Repetitive tapping is not an uncommon experience for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other related conditions. But that’s not always the case—it can occur in people without a particular mental health condition, as well.
Many of us engage in some kind of repetitive behavior, whether it’s jiggling our legs up and down, tapping our fingers against a table, or clicking our pens, and it’s not always a problem at all.
However, if it’s taking up a significant amount of time or negatively impacting your life in any way, it might be—and it might be important for you to seek help. Here’s what you should know in order to understand your tapping habit.
What does my tapping habit mean?
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a therapist who specializes in OCD, anxiety, and autism, says that when it’s a sign of a mental health condition, tapping “most often looks like tapping on a surface or object—like a doorknob or keyboard. Sometimes it can be tapping your own fingers together or on some part of your body.”
Kilduff says it “shows up most often when people are feeling distressed and anxious and are looking for a way to reduce those uncomfortable feelings.”
In some cases, this behavior might bring you relief. It might make you feel stimulated and, therefore, more present in your body. On the other hand, you might do it out of a sense of unease or distress, and engaging in the behavior brings only temporary relief.
Keep reading to get an idea of whether your repetitive tapping is a sign of OCD or another condition, and how you can look for help if the habit is getting in the way of your life in any way.
What are OCD compulsions?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder has two components: repetitive, intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings (obsessions) and external behaviors or mental actions (compulsions) done to relieve the discomfort brought by obsessions, gain certainty and/or reassurance, or to prevent something “bad” from happening.
Contrary to popular belief, obsessions can latch onto anything—not just cleanliness or symmetry. Other common themes include relationships, sexual orientation, scrupulosity/religion, existentialism, sensorimotor functions, harm, and taboo sexual themes. They might sound something like this:
- What if I’m not attracted enough to my partner, and that will eventually lead to me blowing up our lives?
- A mental image of grabbing a kitchen knife and stabbing a family member.
- The urge to drive your car off a bridge.
- What if my breathing isn’t normal, and I can never stop noticing it?
- What if I contract deadly germs, bring them home, and they kill my family?
- What if I have a terminal illness and don’t know it?
Similarly, compulsions can take just about any form, not just excessive hand washing or tidying your desk. OCD sufferers may experience more than one theme and engage in a variety of compulsions, or they may be focused on just one theme and a small number of compulsions they do consistently.
Sometimes compulsions are directly related to one’s obsessions. For example, people who do have obsessions surrounding cleanliness and germs often engage in excessive hand washing or cleaning behaviors. However, sometimes there is no logical connection, such as in the case of repetitive tapping.
Why do I compulsively tap things?
Kilduff says that a tapping compulsion sometimes has “magical properties,” meaning the individual feels like if they tap something a certain way, then a bad thing won’t happen. Moreover, individuals may also feel the need to tap until it feels “just right.”
There are a variety of emotions that engaging in compulsions can elicit. Most often, those include frustration, tension, and stress. Kilduff notes that with this compulsion, one may feel shame and embarrassment, since tapping is “a thing that can be seen and observed” by others.
Your intrusive triggers and repetitive tapping may both be so ingrained in your habits that you’re not sure why or when the urge comes—or even whether it happens at all. If so, in addition to consulting with a licensed, mental health professional, there are some tools you can use to increase your awareness.
You can ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the feelings you have while tapping?
- What are the thoughts you have while tapping?
- Where and when do you tap?
- Does tapping feel like an “escape” or distraction?
- Are there certain thoughts, fears, or worries that you find yourself repeatedly having?
You might even find it helpful to start a journal where you respond to these questions and log the circumstances around each time you tap. This will allow you to reflect on the thought and behavior patterns that contribute to your tapping. You could ask a loved one to help you notice when you’re tapping, have them point it out to you, and remind you to grab your journal when it happens.
Could repetitive tapping be a sign of something else?
OCD is not the only condition that repetitive tapping could be a sign of. In many cases, similar habits are the result of other conditions—or simply other neurotypes that aren’t mental health concerns at all. Here’s an overview.
