Sharon Sayler

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When hand-wringing isn’t hand-wringing…and other interesting fidget facts.

Thursday and Friday, I was giving a training to a corporate group. Several members, I knew from a training last year, including “Marv.” Last year, when I first met Marv, I noticed an interesting quirk he had of wringing his hands.

It was in a much larger class and given the scope and reason for that training, I chose not to comment. The group accepted him, quirk and all, and it didn’t seem to be affecting his performance.

With only 14 participants in this training and a performance refinement focus, I was able to give fuller attention to the possible “whys” and reasons behind Marv’s quirk. When someone wrings their hands the most common automatic snap judgment/assumption is hand-wringing is a negative body message.

It can indicate several things, such as apprehension, nervousness, uncertainty, or even calculated aggression as in the cartoons of the wicked villain wringing his hands just before he strikes…. All of these assumptions about hand-wringing can be true and are emotion-responses based in stress and anxiety.

As such, the casual observer would most likely jump to the conclusion that Marv is nervous or anxious and within a split-second that same observer would leap to the assumption that anxiety is contagious and that it’s best to avoid anxious people.

Too bad, if the observer had been able to stay outside their own anxiety about anxiety they would find that this is not anxiety, it is how Marv thinks. When Marv is wringing his hands, he has gone “inside” to explore all he knows deeply. When his hands again become still, prepare yourself for what comes out of his mouth next to be well-thought out, reasoned, compared to other possibilities, and always insightful. I love the way Marv thinks.

Marv’s hands are the visible expression of those marvelous gears within his mind turning to the rhythm of his hands. It has no other meaning (and it’s not done to annoy you.) It’s your signal to prepare yourself for a truly amazing treat of a well-thought out conversation.

Yum, I love well-thought out conversation — as I deliciously wring my hands savoring the moment to step up to the challenge for me to hold my own in an equally well-reasoned exchange.

But What if Your Quirk or Fidget Does Hamper Your Success?

How To Change A Quirky Body Language Habit

Though emotionally comforting quirky fidgets can calm us, yet those pesky, jerky movements or anxious behaviors often make others uneasy. Because they form as habits, often in childhood, they can be difficult to stop.

Some people go to great lengths to try to disguise them. Adjusting a cufflink, rubbing an earlobe, picking lint off clothes are just a few examples of the infamous fidget. While they’re a comforting behavior, they too often send an unfortunate and clear, nonverbal signal of nervousness. Hands are not the only fidget offenders; there is a wide range of unintentional non-verbal fidgets:

  • Touching the face and neck
  • Stroking or smoothing the hair
  • Rocking, swaying or pacing
  • Vibrating your leg while seated
  • Clicking your pen or picking fingernails
  • Playing with jewelry
  • Inhaling then blowing the exhale through the mouth
  • Laughing and sniffing

The fidget list is pretty long, and gender does play a role in preferred fidgets. Women usually play with necklaces and twist their hair, while men rub their necks and spin their rings. It doesn’t really matter what you do, though; usually, you’re not even aware that you’re fidgeting until someone points it out to you. Sometimes enlisting a friend to remind you when you fidget is beneficial.

You fidget because you need to self-sooth to relieve your nerves or anxiety. Those nerves cause your breathing to become rapid. Rapid breathing and the resulting lack of oxygen often accelerate fidgety and anxious behavior and so a repeating cycle begins. In an over-simplified definition, nervous, fidgety and anxious non-verbals are an automatic response from your limbic system.

The brain’s limbic system is hardwired to ensure survival and is responsible for the fight or flight response. As we have evolved, this habit has taken on a different meaning. Rarely is your life in real danger, as it was when this response developed eons ago. However, your limbic system doesn’t know this; but since you cognitively understand it, you can adjust your breathing and change fidget habits.

Your Fidget Reboot Button

The quickest way to calm yourself down without a fidget or two is by pushing your own internal reboot button: your breathing. Since you’re nervous — and fidgety or anxious and non-verbal behaviors are so automatic — it can take a bit more effort to be aware you are doing them.

If you know you will be entering a “fidget-situation,” make an effort to become consciously aware of and control your breathing. Use natural breathing, inhale to a five count, pause, exhale to a seven-count, pause, and begin the five count inhale again. Once you are aware, continue to breathe with low full abdominal breaths. The purpose is to bring the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels back into balance within your body allowing your nervous system to reset itself.

Breathe your way through it! That’s the key.

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