Saturday, March 15, 2008

How to Stop a Habit

I'm no stranger to semi-voluntary habits. As a child I was such a bundle of twitches, shakes, and clenchings that it's a wonder they ever got a clear school picture of me.

My tendency to twitch is entirely related to stress. In periods of relative calm I find that I never twitch at all, but when I have a lot of things on my mind I begin to give occasional shakes and twitches, and when I'm in that state and I start to do something that REALLY stresses me out -- like write a letter about squirrels to my landlord, or prepare to go on stage at a drag show, or come up with a blog entry -- I begin to jitter like an electrified tumbleweed.

I usually find myself twitching a part of my face, and this is the most involuntary of the habits. I'm good at making sure that I don't do this where anybody can see, but I'm still convinced that it gives me wrinkles, and I don't need any help when it comes to THAT.

If I can stop the facial twitches they usually move into my hands. I had hand spasms throughout my entire five years of working at Tim Horton's, and I used to mentally berate myself, thinking it was terribly obvious to everybody I worked with. It probably wasn't.

When hand spasms don't do the trick I sometimes clench my stomach, which leads to general abdominal problems. Stomach-clenching was my habit of choice as a child, and I like to think it causes more permanent damage than all of the other habits combined.

Finally -- and this is one that I've only noticed in the last five years or so -- I tend to tightly clench my toes, usually while sitting at a computer or while taking a bath. This didn't seem to be a problem in my old apartment, where everything was carpeted, but now it seems to be having a negative impact on my joints...or maybe I just have rheumatism. If it persists I'll need to see a doctor.

Anyway, I've found a way to stop these habits, and I'm sharing it with you. "They" say that habit-stopping must involve the transference of "bad" habits into a similarly stress-relieving "good" habit -- like squeezing a stress ball for example -- but I've found that I can just stop ALL the habits with this simple method:

At work -- where most of the twitching occurs, probably because I'm stuck in one spot where I can do all the face, hand, stomach, and toe-clenching that I desire -- I write "Twitch" on a post-it note and stick it to my monitor.

Each morning I write today's date, and every time I clench-up -- even the slightest bit -- I draw a tick-mark under that date. When I go out for lunch I count up an estimated number of clenches and add them when I get back to my desk. Clenches which occur at home are not counted.

The very act of acknowledging the sheer number of habits per day is enough shameful mental reinforcement to eliminate the tics and clenches. The first day always has the most clenches -- somewhere in the area of 30 usually -- and then all subsequent days show a decline. After two weeks the clenches number only one or two per day, and even those are so minor that they may have been reflexive as opposed to actual habits.

I leave the post-it note affixed to my monitor, but I remain habit-free for weeks, if not months, until the next big wave of stress arrives.

This may not work for you -- I think its effectiveness involves the amount of personal shame you can heap onto yourself without feeling overwhelmed -- but it has certainly been effective for me. I am, after all, a bottomless reservoir of shame!

And hey, if you feel like sharing your own spasm-stories, please do! I'm always curious to hear how other people deal with such "secret problems."


morgan james said...

everything's going to be OK

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Morgan, that is the ONE THING I always wanted to hear. How did you KNOW?