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Are Anxiety Tics a Thing? Not Exactly.

Searches for “anxiety tics” are on the rise, with more people searching for answers about tics and tic-like behavior associated with anxiety. But are anxiety tics really a thing?

They’re not.

We’ll examine the medical definitions of tics, discuss some colloquial misnomers (ex., ‘nervous tics’), and discuss how anxiety fits into all of this.

What are anxiety tics?

Before we dive into “anxiety tics,” let’s define tics quickly.

Tics are involuntary, repetitive movements or vocalizations. We all have them to some extent; however, when they become excessive and interfere with our everyday lives, they may indicate a more serious underlying condition.

When people ask about anxiety tics specifically, they are most likely referring to tic disorders co-occurring with an obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety twitches.

The co-morbidity rate for individuals diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome (TS) is between 79%-90%. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder accounts for 66% of co-morbid TS diagnoses. Generalized Anxiety Disorders (GAD) represent 36.1%.

So whereas there is no specific “anxiety” tic, people who suffer from tic disorders have a statistically high likelihood of having a co-occurring anxiety disorder like OCD or GAD.

This accounts for much of the confusion or misuse of the term “anxiety tics.”

When people talk about anxiety tics, it’s also possible they are referring to what we colloquially call nervous tics.

anxious looking egg
‘anxiety tic’ myths

Nervous Tics Examples

Nervous tics are often physical manifestations of stress or anxiety. They’re usually harmless and temporary, although they can be annoying. Some common examples of what people call nervous tics include:

  • Clenching your teeth
  • Picking at your skin
  • Tapping your foot
  • Biting your nails

Here’s the thing, though. “Nervous tics” is a bit of a misnomer. In actuality, people are most likely experiencing twitches.

Twitches vs. Tics

Although anxiety tics are not technically a thing, anxiety twitching certainly is. Anxiety twitches are involuntary muscle movements that are triggered by stress and anxiety. A common example is eye twitching under stress.

These twitches typically go away on their own and mostly serve as a warning signal that anxiety levels are too high and need to be managed.

Twitches and tics are both involuntary movements that occur for very different reasons.

We can usually identify twitches because they are closely connected to our emotions. We know we’re stressed, and when our eye starts to twitch, we know it’s because we’re stressed out and need to relax.

Tics, on the other hand, feel different. Children with tics can feel the movement coming on, and there is a sense of relief that happens after the tic occurs, like scratching an itch.

We aren’t sure why tics occur, but we can usually trace twitches back to things like stress, too much caffeine, a lack of sleep, etc.

Tourettic OCD a.k.a. “Just Right” OCD

Sometimes tics and compulsions can overlap into a weird gray area that has been dubbed “Just Right” OCD or Tourettic OCD.

When a person has Tourettic OCD, they are not driven by fears, as is the case with more traditional OCD. Rather, their compulsions are more sensory in nature. It gets its nickname from the intense feeling that unless they perform their ritual or behavior, something will not feel right. The feeling of “not rightness” will only intensify the longer the compulsion is ignored.

It is a deeply intense and uncomfortable feeling. But the behaviors employed to get relief are still compulsions, not tics.

Tics vs. Compulsions

It’s important to note the difference between a tic and a compulsion. Tics are much more tactile than compulsions.

They are preceded by a physical urge (like an itch that needs to be scratched).

Compulsions are much more emotional in nature. They produce an unwanted feeling that does not go away until the ritual or behavior is completed. An example is being unable to leave your house until you’ve checked the stove ten times (one I am, unfortunately, familiar with).

If you attempt to do it, you’ll be so overwhelmed by a fear that the house will burn down that you can’t think or do anything else.

A scrambled close up image of a woman with anxiety tics biting her nail
Are anxiety tics a thing?

Can anxiety cause tics?

No, anxiety cannot cause tics. But tic disorders can, and often do, co-occur with anxiety disorders, especially obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Anxiety twitches are caused by overzealous neurotransmitters that go a bit haywire when we feel anxious, telling our body to move when there’s no reason to do so.

Are tics from anxiety normal?

Anxiety twitches are normal. However, tic disorders are abnormal and not caused by anxiety. It is very possible to suffer from both a tic disorder, like Tourette’s Syndrome, and an anxiety disorder.

What are the most common types of anxiety tics?

There are no anxiety tics, but common anxiety twitches include:

  • Eye twitching
  • Facial tics
  • Shoulder shrugs
  • Head shakes
  • Throat clearing
  • Sniffing

How do I know if I have tics?

If you have tics, you will likely be aware of them. Tics are abrupt, repetitive movements that are difficult to control. They can be motor (involving movement) or vocal (involving sound).

A good way to determine if you have a tic is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I make the same movement over and over?
  • Do I feel an urge to make the movement?
  • Can I suppress the movement for a short period of time?
  • Do I feel relief after making the movement?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, you may have a tic and should speak to your doctor to get an official diagnosis and discuss treatment options.

What does a tic feel like?

A tic can feel like a sudden jerking movement or noise that is difficult to control. You may feel an intense urge to make the movement or sound, and you may experience relief after making it.

Contrary to what some may think, you can feel the tic coming on, unlike twitches which can occur randomly and without warning.

How do you get rid of anxiety tics?

Anxiety tics aren’t a thing, but anxiety twitches can be managed by lowering your stress levels and managing your anxiety more effectively.

Treatment Options for Tic Disorders and Anxiety:

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing co-occurring anxiety and tic disorders, there are a few treatment options.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors.

It has been shown to be effective in treating both tic disorders and anxiety. CBT can help individuals with tic disorders identify triggers that worsen their tics and teach them coping mechanisms to reduce their symptoms.

For anxiety, CBT can help individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and develop relaxation techniques to manage anxiety symptoms.

Habit Reversal Training (HRT)

Habit reversal training (HRT) is a specific therapy to help individuals with tic disorders.

HRT teaches individuals to recognize the urge to tic and replace the tic with a competing response. This technique has been found to be effective in reducing tic severity and frequency.

It’s most frequently used to treat patients with mild to moderate Tourette disorder and is typically the first treatment option.

Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics (CBIT)

Comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT) is another therapy designed specifically for individuals with tic disorders. CBIT includes components of HRT, as well as other behavioral techniques, such as relaxation training and social support.

It takes the same principles of the cognitive triangle, which CBT is based on, and tailors them to help people manage their tics.

Medication Therapy

Medication options are also available for both tic disorders and anxiety.

For tic disorders, medications such as antipsychotics and alpha-adrenergic agonists can be used to reduce tic severity. For anxiety, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines can be effective in managing symptoms.

Overall, there are several treatment options available for individuals with tic disorders and anxiety. A combination of therapy and medication may be necessary to effectively manage symptoms and improve quality of life. It is important to work with a healthcare professional to determine the best treatment plan for each individual’s unique needs.

Final Thoughts: Are Anxiety Tics A Thing?

In short, no. But that doesn’t mean that anxiety doesn’t have some strange, physical symptoms or that there is no relationship between tic disorders and anxiety disorders, specifically obsessive-compulsive disorder. The most important thing is that you consult with a doctor if you think you may be suffering from either. Early treatment is truly the best plan.

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