Anxiety Tics: What Are They & Symptoms

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You’re on the bus to work and you feel like everyone’s watching you. You can feel the anxiety coursing through your stomach and chest. It settles in your hands and builds up, becoming unbearable. You need to do something, anything, to relieve it. You tense your hands and click your fingers, and it seems to go away. Until the next time you get anxious. This is an anxiety tic.

Anxiety tics – also known as ‘nervous’ tics – are involuntary, repetitive muscle movements that occur in bursts across various parts of the body during periods of anxiety. They often present alongside other conditions, such as ADHD and OCD.

When you get anxious, your brain releases chemicals known as neurotransmitters that signal the body to prepare itself for fight or flight. These chemicals can trigger involuntary muscle movement, or create discomfort in specific body parts that can only be relieved through movement.

But this is only a working explanation – there’s a lot we don’t understand about anxiety tics. They are thought to affect 3-8 out of every 1000 people, but some suggest the real numbers are far higher. Though we call them involuntary, for many they are at least somewhat conscious, performed to release anxiety induced muscle tension. A person can suppress their tics, but at the price of a prolonged discomfort that impairs focus.

We can break anxiety tic disorders into a few separate conditions, all of which we’ll explain as we go on:

Common anxiety tic disorders:

  • Transient (or Provisional) Tic Disorder.
  • Chronic (or Persistent) Motor or Vocal Tic Disorder.
  • Tourette’s Syndrome.

To informally screen yourself for anxiety, try our quick online anxiety test. But to learn the difference between types of anxiety tics and their treatment options, keep reading.

How Long do Tics Last?

While they’re happening, most tics last only a few seconds with minimal muscles involved; these are known as Simple Tics. Complex Tics, however, last longer and involve more movements, such as detailed hand motions or repeating whole sentences.

Experts agree that tics tend to start around age 5 (though they can develop in adulthood). They often disappear after a year or so. For many, they ease with puberty or come back in waves across a lifetime. But for some, nervous tics develop into chronic disorders.

When nervous tics last less than one year, we call this Transient Tic Disorder. If they exceed a year, this becomes Chronic Motor or Vocal Tic Disorder.

Types of Anxiety Tics & Their Symptoms

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Motor Tics

Common motor tic symptoms include:

  • Repeated or exaggerated blinking.
  • Sniffing.
  • Grimacing.
  • Clicking fingers.
  • Touching objects or body parts.
  • Muscle twitching.

Vocal Tics

Common vocal tic symptoms include:

  • Throat clearing.
  • Grunting.
  • Clicking your mouth or tongue.

The difference between verbal and motor tics is also where the difference between Tourette’s Syndrome and Transient Tic Disorder / Chronic Motor or Vocal Tic Disorder lies.
Tourette’s involves both verbal and motor tics occurring simultaneously for over a year; Transient Tic Disorder / Chronic Motor or Vocal Tic Disorder can also involve both, but they’ll occur individually.

Sometimes Tourette’s tics manifest as complete sentences or words (swearing and inappropriate phrases) but this is only affects around 1 in 10.

How to Stop Anxiety Tics: Treatment Options

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Most people with tics learn to live with them, their effects on day-to-day life relatively minimal. But if they worsen, they can make you feel embarrassed, self-conscious, frustrated, and helpless. This heightens your anxiety, which in turn worsens tics. When tics begin to interfere with your wellbeing like this, there are a variety of treatment paths you can pursue.
The most effective treatments for anxiety tics are:

  • Habit Reversal Therapy – this involves replacing the tic with another, intentional movement to interrupt the nervous cycle.
  • Exposure with Response Prevention – this focuses on having you get used to the anxious sensations that precede the tics, without following through and engaging in them.
  • Comprehensive Behavioural Intervention – this arms you with a set of behavioural techniques that teach you to reduce tics.

In some cases, medications can be prescribed to control tic disorders. A few common ones include:

  • Neuroleptics (antipsychotics).
  • Clonidine.
  • Haloperidol (Haldol).
  • Pimozide.
  • Risperidone (Risperdal).

In severe cases, some find relief from Botox injections or electrode implantations in the brain. These are, however, extremely rare examples.

On top of these options, preventative anxiety methods – managing sleep, staying hydrated, exercising regularly – have been shown to reduce tics by reducing general anxiety.

To learn more about anxiety, tics, and therapy options, please visit the links below.

Anxiety quiz
Is anxiety a neurodivergent disorder?

Blog Author

Louis Ricci