downtime when I can feel the fidgets and compulsions coming on. I sort papers into piles for recycling or shredding. Or I do origami.

Worry beads. I used to keep them in my pocket.

Knitting. You don't even have to knit something--then you don't have to count rows, or do it well; you can just knit and knit and knit. I make a lot of scarves.

I sew custom surgical caps for my friends as presents.

Silly putty or magnetic desk sculptures.

Flavored lip gloss at least helps you taste when you bite your lips, and notice when you're doing it, which can help with redirecting yourself. Of course, flavored lip balm/gloss is a double-edged sword, because it can encourage the behavior.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 3:05 PM on October 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I also absently taught myself to palm surgical instruments and needle drivers with either hand, and it was great for learning suture patterns as well. Locking and unlocking a pair of Kelly forceps can occupy you for hours.

And if you're not actually performing surgery, you don't really have to pay attention to how you're learning to handle them.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 3:10 PM on October 11, 2010

An ex of mine rubbed the hem and sleeve edge of his shirts between his thumb and forefinger. Granted, it did wear the hem stitching down sometimes, but... they were t-shirts.

Also, if you have a fuzzy tv and you can't tell if that's him on the sideline, just wait until he rubs ;)
posted by Madamina at 3:28 PM on October 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for all the suggestions so far, and please keep them coming!

Of the ideas so far, the most appealing to me are harmless habits involving only my own body (tongue and thumb tricks, etc.) and playing with pieces of jewelry that can be worn at all times. Given that I did the hair-pulling almost everywhere and at almost any time, I think my new habit probably needs to have that "take anywhere" feature too or I'll end up falling back on picking away at myself whenever necessary items (magnets, coins, knitting supplies, etc.) were out of reach.

I've never been very into jewelery (the only jewelery I have is my wedding ring) and don't know much about it, so I'd really appreciate any additional specific advice on how to find and select something appropriate that would be durable enough to endure a lot of handling and could be discreetly played with non-stop through a meeting, class, etc. without making an annoying noise or otherwise distracting other people?
posted by Jacqueline at 3:30 PM on October 11, 2010

Maybe you can learn to spin a pencil. It's silent, but it might be visually distracting to others.

On the off chance that you've been wanting a tongue piercing for a while, I know someone one who got one mostly so she'd have something to play with.
posted by fontophilic at 3:37 PM on October 11, 2010

I don't wear a lot of jewelry either - just a wedding band on one hand and a class ring on the other.

The wedding band is perfect for fidgeting because it has a reeded edge (like a U.S. dime) and no stone, so it's perfect for sticking my incredibly short thumbnail into and working the ring around and around in circles. Since I'm right handed, my left hand is free to ring-fidget while my right hand is writing or mousing. Seems like a similar plain but textured band might work for you on your right hand.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:48 PM on October 11, 2010

For me, my two standbys are doodling and twisting paperclips. My daughter has recently exhibited some digital restlessness, and I taught her the paperclip trick to good effect. Nothing like combining OCD management with art.
posted by davejay at 3:52 PM on October 11, 2010

Jacqueline: an industrial piercing provided me with MANY MANY happy hours of discreet twiddling, until an infection forced me to remove it. It is also not TERRIBLY outre as far as piercings go. If you could force yourself to roll your tongue and twiddle your thumbs and Kegel like you were trying to crack walnuts for two months solid while NOT TOUCHING your new piercing, I can personally guarantee that it would provide an abundance of stimming after that. Yet again, I couldn't manage that, so YMMV.
posted by julthumbscrew at 3:53 PM on October 11, 2010

On preview: I do exactly what toodleydoodley does.

When I wear a ring I find myself using my thumb to ceaselessly spin it on my finger. If I'm doing this I am less likely to bite my nails. Choose something with a texture but that doesn't have a "wrong" way to wear it, and consider a size bigger than you would normally buy so you can spin it more easily (but not so big that it falls off.)
posted by bgrebs at 3:53 PM on October 11, 2010

Oh, and my son does it, too, and worry beads worked well for him (although he's since lost 'em.)

One more thing to think about: if your environment can stand it, pick up a small musical instrument (I always say ukulele, and this comment is no exception) and noodle with it. Again, nothing like managing OCD with artistic pursuits.
posted by davejay at 3:54 PM on October 11, 2010

Ohhhhhhhhh! I forgot one of my favorites - FOLDING! Either buy a ream of origami paper (tiny little sheets) or learn on Post-Its. Learn how to do the standard folds - valley, mountain, etc. You don't even have to fold anything in particular - once you know ten or twelve folds and proper technique for making 'em nice and crisp, you begin folding EVERYTHING into complex little snarls... straw wrappers, dollar bills, etc. It's immensely satisfying.
posted by julthumbscrew at 3:55 PM on October 11, 2010

I used to play with finger flexibility and dexterity. For example, some people can't bend their pinky finger independently of the ring finger (not by holding it with other fingers, but just flexing the finger joints). I can't. Boy, I've spent so many hours trying, though. Hold my ring finger straight so it can't flex, and try to bend the pinky. And try, and try, and try, and try.

