Erika Shevchek: Force of habit

Monday, April 9, 2018 - 5:49pm

This weekend I sat in the library, rigorously trying to finish an essay. Music was playing, my feet were tapping and my fingers were frantically traveling back and forth between my mouth and the keyboard. I like to believe that if I don’t bite my nails while I write essays, I could probably get more words on the page. Yet no matter how conscious I try to be about my anxious habits, I still fall into them.

I try to hide my nails from everybody. Having large hands as it is, I’m extremely self-conscious when it comes to my hands and fingers. I’ve been a nail biter since I was a kid, and although it has gotten better over time — like attending hypnotherapy sessions and meditating to become more present and aware of my actions — I still abuse my nails at least once a day. Like most people with habits, I hate admitting this to myself and to the public.

Many people have anxious habits even when they don’t know it: teeth grinding, nail picking, pencil chewing. Although our minds are listening to lectures or reading our textbooks, there is our subconscious mind, sending us messages to mindlessly wander off into a long list of events, assignments, people, work, fears and more. When this happens, we’re probably worried or anxious about them, and when that stress builds, we have to transfer that energy somewhere. Sadly, we mainly transfer this energy to ourselves, where verbs like “grinding,” “picking” and “chewing” are used against our own bodies.

Some habits, however, can be completely innocent and safe, like tapping your foot or twirling your hair. But it’s important to highlight the more dangerous habits like nail baiting, binge cigarette smoking or eating and even dermatillomania, the act of skin picking. I’ve been that girl who has picked the one small bump on my face until it bleeds, and to be quite honest, I have no reason for it. Habits like these can cause immense damage to our interior and exterior bodies without us witnessing each step of a progressive destruction.

For me, anxiety is like an itch I can’t scratch — it’s there and I can feel it, but I struggle to find the exact spot and alleviate it. So when I see something that irks me, like a hangnail or a zit, I want it to go away as soon as possible and I go at it. I take something microscopic and make it a bigger deal than it is, just like I do with my anxious thoughts.

Despite all the years of intense, anxious habits, there is never a wrong time to try and cure them. I was 19 when I went to my first hypnotherapy session (when in reality I should have gone when I was younger), and it was there where I learned the importance of diving into my subconscious, finding out what it was exactly that I was anxious about and learning to control stressful thoughts. I, along with many, learned that my anxious thoughts and habits were subconsciously developed as a child, and my brain chose to carry that stress as I grew older.

It took a few sessions and my own meditative practices to really become present and to acknowledge the danger (and disgust) of this habit. When I put my fingers to my mouth, I am more aware that they are there and that what I was doing was actually painful. In a way, I bring more feeling and presence to this area of my body, which is hard considering I am so embarrassed by my fingers.  

It’s an active, mindful and incredibly difficult challenge to continuously tame your subconscious, but it’s surely not impossible. Even though I attended hypnotherapy (which is not the only option), I’m still attempting to cure my anxious habits. I’ve played with rubber bands to entertain my fingers or twist my rings as an alternative fidgeting activity. I take a deep breath and mentally take a step back. Meditation has taught me to be present in the moment, which can take away from those spiraling, anxious thoughts and put myself back into reality.

Acknowledging your anxious habit is the first step to ending them. Whether it’s through exercise, writing or meditation, I have found different methods of building self-awareness and mindful presence in order to maintain a calm head and physical space. My fingers are used for typing and climbing and guitar playing. My fingers can be used to craft and create and cook. The more we can transfer our anxious energies into positive, useful activities, the closer we are to winning our individual battles against anxiety.