Crack your knuckles or drum your fingers under pressure? Mainstream thinking may label these bad habits, but science suggests stimming may help soothe anxiety.

girl with anxiety twirling her hair as part of stimming behaviorShare on Pinterest
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Stimming is considered a natural part of human development. Thumb sucking and rocking are stims that many young children engage in.

Stimming also may be a symptom or result of underlying neurodevelopmental conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Folks without autism or ADHD may stim as well, particularly when anxious.

The American Psychological Association describes anxiety as an emotion marked by worry and physical responses, including high blood pressure. Stimming seems to calm anxiety, especially in response to overstimulation.

There are ways to manage your anxiety stimming, particularly if it causes you personal or social harm. But sometimes, the benefits of your soothing habits may outweigh their costs.

Stims are repetitive movements or sounds that many people perform without realizing it, like hair twirling or humming. Often, folks find stims soothing.

These repetitive movements or sounds are also called stereotypy or stimming.

Research from 2018 claims that stims are an expected part of childhood development. This is because:

  • Children receive information about the world around them through the sensory input they receive from their repetitive actions.
  • Stims like finger sucking or spinning may soothe the nervous system.
  • Stimming provides important environmental and motor processing information.

Different types of stimming include:

  • auditory/vocal stims, like humming
  • olfactory stims, like biting or licking lips
  • tactile stims, like rubbing your skin
  • visual stims, like staring at ceiling fans
  • movement stims, like twirling and pacing

Stimming in mental health conditions

Stimming is frequently associated with autism and developmental disabilities. Autistic folks may use stimming to soothe or communicate emotions.

Recent research, including a 2019 study of self-reports from 32 autistic adults, emphasizes the need for those without autism to understand stimming’s self-regulatory benefits.

Folks with ADHD also stim, usually in the form of humming or fidgeting, to deal with executive functioning and attentional challenges.

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stims may soothe sensory sensitivitystims may soothe sensory sensitivitystims may provide sensory stimulation to help engage and focus
stims tend to be shorter and more subtle, like cracking knuckles or twirling hairstims last longer than ADHD and anxiety stims

stims may include shrieking, echoing, and reciting

differences in brain regions responsible for speech patterns
stims tend to be shorter and more subtle, like humming or biting nails

stims may include blurting out

differences in brain regions responsible for repetitive speech patterns

Anxiety may exacerbate stimming behaviors in autistic people and those with ADHD. But anyone may stim when anxious.

A 2021 study found that in 61 autistic and 60 neurotypical young people with equal levels of social anxiety, contributing factors included similar challenges with:

  • sensory hypersensitivity
  • emotional regulation
  • interpreting inner sensations

Sensory overload due to sensory hypersensitivity has been linked to stimming. If you have anxiety, you may find yourself stimming as an unconscious effort to:

  • distract from tension
  • regulate emotions
  • relieve sensory sensitivities by grounding you in your body

Common anxiety stims

Stims in response to anxiety are often fairly harmless, including:

Negative stimming

Sometimes, stimming can become harmful. In these cases, you may want to seek treatment.

Hair twirling can be a soothing stim or a sign of frustration associated with body-focused repetitive behavior. This depends on when and why you do it and how damaging it becomes.

Other stims, like picking scabs, may cause infections or marks.

A 2021 online study of 305 autistic adults found that efforts to mask their stims actually increased their anxiety. Quitting stims may not be worth it if doing so intensifies tension.

If your stimming becomes hurtful to you, there are effective ways to manage it.

Swapping behaviors

A fidget spinner or stress ball may be less harmful than chewing on a pen cap or biting your skin.

Professional help for anxiety

Treating your anxiety may ease the need for anxiety stimming. Common treatments include:

Behavioral therapy

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) has been used to modify stims and the underlying need for stimming. ABA has been the subject of some controversy. It can create stress or feel like punishment to some due to its focus on compliance.

Lifestyle changes

You might try:

  • seeking executive functioning help to relieve organizational overwhelm
  • finding an anxiety support group for peer-to-peer support
  • tracking and avoiding emotional and sensory triggers, like overscheduling or big parties


Being open about why you stim and what stimming is may help educate your workplace or classroom. You may seek accommodations as necessary if stimming helps you work.

Stimming can be a harmless way to cope with anxiety and help calm and ground you.

But if your stimming creates more anxiety than it soothes, seeking treatment for the root cause and advocating for your right to stim can help you manage.