Overheard On Campus: I get super fidgety and can’t focus when I’m stressed or upset. How can I stop fidgeting?

Contributed by Amma Marfo & Rebecca Smith, L.C.P.C., C.S.A.T.
Introduction by Tyler Achilles

Every now and then I’ll catch myself tapping my leg and realize I’d been doing it subconsciously for about 10 minutes. Sometimes it’s because I’m really focusing on something, and other times it’s because I’m working feverishly to meet a deadline. I think we all fidget at one point or another, and it’s a natural reaction to stress (especially during finals!). For some, like the student that asked this question on MyStudentBody, fidgeting can cause even more stress and hinder their ability to get their work done. To help, I’ve asked some of our contributors for some advice.

Student in a library surrounded by piles of books

Amma Marfo, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, says …

I recently read a Tweet from a professional in student affairs who wrote: “Frustrated by the people around you? It’s not personal, it’s April.” This is a stressful time of year for those in school, and this is therefore a very timely question!

Fidgeting, while sometimes helpful (the Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis principle actually encourages fidgeting as a means of burning calories throughout the day!), can also be a sign that your mind is not at ease. I’d like to offer a means to calm your mind, so that you might be able to put your fidgeting in check.

The best thing to remember when trying to relieve stress is to look at it objectively. Sometimes, we get upset with ourselves for not being able to control our feelings or behavior, and that compounds our stress! So make sure that the first thing you do is recognize it’s okay to feel how you’re feeling. If you start there, you’re well on your way to feeling better!

A technique I’ve picked up recently ─ and whole-heartedly endorse ─ is mindful meditation. This practice encourages you to first concentrate on breathing deeply, noting how each breath feels as you take it. The focus on the act of breathing diverts your attention from the stressor, and helps control the physiological reaction to stress, such as fidgeting or a racing heartbeat. Once your breathing is focused, mindful meditation encourages you to fully feel your emotions, allowing whatever reaction that results to occur organically. Sometimes it brings tears or discomfort, and that’s okay! In that moment of meditation, the goal is to not stifle your reaction, but to allow it to be fully expressed. In times of stress, this might mean thinking about the causes of that stress, and what emotions lie behind it.

You will likely find that once you give yourself time to fully explore how you’re feeling, without judgment or trying to suppress your reactions, the fidgeting will slow. I hope this is helpful in reducing your fidgeting AND your stress! Best of luck, and be well!

Rebecca Smith, a counselor at Aurora University’s Counseling Center, says …

When we get really anxious, stressed, or angry our brain basically thinks a bear is in front of us and we need to either run away fast or attack it. The brain then determines that the body needs the extra energy to run or fight, so it transfers all of its own energy to your muscles. Studies have shown your IQ drops about 20 points when you feel really anxious or angry. At the same time your body is ready to go and it’s hard to sit still.

You need to get the blood and oxygen back up to your brain where you actually need it. The old saying “take a few deep breaths and count to 10” is actually very valid and practical solution. First, if you take a few deep breaths, your oxygen level goes up. Then, if you take the time to count to 10 you actually trick your brain back into realizing that you aren’t in any serious danger. This keeps the brain from continuing to transfer all the energy to your body.

Now, you want to release the tension that is built up in your body. If you feel fidgety, jump up and down a few times. Shake your arms and hands out to relieve the tension. Some people grip something really hard and then let go. You can also take a walk or do a few quick push-ups before sitting down to study, write a paper, or take a test. This will release the energy your brain accidentally sent to your body so that you can then sit still and focus.

2 thoughts on “Overheard On Campus: I get super fidgety and can’t focus when I’m stressed or upset. How can I stop fidgeting?

  1. Great article and great perspectives! I’m a current student working to complete my BS degree, and it’s been filled with a lot of ups and downs. To help manage my stress and disstractions, I need to break away from school work on a frequent basis. To destress, I go for a jog most of the time. Other times, it might be as simple as getting away from the computer for a while (I’m taking online classes), and grabbing a cup of coffee. Those 5 – 10 minute breaks do a TON for me.

    Bottom line, we’re all wired differently…so you have to find your release. For me…the top two are running and coffee breaks, although I tend to drink more coffee than run. 😉

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