It’s time to change perceptions; understanding your stimming behaviour and lesser-known stims could be key to improving your self-esteem

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have collected an array of repetitive behaviours and habits over the years. This will have inevitably led to investing a large amount of time trawling endless articles, comment sections, and blogs peppered with phrases such as ‘kick your annoying bad habits’, ‘make a positive change’, or ‘replace unhealthy behaviours’ in an attempt to put a stop to them, once and for all.

But, also like me, you may not have paused to question why we feel the need to stop repetitive behaviours, and what our bodies are trying to tell us when we do them. I have recently discovered that a lot of what I have always classified as engrained ‘bad habits’ are actually lesser-known stims, and are valuable tools used to regulate our bodies when we’re feeling over or understimulated.

Let me be clear, some of these habits are damaging, and identifying alternatives is something I continue to work on, but some (such as my enthusiastic and relentless repetition of the only line of a song I know) are quite harmless, if a little confusing for anyone in the vicinity.

Identifying and recognising these lesser-known stims recategorises their persistence from a horrible lack of willpower on my part, to a sign that my body is subconsciously and purposefully adapting to my environment, which has been invaluable for my self-esteem.

What is stimming, and why do we do it?

Stimming, or self-stimulating behaviours are soothing repetitive actions that can regulate our emotions, how we channel our energy, and aid concentration. This can include physical movement and vocalisation, and common examples include finger or foot tapping, flapping hands or arms, chewing, rocking, or humming.

Everybody subconsciously exhibits some form of stimming behaviour, whether it’s drumming your fingers when you’re feeling impatient, or biting your nails when you’re feeling nervous. For some people, however, stimming is an important method of emotional regulation, and coping with sensory overload (including understimulation) on a daily basis. This presents more often in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What are some examples of lesser-identified stims?

So, what exactly do I mean by lesser-known stims? Here are some examples that I encounter every day:

  • Echolalia – the repetition of words, sounds, or phrases.
  • Cracking knuckles and/or other joints.
  • Biting or picking the skin around your nails and lips.
  • Repetitive hair pulling, twisting, or braiding, running fingers through hair, and scalp picking.
  • Rocking movements, hand and arm movements, and leg bouncing. For me, this is demonstrated by clapping my hands when I’m excited or happy, as well as rocking back and forth when I’m enjoying a meal or snack.
  • Pen clicking.
  • Chewing gum.
  • Rubbing feet together.

How can identifying and acknowledging our stims help with self-esteem?

Reframing how I view my behaviours, and recategorising habits that I have always considered to be vices as coping mechanisms, has given me a new appreciation of how adaptable and amazing my body can be. With a new understanding comes a welcome boost in self-esteem and a fresh perspective.

You are not lazy, or hopeless, or lacking in willpower, you are creative, self-regulating, and adapting to your environment. Read that again, it’s important.

How can recognising stims help with diagnosis?

Identifying stims builds up a more comprehensive and complete picture for ASD and ADHD diagnoses, so if you are currently piecing together information for your formal diagnosis, everyday things like this can be extremely valuable. Furthermore, discounting diagnostic criteria such as stimming as just a habit could even delay any potential diagnosis by limiting your perceptions of your behaviours and symptoms.

With each new stim identified, you are highlighting that you’re regulating your energy and emotions, and have the opportunity to notice if there are any common factors triggering these. If there are adjustments you can try to make yourself feel more comfortable, this can contribute to your overall wellbeing and energy levels.

For example, if you notice that you seem to pick or bite the skin around your nails when you have to sit still for a long meeting, you can make sure you have a fidget or sensory aid to replace this in future.

How can I make myself and others feel more comfortable?

Next time you see someone unconsciously stimming, take a second to consider the message you’re sending before bringing it up. While usually said in jest, being told your stims are ‘annoying’ or a bad habit you need to break can be embarrassing, damaging for your self-esteem, and can cause considerable anxiety in social situations.

Be patient with yourself and others. While not initially obvious, stimming is much more than a habit. Making yourself feel bad, disruptive, or simply incapable of stopping a particular stim, isn’t helpful or effective. Consider comparing this to blaming yourself for not being able to stop sneezing when you have a cold. In most other circumstances, we question why our body does something, and habits shouldn’t be any different.

If you are struggling with habits or stims that are causing harm, there are plenty of different sensory aids available to try, and picking up a variety to see what works for you can be an inexpensive and positive step forward in transferring this behaviour. Most sensory aids are small enough to fit in your pocket to keep at hand throughout the day, and I find leaving some at work, in my bag, and various places around my home to ensure they’re within easy reach means you will use them more.

Learning more, and, in turn, accepting more about yourself is a thought-provoking and valuable journey to be on, and facilitates a more positive outlook towards yourself and others.

Head to the Counselling Directory for more information about ADHD/ASD.