Stretched my fingers to work on their flexibility, particularly after I broke one and it was really inflexible after it came out of the cast. This can even be done one-handed: place tip of finger A against a surface, move palm down and toward surface so the finger goes backwards and it stretches the knuckle area, for a few seconds. Repeat with finger B, and C, until you've done all the fingers on both hands. and then start again.

If you have any RSI symptoms, there are a ton of good finger and wrist exercises and stretches you can do. Probably good for anybody who ever uses a keyboard, whether or not they have any RSI.

I've tried to learn to move my toes independently, too, although I find this more frustrating.

And I've tried to roll my tongue upside down. I can roll it into a tube with the sides touching above the middle, and I can fold it back so the tip is near-touching the back of my throat, but I can't roll it so the sides touch *under* the middle. Spent a lot of time trying, though.

I don't think I'm OCD, but the ADD makes me fidgety ;) Can you tell?
posted by galadriel at 3:55 PM on October 11, 2010

Meditating a half hour a day takes care of most of my fidgety-ness.
posted by Dmenet at 4:04 PM on October 11, 2010

For what it's worth, the rolling ring I have that I mentioned above is sterling silver and quite durable. Mine is very simple and unisex (like this) but I have also seen ones that are a bit more dainty as well as ones where one of the three bands is set with real or fake diamonds to appear more fancy/feminine.

I wear it all the time and playing with it isn't noisy unless I drop it, which doesn't happen often since I picked a slightly smaller size than usual. I play with it while I'm working, interviewing people, hanging out with friends, etc and it generally doesn't seem to annoy people. Some of my friends are pretty fascinated with it and will play with it when I take it off for a minute to do something.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:55 PM on October 11, 2010

Clicking your teeth back and forth is good - alas, jaw soreness is likely to be the least of it. TMJ sucks.

OTOH, I swear by a little fidget-toy that I've assembled from a half-dozen safety pins. (5 of them are strung by the holes onto the pin of a 6th.) I've had similar "luck" with strings of paper-clips. It doesn't help when I'm away from my desk, but AT my desk it gives me something to fuss with. (I've always been a jewelry/pen fidget. Having one consistent thing to fidget on seems to help.)
posted by epersonae at 5:14 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

They're going to be aimed more at kids, but have you looked at any "fidgets" you can keep in your pocket or on your desk? For example (and these are just what I found, no idea about the quality of the items or the stores):

posted by The corpse in the library at 5:20 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can paint your nails with clear polish and then chip it off with your fingernails after it dries.
posted by xo at 5:23 PM on October 11, 2010

Oooh! A fidget ring!
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:23 PM on October 11, 2010

Another fidget ring!
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:24 PM on October 11, 2010

OCD that doesn't listen to SSRis sometimes listens to NMDA receptor antagonists, as I was kind of surprised to find out. You'll likely have to find a pretty sharp OCD specialist who likes to handle treatment-resistant cases, though.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:31 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I fold origami cranes out of whatever I can get my hands on (which annoys my family to no end, but hey, it's better than picking at my skin!), I knit while I read or watch movies, and I've replaced picking at my cuticles with rubbing Aquaphor on them.
posted by OLechat at 5:39 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I place my thumbnail under the inside edge of the nail of my pointer finger, and apply pressure five times, then I move to the outside edge of that nail, then the center.. Then I move on to the next finger. I'm not sure if that's a good explanation, but it doesn't do any damage to my body, and no one but my wife has ever noticed it. I also apply pressure to whatever I'm touching or holding on finger at a time, as if my fingers are making music. I also tend to twirl my wedding band quite a bit :P
posted by Glendale at 6:35 PM on October 11, 2010

I have a friend who wears a rubber band or hair band around one wrist, and pings it absentmindedly with the other hand whenever she is reading, chatting, etc.
posted by lollusc at 7:12 PM on October 11, 2010

I twist my earrings (lobe and cartilage piercings). Very satisfying and doesn't make any noise.

I love smooth rocks, like the kind you buy a bag of at museum gift shops. So smooth, and if you only have one you can rub your fingers over it without making noise. If you have two, it makes a nice clinking sound to roll them around in your hand, but the clinking might annoy others.

Bad suggestion from my evil twin: Keep candy or peanuts or some other bite-size snack handy for absentminded noshing. My downfall is eating sunflower seeds in the shell. I pop a few in my mouth at a time, and then my tongue goes to work getting the meat out. A most annoying and disgusting habit, don't start!