Kilduff says that stimming can be “all different kinds of things. Unlike compulsions, stims provide a way to regulate your emotions and/or sensory systems.” Unlike OCD, this behavior brings pleasure and satisfaction to the individual.
While stimming behaviors may not always be socially acceptable, they don’t bring long-term distress or hindrance (unless the behavior is unsafe, of course). Moreover, says Kilduff, unlike OCD compulsions, stimming “isn’t done because of an intrusive trigger.”
Stimming behaviors are also found among those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It can help with focus, burning off excessive energy, and/or dealing with the discomfort of sitting still.
Stims in those with ADHD and those with autism differ in prevalence, intensity, duration, specific movements, and/or body postures. Stimming is not one of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, though it is for autism. Regardless, repetitive behaviors are still highly common in those with ADHD.
Another condition that could include repetitive tapping is a tic disorder. Repetitive behavior that is only a movement, and not a sound, is categorized as persistent motor tic disorder (if your symptoms have lasted for more than a year) or provisional tic disorder (symptoms lasting less than a year).
Tics are repetitive twitches, movements, or sounds that Kilduff says are “much more involuntary.” She explains that the feeling before a tic is similar to the feeling you get before you’re about to sneeze.
Similarly to the autistic and ADHD presentations of stimming, tics often bring little to no distress or hindrance to people’s lives—though more severe tics can certainly become distressing & even painful.
How and when to get help for repetitive tapping
If repetitive tapping is bringing distress, anxiety, frustration, or other difficult emotions, or if it is hindering your life and ability to function in any way, it’s probably time to explore treatment options.
While self-diagnosis, and your own assessment of your experience, is important and valid, the best way to understand and address your condition is to reach out to a licensed mental health professional who has training and experience with the conditions associated with tapping.
The treatment of repetitive tapping will, of course, depend on the underlying condition it’s related to.
If you resonated with the information about OCD, reach out to an ERP specialist for further assessment. ERP stands for exposure and response prevention therapy, and it’s the gold-standard, evidence-based treatment for any theme of OCD.
In ERP, you’re intentionally, carefully exposed to your feared stimuli, and you learn to resist the urge to do compulsions as a result. You’ll learn to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty, breaking the cycle of OCD.
While ERP may increase anxiety at first, over time, the alarms that go off in your brain when presented with triggers will quiet and even go away. Eventually, you’ll gain the tools to stop tapping as an outlet for the discomfort that comes from your intrusive triggers.
If you think you might be autistic, there are various forms of therapy that may be suited to you, though there’s no reason that you’d necessarily require any kind of treatment for tapping as a stim. It’s likely to be a perfectly healthy way to regulate your emotions or sensory stimulation.
If you’re looking for therapy and you think you might be autistic, it’s important to seek help from someone who is informed and experienced with autism, and who will be better able to empathize and help find necessary support systems for autistic clients. For more helpful mental health resources for autistic people, browse the resource library from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
ADHD tends to be best treated with a combination of medication and therapy—a mental health professional can help you determine whether medication is right for you. Therapeutic interventions may include CBT and behavior therapy.
Treatment will focus on encouraging positive behaviors, decreasing negative feelings, and improving functioning.
Note that because autism and ADHD both typically begin in childhood, and because official diagnosis is required to receive accommodations in schools, resources for adults with these conditions can be hard to find. If you could use support from loved ones in finding proper treatment, don’t be afraid to ask.
If tics are causing impairment and/or distress, they can be treated through comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics (CBIT). It consists of habit reversal training, education about tics, and relaxation techniques.
Clients undergoing CBIT will learn to recognize when and where they tic the most. They may be encouraged to make changes to their environment, if possible, and they’ll learn to replace their tic with another, less disruptive behavior, known as a competing response.
You can access professional help for repetitive tapping today
No matter when, where, why, and how often you engage in repetitive tapping, there is hope that it doesn’t have to rule your life. Reach out to a mental health professional today to take the first step toward feeling better.
Our therapists here at NOCD receive specialized training in OCD and tic disorders, and many have experience working with autistic people who struggle with these conditions, as well. If you’re ready to learn more about what your repetitive tapping means for your mental health, I recommend reading about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treatment.