Anxiety Tics

The term anxiety tic covers a range of involuntary and sudden movements, they are generally unpredictable and often appear unmanageable. They are often an ordinary, if sometimes bothersome symptom that become visible in childhood and are frequently grown out of. However, if they persist, they might be thought of as an indicator of some underlying issues perhaps to do with stress or anxiety.

It is always worth discussing tics and involuntary movements with your doctor. But if no physical reason can be found then it might be worth considering if there is more to your anxiety tic than meets the eye.

The anxiety tic that we become aware of might be the manifestation of an underlying build-up in tension or anxiety that is discharged through involuntary physical movements or spasms.

Of course, not everyone who experiences psychological distress will develop psychosomatic symptoms. Anyone might react to certain pressures or frustrations in a physical way. Generally, people who are experiencing anxiety tics would come to psychotherapy because they have some awareness that their physical problems have an underlying emotional or psychological component.

Anxiety Tics and Behavioural Therapy

Anxiety tics are often treated with a variety of behavioural therapies that aim to reduce the frequency and severity of the tic.

In some cases, though this is successful and reduces the involuntary tics at the time, they return in later life.

What do anxiety tics tell us?

We might think of an anxiety tic as the body’s attempt to communicate not through speech but through action. There is a long history to such thinking. In the mid to late nineteenth century cases of hysteria (physical symptoms with no apparent cause) became a key psychological focus.

In Paris, Vienna and Zurich doctors worked to understand the physical symptoms that patients displayed. The essential approach was to view the physical spasms, or in some cases paralyses, as the body trying to communicate when it could no longer find the words.

Anxiety Tics and Trauma

It was thought that the patients had suffered trauma. Their emotional and psychological systems had been overwhelmed and instead of being able to speak about what had happened they expressed their disorder through movement and developed tics. At this point, psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies began to develop which treated the physical symptoms as intelligible rather than random and attempted to interpret them. The anxiety tic was seen as a gateway to understanding some underlying problems.

Across the twentieth century, such approaches fell out of fashion and were replaced by ideas more rooted in behaviourism. Instead of trying to look for the meaning underneath the anxiety tic, the patients were encouraged to conquer them instead, to manage them away.

However, in recent years, approaches that try to make sense of bodily symptoms have had something of a renaissance, particularly through the work of Bessel van der Kolk whose book The Body Keeps the Score was a runaway success.

Van der Kolk and his colleagues have pursued an understanding of trauma and PTSD. They have brought together research in brain science and attachment theory to try to help trauma survivors to better express and so free themselves from the tyranny of the past. This work has considered the impact of trauma on the body and mind and helped to show how these experiences, because of the stress hormones that they release go on to reshape the way the mind responds and develops post-trauma.

We might use this thinking to refocus on the subject of anxiety tics and to consider afresh that the tic is trying to tell us something. That an experience has so disordered the individual that the only way they can express their distress is through an involuntary movement or tic.

I can never remember a time when my arms and shoulders weren’t twitching. There have been times when its been more reduced, but that has always tended to be temporary. When I was young I was sent away to boarding school and I found it very difficult. I managed to keep my anxiety under control when I was at the school, but when I went home for the holidays, and before I would have to go back to school I would start to get agitated. That is when the twitching began.

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Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often the key to developing a clearer understanding of what might be behind our anxiety tics, and of how experience may have shaped us in ways that we haven’t fully acknowledged.

By giving yourself a safe space to look at these things you may start to discover a greater sense of possibilities, and this may be the beginning of developing a greater sense of understanding how to relate to yourself and others, how to start living more fully again, and how to start to have healthy relationships with yourself and other people.

The chance to reflect on ourselves, our feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed, and what you can change.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.


Email: toby@tobyingham.com