What to Know About Fidgeting

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 18, 2022
5 min read

Bouncing your leg, tapping your foot, drumming your fingers. These are all signs of fidgety behaviors. Fidgeting, which was once commonly deemed inappropriate, has been discovered to have beneficial impacts. When so many people in the world fidget in some form or another, what does it mean if you are fidgety? Find out common fidgeting symptoms, what causes fidgeting, and potential treatments.

What is considered fidgeting? Fidgeting can be almost any repetitive movement that you do unintentionally. Common fidgeting symptoms include:

  • Bounding your legs up and down
  • Tapping your foot
  • Twirling your hair
  • Drumming your fingers or turning a pen over and over in your hands

Most of the time, people unconsciously do these movements.

Recent research indicates that fidgeting may be an unconscious mechanism. Your body fidgets to self-regulate certain body functions, like attention, weight, or stress.

Genetics may play a prominent role in determining whether someone is prone to be fidgety. Studies have shown that an individual is more likely to display spontaneous physical activity when other family members also have the same tendency.

Your brain’s hypothalamus may be partly responsible for controlling your fidgeting. The hypothalamus regulates many bodily processes. It is also linked to arousal, appetite, and wakefulness. Scientists have tested this by injecting orexins, a small protein, into the hypothalamus of rodents. The results showed an increase in the rodents’ spontaneous physical activity.

People seem to fidget when they are bored and unfocused. In situations that aren’t interesting or engaging, people are more likely to fidget. So, fidgeting may be a way for the body to regulate attention. Studies have also shown that fidgeting may be your body self-regulating your weight and stress levels.

Regulate attention. Cognitive research suggests that an individual's fidgeting is related to how stimulated they are. Fidgeting may be something your body does to boost or lower your attention levels, calming you or energizing you. One study found that people who doodled while having a phone conversation were more likely to remember details of the call than those who didn’t doodle. 

Manage weight. Fidgeting could be a self-regulating mechanism for managing your body weight. A study tested this by overfeeding a group of healthy, non-obese volunteers over eight weeks and observed the amount of fidgeting in the process. The researchers observed a significant increase in fidgeting, posture changes, and random muscle tensing. It appeared that the participants' bodies were trying to regulate the overfeeding. 

Researchers also found that different people gained vastly different amounts of weight. People who moved or fidgeted more put on less weight. It turns out that fidgeting while sitting or standing significantly increases the number of calories you burn.

Release energy. Fidgeting may also be a behavioral coping mechanism for releasing stress or pent-up energy. The fidgeting behaviors in these cases revolve more around “displacement behaviors” like pulling, scratching, or biting parts of yourself. It seems that being bored can cause you to feel unconsciously stressed. Thus, fidgeting during times when sustained attention is required may be relieving stress rather than regulating attention.

Fidgeting is usually a harmless response to stress or boredom, but it can also signal a health problem. Some repetitive movements may be a medical symptom. For example, moving your legs constantly to relieve pain may indicate restless leg syndrome. Other types of fidgeting, like skin picking or hair pulling, may be recognized as medical problems. Tremors and other involuntary movements that might be considered fidgeting are actually caused by neurological issues.

People who fidget a lot are more likely to mind wander and daydream. When your mind wanders, you tend to fidget more. When you fidget then, you’re likely to perform more poorly on whatever task you’re doing because you’re not paying attention to it. Even though fidgeting may indicate a problem with attention, it might also be the solution to improving attention. Fidgeting could be the physiological stimulation your body needs to bring energy and attention back to the appropriate level so you can focus on the task at hand.

Even though fidgeting seems to have its benefits, society generally views it negatively. People tend to assume fidgety individuals are bored or frustrated or have attention issues. Fidgeting movements can also distract others and pull their focus away from what's being said to the movements.

There isn’t one completely effective treatment to stop fidgeting since the act is unconscious. Instead of trying to stop fidgeting, you can harness fidgeting into controlled movements that can increase focus. 

The first step to harnessing your fidgeting is to identify your fidgeting movements. After you identify the movements, you can follow these general principles of harnessing fidgeting to boost focus:

  • Use specific tools to target fidgeting habits. Depending on whether you fidget with your hand, feet, or whole body, there are specific tools to target each area. If you fidget at the same time with multiple body parts, using multiple tools simultaneously may be helpful.
  • The redirected movement should not negatively affect visual or auditory focus. No matter which tool you use, you should be able to use it while staying engaged in whatever task you must complete. 
  • The tools should not be too stimulating. The tool can't be so exciting or fun that it distracts you from the task. 
  • Make sure you can use the controlled movement in public. The purpose of harnessing fidgeting is to improve focus in different settings, even public ones. Using your body parts and moving them in a controlled way is a great tool as you become older since it doesn’t require any items. 

You may not be able to stop fidgeting altogether, but you can make changes to reduce the amount of fidgeting. Some of these changes include:

  • Getting enough sleep and nutrition
  • Working in a stimulating, well-lit environment
  • Practicing stress-management skills

Since fidgeting may be a response to boredom or stress, it helps to put yourself in environments where you’re less likely to experience those feelings. If your fidgeting is distracting or destructive, try more subtle movements to replace your current fidgeting habits.