A better suggestion - keep a glass of water with a straw handy, and keep sipping.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:43 PM on October 11, 2010

Here is a book on OCD treatment that give suggestions for competing behaviors it's even got examples specific to hair pulling.

I feel I'd be remiss in not noting that cognitive behavior therapy can go a long way to helping you safely replace, reduce or eliminate anxious behaviors. There are also workbooks (like the one linked above) that give some nice ways to work through it at your own pace. I anxiously fidget at times, and while usually its not a big deal, its nice to be able to stop when I want to (at a job interview, when it distracts others etc). So for me working on reducing the behavior is useful.

A couple suggestions: keep your hands busy, like suggested by others. Keep occupied with incompatible behaviors (you can't do your compulsion because you're doing something else). To stop picking at your lips, press your tongue to the roof of your mouth or similar. Even if you feel like you do it unconsciously, you'll be reducing the times you *do* notice it, which will likely help reduce 'side effects' and you'll also likely get better at noticing when you're doing it.
posted by gilsonal at 7:47 PM on October 11, 2010

If your SSRI isn't helping, it might be worth asking your doctor to consider upping the dosage, or trying another SSRI. Also, as others have noted, cognitive behavioral therapy is very helpful in some cases of OCD.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:43 PM on October 11, 2010

The corpse in the library beat me to it. (wow that sounded odd.) Office Playground has a whole category of fidget toys. (Be warned though, their velvet slime anemones are fabulous, but they are coated in powder and leave some of it on your hands, which may result in frequent handwashing. I washed the powder off mine and from then on, any time it sat on a piece of paper, it left a wet stain.)
posted by IndigoRain at 9:02 PM on October 11, 2010

Learn to solve the 3x3 Rubik's cube. Dan Brown's tutorials on YouTube are informative and entertaining and, after about 20 solves, you won't need the cheat sheet anymore.

It's something busy to do with your hands, the cube never runs out of batteries and can't connect to the internet, and has the side effect of making you look like an MIT-educated wizard if you do it around other people. Especially if you do it enough to have memorized the seven algorithms required to solve it using the layer-by-layer method.

Yes, that's right. Seven algorithms. That's all you have to learn. It's actually really easy and some cubes come with a little cheat sheet in the package.

Then, if that's not challenging enough, Rubik's makes the 2x2x2, 4x4x4, and 5x5x5 cubes. V-Cube makes a 6x6x6 and a 7x7x7, which area also really fun, too.

There you go. Something to do that doesn't require you to have lots of paper or ideas. Just scramble and solve. I carry a keychain cube in my jacket pocket. Racing the elevator is fun.
posted by phoebus at 9:54 PM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm similar - I think best when I'm moving and nail-biting, hair twiddling etc helps to entertain my brain whilst focussing on other stuff. My tics aren't as extreme as yours (no actual mutilation!) so not sure if this would work but I keep a little bowl of raw risotto rice by the keyboard and chew it slowly, a grain at a time, to keep my mouth busy. I also have a clutch of magnetic rocks next to my keyboard for scrunching, and a sand-filled snake for twirling and waving. I recently picked up a mini metal slinky, and am finding it really soothing to fiddle with.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:44 AM on October 12, 2010

A jewelry suggestion: go to a bead or craft shop, preferably one with a large, appealing selection of beads and ornaments, and design a bracelet for yourself. Pick whatever appeals and wear it on your left hand. It will serve two purposes, first as a symbol and reminder of your renewed commitment to stopping the self-harm and second as an object to occupy your rogue right hand. I find spinning round beads can really satisfy that need to twiddle. Designing the bracelet yourself isn't strictly necessary, but going through the ritual of designing it may reinforce it's value as an anti-picking cue. As others have pointed out, anything you can always have with you and use as a harmless substitute for the behavior you want to avoid could work, but I've found having a self-designed bracelet that I created specifically to stop myself from doing something else (not picking, but a similar behavior) particularly useful. Seeing it on my wrist and remembering why it's there has been really helpful in breaking the habit.
posted by reren at 4:36 AM on October 12, 2010

Ok, I feel a little weird saying this. But my OCD tic is to flex my muscles in different patterns. Often to the tune of Dixie. I'll create eight "notes" (arm, leg, calf, foot, on each side) and play songs using these notes. Sometimes I'll try to play the songs so that I flex each muscle the same amount of times.

Somebody would have to be paying very close attention to you to notice, and it's silent. I also play songs with my fingers sometimes too, but constant tapping can be annoying to those around you.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:25 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Someone who works at my library has had great success with foam rubber squeeze balls, the kind that you can get as a giveaway (or buy, of course). You could always go with something like this, which could possibly give you amazing Bruce Lee-like forearms, if that's your thing.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:58 AM on October 12, 2010

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