Why do I clap my hands without knowing it?
August 21, 2011 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes when I'm concentrating, I unconsciously and involuntarily clap / clench my muscles / make nonverbal noises. I've done this ever since I was a child. What am I doing?

This is a behavior I've had ever since I was a kid, an unconscious pattern of motion I fall into when concentrating deeply. (I'm now in my late 30s.) At this point, I find that I fall into this state most often when fantasizing about being in a heated conflict with someone, especially over politics; when I was younger I think I was more apt to do it during any kind of daydreaming or intense concentration state. It doesn't happen when I'm concentrating for work (though I do sometimes rock my body at those times.) I think it lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. Any interruption snaps me out of it easily. I would say I notice that I do this a few times a week. (It's possible I do it more often and don't notice.)

The precise behavior is a little hard for me to describe, because I'm not really aware I'm doing it. I'm pretty sure I clap my hands, or grasp one hand with the other tightly and clench. I think I make small, not particularly loud noises with my mouth, sort of like saying "ch - ch - ch," and scrunch up my facial muscles. I think I might be rapping one arm with the opposite hand. When I come out of it, I often have an elevated pulse and am out of breath.

Over the years, I've somehow trained myself pretty well not to do it in public, but it looks weird enough that on some occasions I've fallen into it out on the street and had people ask me if I was OK. My wife sometimes catches me doing it and she calls it "clapping," so I guess that's the most visible aspect.

The only similar thing I've read about is the "stimming" or stereotypy that's common among people on the autism spectrum. I'm pretty sure I'm not on the autism spectrum (no social or communications deficit in childhood or now.) No history of ADHD or anything like that -- as far as I know I'm neurotypical. Except for this behavior. What is it?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Could it possibly be a version of Tourette's Syndrome?
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2011

Sounds like compulsions related to anxiety, to me. Especially seeing as you say you do it while imagining yourself in a heated argument.

When your body is in a state of high anxiety, your mind puts the cart before the horse. You're fantasizing about arguing because your mind is trying to find some ostensibly productive outlet for the anxiety. That's how it starts, and then the more you fantasize the stronger the feeling becomes, and vice versa.

I have learned for myself that when I notice myself tapping or generally compulsing, my mind is racing at the same time. They go together. They are both reactions to anxiety.

Are the things you think about when you're in your sort of fugue state things you would LIKE to be thinking about? If so, enjoy the depth of thought. If not, consider therapy or at least reading a book on anxiety. It might be illuminating for you if you truly have it.

Naturally this is just speculation, I am not a professional.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:12 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do this too. Whether I'm extremely happy or extremely focused. If I'm excited, I clench my hands tightly and build a slight tension, I feel in my head over something as mundance as say... making pasta sauce. lol, it sounds silly but these are quirks I've dealt with since I was a kid. I would be hyper focued on something and do weird things with my arms as if I was ready to fly. Now, I clench my muscles and rub my hands together or do like some sort of jazz hands to my sides. I'm laughing at myself as I type this 'cause it's embarrassing for me if someone catches me in the act. I'm also a pacer and imagine getting into heated discussions much like you when I'm listening to music, especially. I accept this is who I am. No consultation needed. ::Jazz hands::
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:34 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

*mundane rather
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:35 AM on August 21, 2011

I don't think these are quirks as much as normal human behaviour. My husband rattles his foot. I pace. My father makes this sort of thoughtful "doo doo doo doo" song when pondering and definitely does not have Tourettes. My sister rocks very gently, almost imperceptibly.

These kinds of behaviours are so universal that we recognise the trope of headscratching to be an indicator of thought or confusion. See also: unintentional body language.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:42 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do this too. I was gently bouncing my head side to side as I read this. I'm also a foot/knee jiggler when I'm thinking, it used to drive my college roommate INSANE.

If you ride public transit, you'll see a LOT of people doing this while they concentrate on a book or daydream, engaging in some sort of tic or repetitive motion. (The other thing TOTALLY a ton of people do on public transit is quietly, under their breath, mimic the noises they hear, like the woosh of the doors opening and closing, or even mouthing the announcements back.)

I think it's just a human thing. I think we like to move and make noises.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:22 AM on August 21, 2011

When I get excited or very agitated, I flap/shake my hands. It's very weird and I've gotten comments about it all my life. I try to keep it low key if I'm around non family, like doing it while my arms are at my sides so it's not as noticeable, but I don't always succeed. I too, don't think I'm anywhere on the autism spectrum, although I did have a friend laughingly suggest I might be mildly Asperger's once, but I don't agree and they're not a professional. My point is, I think it's just a nervous tic or something that became a habit in childhood, somewhat like biting one's nails, or twirling the hair. It's just that for whatever reason, I (and you) developed an uncommon tic that not many people share and/or recognize.
posted by katyggls at 9:22 AM on August 21, 2011

I absentmindledly "play piano" to whatever song is going through my head. I had a violist friend who would use her forearm like the neck of a viola to "play" tunes.

I also hold my breath when I'm concentrating hard, then heave great big sighs.

I'd say it's just a tic.
posted by LN at 9:55 AM on August 21, 2011

The fact that anonymous isn't really aware he/she is doing it tells me it's not Tourette's Syndrome. To me, it just sounds like a normal tic. We all have them. For instance, I sometimes catch myself scratching my knee when I'm thinking - and the knee doesn't even itch or anything.
posted by katillathehun at 9:57 AM on August 21, 2011

I think it's pretty normal, just that different people have different ones. ch-ch-ch noises are definitely something I've noticed in family members (particularly my mostly-deaf grandfather, presumably the others are better at hearing themselves do it). Sounds like it's the big movement/noise that's a bother for you, I'm sure you could train yourself to do something else instead.
posted by Lady Li at 10:41 AM on August 21, 2011

I tend to disagree with some who say it's a normal tic. This isn't a popular answer but he's trying to explain that he's so hyper focused in that moment his temperature and breath drastically rises. I understand totally. My brother has the same tic where he will focus on something for 5 seconds, which makes him stand on his toes, make the same ch ch ch noise, face INTENSE and rapidly wiggle his hands. He's in a heightened state of nervous energy at that point 'cause I see all the blood rushing to his face when he does it. This isn't the typical twirling of the hair or biting fingernails. This is something genetic that *could* be on the autistic spectrum, however doesn't interrupt daily life. Just a bit embarassing for us that have these tics. I knew as a child to keep my tics on the low, which greatly affected my self-confidence growing up. I feared this side would come out all the time in school. I'm better as an adult but still try to keep it private whenever I am induced in this state of sheer energetic focus. Now, the normal things I do are wiggling my legs and twirling my earrings. That's acceptably normal. However, the stuff we do... will have others looking at us weird. You have to experience it to understand.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 10:57 AM on August 21, 2011

Petit mal seizure? (See #5)

May just be an idiosyncratic variation on Jan Hankl's Flank Pat System, though.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:13 AM on August 21, 2011

Ok, this is from the anonymous poster:


InterestedInKnowing is right, and the thing she does sounds very much like the thing I do. This is not something as small as a nervous foot-tap or hair-twirl. It is the kind of thing where if someone catches me doing it they respond with "What's wrong with that guy, is he OK?"

posted by InterestedInKnowing at 1:24 PM on August 21, 2011

See: Stereotypic Movement Disorder. It is commonly associated with people on the autism spectrum, and the person I spent my childhood with who exhibited behaviours like InterestedInKnowing is indeed diagnosed as such. But it isn't exclusive to that group, and if it bothers you, can be treated. This article talks about stereotypicy in childhood but has a lot of information.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:55 PM on August 21, 2011

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