Help with new physical anxiety symptom?
October 13, 2022 1:43 PM   Subscribe

I've developed a new anxiety symptom in which I constantly flex my pointer fingers. Why am I doing this and how do I stop?

I'm a lifelong anxiety sufferer and have experienced all manner of symptoms, but in the past 4-6 weeks, I've developed a new one and it's stumping me.

In short, when I'm home and doing things around the house, I constantly, involuntarily flex/clench my pointer fingers. Like, imagine firmly making a fist, but it's just one finger. Some days are better than others, but it's not going away and now I have knuckle pain in the mornings.

Would an involuntary physical compulsion be more OCD than anxiety? I've been told I have some mild OCD, but most of those symptoms went away when I started taking Lexapro 6 years ago, and none of the symptoms were physical. (I was more of an obsessive thinker than someone who had to do certain things.)

Interestingly, I don't clench my fingers when I'm sleeping, reading, meditating, watching TV, or otherwise at rest. I also don't do it much out of the house, especially if I'm with other people.

My anxiety is definitely higher than normal these days, so I'm working to bring down my overall stress levels to see if that will help. I've also noticed a link between breathing shallowly and clenching my fingers, so I'm going to start incorporating more deep breathing exercises throughout the day.

If anyone has experience with this, or has suggestions on how to stop it, I would appreciate it. I'm sick of having sore fingers and I'm worried about creating joint issues or similar.
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, as a fellow anxious person I tend to develop a new physical anxiety symptom every 6 months or so. I often seem to pick up a new one after successfully learning to deal with some previous symptom that was a bit worse. Given that Anxiety, OCD, and things like Tourettes have a lot of overlap in physical anxiety symptoms, it's hard to assign a specific symptom to a specific disorder.

In general symptoms like this (and other compulsions) keep happening against our will because they get linked to an anxiety-causing event, situation, or environment. My guess would be that you randomly clenched your pointer fingers a few months ago while you were doing or thinking about something stressful, and now it's associated with similar situations. All humans clench parts of their body when they feel stressed/scared because it protects us against sensations we don't want to feel and gives us a feeling of control over our environment. If your anxiety right now is higher than normal, it makes perfect sense that your body would start clenching things more often.

Trying to lower your overall anxiety with things like deep breathing sounds like a good solution to me. If you want to work on specific symptoms, one approach is to change your environment. You noticed that you don't do it much outside your house, so to do it less at home you could try to change your house in some way where it feels new and different, or try to change your routines around. Any other general techniques for fixing bad habits can work here.

Another approach is to try and weaken the link between a situation and a symptom. For cases like muscle clenching, I have had some success by deliberately imagining the kinds of situations that would make my muscles clench. Then when I feel the clenching happen I decide to let my muscles to relax. It's hard to describe the difference, but if I "force" my muscles to relax they will always move but I won't feel any better. But if I "let" my muscles relax, it takes longer but feels better and I can start to build more control over my body. In my experience it will take a while for this approach to work and your clenching might increase a bit in the short term because you're thinking about it more. But if you keep working at it over time you will gain more control over what your body does in a specific situation
posted by JZig at 3:08 PM on October 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

In addition to the excellent advice from JZig, I would suggest that you try some kind of ‘fidget toy’, for want of a better word, to occupy your hand/finger. I noticed I was rubbing my thumb and forefinger together, to the point where I was damaging the skin. I now have both a spinner ring, and a smooth stone which fits well between my thumb and finger. Both offer similar movements for me, without damaging the skin. The spinner ring sits on my forefinger and has a nice texture on the spinning part, which helps with the spinning, and feels good. The stone is concave on one side which fits my thumb well and is nice to rub gently because it’s so smooth. I hope you find something that helps.

Editing to add: as you’re clenching the finger, maybe a foam or sand stress ball, which would reduce the amount you can clench the finger?
posted by valleys at 3:25 PM on October 13, 2022

Long term use of Lexapro is associated with the development of Tardive Dyskinesia.

And for some people TD begins with "finger and small muscle twitches and spasms which gradually got worse."

TD can also cause "difficulty breathing or swallowing."
posted by jamjam at 3:45 PM on October 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds like maybe just a simple habit. You started doing it at some point, triggered by circumstances (tidying, feeling stressed), it has a reward value (creates dopamine, which arises also from not evidently pleasant activities), now your reward-seeking brain does it when triggered by certain circumstances but without regard to the negative consequences.

I would use strategies targeted at habit change, which it sounds like you may already be doing. I would try not to worry about it (worry itself is a habit/can be an addiction - I strongly recommend the book Unwinding Anxiety which really shifted my perspective on it). The worrying is stimulating and habit-forming. I am not a doctor but I really doubt you have Tardive Dyskinesia and don't think worrying about it or this as a physical symptom of anxiety or OCD will help you. You should ask yours.

Unwinding Anxiety has as its first step to habit change the process of noticing what triggers your unwanted habits, and second, mindfully paying attention while you are doing the habit to notice if it feels good or not (this probably felt better before you developed the joint pain, but your brain hasn't caught up). All before actively trying to change it.

Redirecting to less harmful fidget toys also seems like a good strategy.
posted by lookoutbelow at 5:55 PM on October 13, 2022

I want to echo lookoutbelow's excellent advice.

What you describe sounds to me like a classic stim. I have a very similar stim that gets more noticeable when I'm anxious and it's a very common one.

Stims help to regulate your nervous system. If you need to change the behaviour because it's become painful, try to redirect by doing another behaviour like lookoutbelow suggests.

Please don't try to suppress it.

Stims are associated with neurodivergent people, but stimming doesn't necessarily mean you are neurodivergent.

However, it might be useful for you to look into, to see if you resonate with the description in this excellent article
posted by Zumbador at 8:34 PM on October 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd look into whether it's a medication side effect. Some psychoactive medications make me "pill roll" and flexing your finger might be a similar thing. Unlike standard side effects (which start soon after beginning a course of medication and improve over time) motor issues like this can appear after a few years. For me, the pill rolling resolves with a change of meds.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 12:27 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm anxiety-prone, possibly autistic, and not on any medication. I have two repetitive hand movements I'd like to stop (one damages winter gloves, the other damages me). I don't consciously decide to start doing them. I can stop as soon as I realise they're happening, but when my attention drifts, they tend to start back up if the conditions are still right.

Because I have to be actively paying attention in order to not do them, and I have other things to think about, all I'm really left with is trying to make sure the conditions are not right: basically making it hard for my hands to make their own choices. So that means doing things like:

- carrying something
- holding a bag strap in position on my shoulder
- working through a deliberate sequence of hand movements
- lacing my fingers together
- clasping my hands behind my back
- folding a piece of paper
- playing with a fidget toy (including stress balls)
- just sticking my hands in my pockets

when I'm not actively using my hands for typing or reading or household tasks.

I know that's not necessarily helpful advice, but my thought is that if you've been focusing on "how do I stop?" you might not have considered "how do I not start?" as an avenue.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:27 AM on October 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you for weighing in; I've marked a few "best answers" that resonated the most for me.

I suppose it's possible that this is a med side effect; I'll call my psychiatrist and mention it, just in case. But I think it's more likely that it's along the lines of what JZig and lookoutbelow described. I'm going to try and work on deep breathing and other anxiety-fighting practices, and see if that does the trick. I'm also going to try to stop worrying about it -- I can sense myself getting even more tense and anxious when I think too hard about it.
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack at 1:19 PM on October 14, 2022

« Older Please help me find this pair of knee-length...   |   Where's my easy dessert recipe? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments